Kayaking in Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons needs to be on any paddler’s bucket list. These famous National Parks have some of the most epic landscapes and features. Whether you’re kayaking on Yellowstone Lake past geysers or hiking with a folding kayak, you’ll love it all.
Yellowstone National Park is one of the USA’s most beloved parks. With geysers, high peaks, scenic waterways, and an abundance of wildlife, this park has so much to offer visitors in summer and fall months. The only problem with this amazing park is the number of visitor that come through in a short amount of time. The best way to beat the crowds is by visiting the backcountry via our preferred method, by kayak!
Remember, kayaking in Yellowstone or Grand Teton means paddling on VERY cold water and with quick-to-change weather conditions. Safety first whenever you plan a kayaking trip anywhere, but especially when paddling in Yellowstone and the rest of the Rockies.
This article was originally featured on out sister-site, Paddle Your State.
Kayaking In Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park is amazing to explore, and so often it’s just done by car and to the most famous geysers and viewpoints. There is a whole other side to the park that can only be experiences by kayak or canoe. Both kayaking in Yellowstone National Park and just outside its boundaries are remarkable and the perfect addition to a Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks trip.
Kayaking is allowed on all lakes within Yellowstone National Park except Sylvan Lake, Eleanor Lake, Twin Lakes, and Beach Springs Lagoon. This doesn’t mean it’s easy to launch at all lakes, but just that if you are toting your own gear one way or another, you’re allowed. Please review the NPS guidelines for boating in Yellowstone before planning your trip.
Can I Kayak on the Yellowstone River?
That’s a great question. A dream trip for kayaking in Yellowstone National Park would be paddling the complete Yellowstone River, but this is not allowed. There are a lot of delicate areas all along the Yellowstone River and this is a HUGE and IMPORTANT habitat for countless species. Moose, bison, elk, trumpeter swan and North American pelicans call the Yellowstone River home and you do not want to cross any of them when you’re on the water.
Tip: if you want to kayak with North American pelicans (the huge white ones) either Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway in late winter or the Tapteal Water Trail in Washington State (kayaking in the Tri-Cities) both are great places for this amazing bird.
Kayaking on Yellowstone Lake
Yellowstone Lake is often the highlight for more kayakers as this is the largest high-alpine lake in the nation with an elevation of nearly 8,000 feet. It’s shaped very unusually with lots of thumbs and arms. There are two main boat launch areas where both motor boats and manpowered craft can launch. There are small shoreline launches along the Grand Loop Road too, so you’ll find quite a few option
West Thumb and Grant Village Kayaking
The lake takes you to West Thumb Geyser Basin, which allows for closer inspection of the park’s famous hydrothermal features. Sights like the Lakeshore Geyser and then a collection of vents along the shore make this a wonderful lake for kayaking in Yellowstone. You could paddle out into the lake a bit, but as you go offshore the winds pick up, even in the West Thumb.
If you choose to paddle to the south from Grant Village, you’ll see gorgeous shoreline with plenty of places to haul out and have a rest or a picnic. If you choose to do so, remember to pack out anything you bring in. Also, be very aware of any wildlife in the area. Bear and moose are more common in this part of the park, so if you’re kayaking in Yellowstone HERE, you may get more than you bargained for.
Where to Launch:
Kayaking in Yellowstone’s Bridge Bay
One of the easiest and most sheltered places to kayak in Yellowstone National Park is directly out of the Bridge Bay Marina. There is a small harbor to paddle around just to be ON the water, but then cross under the bridge and you can paddle into the larger Bridge Bay part of Yellowstone Lake. To the south, paddle to Gull Point for a picnic or to the north for some sweeping views across the lake.
For a longer paddle, kayak north out of the Bridge Bay Marina to the Lake Ranger Station. The Lake Village area has the large hotel, the general store and the Lake Lodge. This isn’t too far, at just over a mile on the water, but depending on the wind and temps, you may not want to paddle back so arranging a pickup could be a good idea. It’s generally not bad though.
Where to launch:
Lewis Lake, Southern Yellowstone National Park
Lewis Lake, located north of the southern entrance of Yellowstone National Park, gives plenty of opportunity for paddlers. As the third-largest lake in Yellowstone, kayakers can combine fishing, hiking, and a paddle over a weekend! Lewis Lake sits nearly 8,000 feet above sea level and has all the beauty of the nearby Yellowstone National Park.
Lewis Lake is also the only place where you can paddle onto any river in Yellowstone National Park. Kayaking is allowed on the Lewis River between Lewis and Shoshone Lakes. This is a more technical paddle, even without rapids, as you may need to portage depending on water level. It’s about four miles from Lewis Lake to Shoshone Lake, so this is a good EXPERIENCED kayaker spot where getting a backcountry permit and planning to camp on Shoshone Lake is recommended.
Lewis Lake itself is SUP Friendly, but unless you hike to Shoshone Lake with an inflatable SUP on your back, you won’t be paddleboarding there. Also, Shoshone Lake is the coldest lake in Yellowstone National Park. The National Parks Traveler has an excellent outline for planning a paddle trip to Lewis Lake (and Shoshone Lake).
Where to launch:
Kayaking on Yellowstone’s Shoshone Lake
Shoshone Lake is the second largest lake in Yellowstone National Park is famous for its healthy trout population and beautiful scenery. Given its size, there’s plenty of opportunity for kayaking on Shoshone Lake. Many people do a long 17-mile hike to visit the Shoshone Geyser Basin, but kayaking is much easier for those wanting to get on the water to explore the area AND then gain easier access to the geysers just off the lake.
Since Shoshone Lake is a place that includes quite a few hiking opportunities, this is one of the occasions for having a lightweight kayak you can actually backpack with. ORU Kayak gives an excellent personal account of kayaking Shoshone Lake. If you’ve been looking for a reason to get a folding kayak, here’s your motivation.
Where to launch:
Hebgen Lake, West Yellowstone
If you’re looking at exploring West Yellowstone outside of the National Park boundary, Hebgen Lake allows water activities, including SUP boarding, kayaking, and canoeing. The lake is a reservoir on the Madison River and is most famous for its fishing with large rainbow, brown, and cutthroat trout populations. Those wanting a quiet paddle might find this space a bit busy as it is frequented by many locals and families tubing or waterskiing.
I like the South Fork Arm of Hebgen Lake and enjoy camping at Lonesomehurst Campground. This is a ways out from the actual town of West Yellowstone, but it’s peaceful, full of wildlife and is great for a different sort of Yellowstone country kayaking.
On the Northeast side of Hebgen Lake is the Rainbow Point launch area. This is more forested along the shoreline and is also beautiful. Go out of the Rainbow Point Campground or Picnic area to paddle in this part of West Yellowstone
Where to launch:
- Kirkwood Marina for the main Hebgen Lake area
- Lonesomehurst Campground or Romsett Beach for the South Fork or Madison Arms
- Rainbow Point for the Grayling Arm
Recommended Yellowstone National Park Paddling Tours
In any National Park there are restrictions to who can operate guided tours of all sorts. To confirm any tour you’re booking is authorized and is actually operating within the bounds of a National Park, check the park’s website to get a list of authorized concessioners.
Guided Kayaking Tours in Yellowstone
Since kayaking in Yellowstone National Park is primarily on Lake Yellowstone and there are very few places authorized guides can go, you’ll mostly find tours around the West Thumb area of Yellowstone Lake.
- Beat the crowds and spend the morning paddling on Yellowstone Lake and a visit with West Thumb Geyser Basin. This is one of the few guided kayak tours within Yellowstone National Park. Book it here!
- For a full day on Yellowstone Lake, this 6-hour trip gets you up close and personal with the geothermic formations and the wildlife that draw visitors worldwide to Yellowstone Park. Book it here!
- Sunset kayaking in Yellowstone sounds like a dream, right? Spend the last few hours of daylight on the water, departing from the Grant Marina. You’ll never have another kayaking experience like this. Book it here!
Guided Paddling Tours Outside of Yellowstone National Park
There are lots of tour options for kayaking and rafting just outside of Yellowstone National Park. Whether you’re in West Yellowstone, Big Sky or Gardiner, Montana you’ll find lots of choices that are great for nearly any skill level. Yellowstone Country is paddling heaven! If you plan on booking online in advance, rafting is the only thing you can reserve far in advance, but once you’re there, you can plan other water activities.
- I love whitewater rafting and do it whenever possible. The Yellowstone River outside of the National Park boundary is awesome for rafting. Plan a rafting adventure out of Gardiner (North entrance). Book it here!
- If whitewater rafting isn’t your thing, there are also scenic floats that go on a different part of the river and that have a guide doing the paddling instead of passengers. Book a scenic Yellowstone River float here!
When to Visit Yellowstone National Park
The best time to kayak in Yellowstone is during the summer months when the weather is warm, and the park is busiest. However, be prepared for large crowds in popular areas. If you’re looking for a more peaceful experience, try kayaking during the early morning or evening hours. Late spring and early fall are also good times to visit Yellowstone, as the crowds tend to be smaller. Remember that the weather can be cooler during these months, so dress appropriately.
Autumn in Yellowstone doesn’t really set in until late September, so you can usually squeeze in a visit just after summer crowds have faded and before the first snows hit. Check out our top tips for planning a Yellowstone trip!
Weather in Yellowstone National Park
The best time to visit the parks for a paddle is June or September. Once you hit the middle of the summer, the park is packed with visitors. Just as with any paddle, there will be less wind in the mornings and evenings. Pack some light rain gear, as it’s common to have an afternoon shower.
If you are planning on visiting Yellowstone during peak season (July/August) you will get the best and most consistent weather, but due to the number of visitors the wildlife is less active in the park and guided tours are more difficult to secure. Check out this article for more information about the weather in Yellowstone and being prepared for all conditions.
Need to Know for Visiting Yellowstone National Park
Kayakers should consider a few things when travelling through Yellowstone National Park. You are in bear country, and bears are often active near rivers, so it is important to be aware of your surroundings and make noise to avoid surprising a bear. Beavers are also active near rivers and can create dams that can block the river and create dangerous conditions for kayakers. Yellowstone has many geothermal features, so staying on designated trails is crucial to avoid getting burned by hot water or steam.
As I mentioned above, kayaking in Yellowstone is limited to the lakes. Do not attempt to kayak on the Yellowstone, Firehole, Snake, Madison or Lamar Rivers. You’ll both endanger yourself and the ecosystem.
Are you excited for kayaking in Yellowstone National Park? You should be. With the proper planning and a bit of luck, you’ll have an amazing experience. Be sure to also check out our guide for kayaking in Grand Teton National Park so you can add that to your Wyoming trip!