Yellowstone National Park is an adventurer’s playground. Be it on foot, by car or via water, there are thousands of miles of trails and numerous lakes and streams to explore. By car you are restricted to its roads (sometimes jammed with bison). But by paddle, Yellowstone’s world opens up.

Paddling is prohibited on all streams in the park, but paddlers can access certain lakes and ponds. The following lakes are the crown jewels of Yellowstone National Park. Whether by kayak, canoe or stand up paddle board, here is your essential guide to paddling in Yellowstone.

Editor's note: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Yellowstone National Park began a phased reopening on June 1. Services and facilities will remain limited through 2020. Check the national park website for the latest info.

Introducing Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks

Paddling Yellowstone's Lewis Lake

Deep in the south of the park lies Lewis Lake, which gives access to day paddlers and overnighters alike. You will be sharing the shoreline with boaters who are fishing for rainbow, brown and lake trout. With a campground lapping at its shoreline (opens July 1), it is a paddler’s playground for spending the day on the lake with a campfire next to the car at night.

Experiencing Shoshone Lake by paddle board

Connected to Lewis Lake via a small channel, Shoshone Lake is only visited by paddlers and hikers. Lined with trees and thermal features,  this massive lake is the second-largest to paddle in the park and takes an agressive day to traverse. That said, the true adventure is in the backcountry camping sites along the shores of Shoshone. Let the solitude of the wilderness engulf you as you unpack the dry bags and set up the tent – Shoshone is a must-see.

Read more: Stunning getaways for stand up paddle boarding

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Peace and quiet: Yellowstone's Shoshone Lake is only visited by walkers and paddlers © Sean Jansen / Lonely Planet

Exploring Yellowstone Lake by paddle

The entire national park is a dormant super-volcano, and Yellowstone Lake is its flooded caldera. With 110 miles of shoreline and a depth of 394ft, it is a force to be reckoned with. Most of its shoreline can only be accessed by paddle, where the wildlife roaming are rarely seen by human eyes.

With the Yellowstone River flowing in and out of the lake, it boasts an abundant fishery for lake trout and the only native species of the park: Yellowstone cutthroat trout. A multi-day trip is recommended, if not required, to fully appreciate the beauty of Yellowstone Lake's deep bays with near freezing water temperatures and utmost solitude.

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Stay a while: a multi-day trip is best for appreciating Yellowstone's remote beauty © Sean Jansen / Lonely Planet

Planning a backcountry trip to Yellowstone

Planning is crucial if you intend to car camp and go backcountry paddling (check out Lonely Planet's Yellowstone National Park Planning Map). The campgrounds that take reservations often fill up months before the summer season. If you couldn’t book yourself a site there are a number of first-come, first-serve campgrounds, including Lewis Lake Campground which is the closest to both Lewis and Shoshone Lakes. It's highly recommended that you get there before 11 am to secure a spot at this great access point.

For Yellowstone Lake, there are two campgrounds that take reservations: Grant Village in the West Thumb and Bay Bridge on the north shore (both open June 17). Fishing Bridge RV, one of the few campgrounds to offer sewer, electrical and water hookups for RVs, is closed through 2020. If you can’t find a campground, there are more a short drive away in the park, as well as campgrounds outside the park.

A stand-up paddleboarder on a lake in Yellowstone National Park
Stand up paddle boarding on Shoshone Lake in Yellowstone National Park © Sean Jansen / Lonely Planet

Gear requirements for Yellowstone paddlers 

It is required that you have a life preserver. You may not have to wear it, but the National Parks Service requires that it be on your kayak, canoe or paddle board at all times. Further requirements for your craft are a whistle or air horn for navigation in low visibility and a beacon of light for the same reason. A headlamp is sufficient, your cell phone is not.

Paddling regulations in Yellowstone

There is a short season for paddling due to closures, but it begins the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and runs until the first Sunday in November. Before you enter the water, your craft must be inspected by park personnel for invasive aquatic species at either Grant Village Backcountry Office or the Bridge Bay Ranger Station. Park permits cost $5 for the week or $10 for the whole season.

An open fire at a campsite in Yellowstone National Park, near a lake suitable for paddling
Staying cozy by an open fire in Yellowstone National Park's backcountry © Sean Jansen / Lonely Planet

Backcountry paddling in Yellowstone

A huge allure to paddling the park is the chance to see its backcountry. For all forays into Yellowstone’s wilderness, a backcountry permit is required. In 2020, the park will begin issuing backcountry permits on June 15. Backcountry permits often book out and many can be reserved in advance, though some are awarded through a lottery system fed by snail mail, faxed, and in-person applications. You can find all campsites online and can call the office for more information on reservations.

Read more: 11 ways to be sustainable in Yellowstone

Camping in Yellowstone

The most important thing is to camp 200ft from any water source and only in designated areas. For cooking, a food storage device like a bear can or food bag hung in a tree is required. For personal safety, no firearms are allowed in the park, but bear spray is highly recommended – and can be rented at the airport or in the park from a kiosk at Canyon Village. Accidents and attacks do happen, and knowing how to avoid them is important before your paddle.

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Embracing solitude at Shoshone Lake in Yellowstone National Park © Sean Jansen / Lonely Planet

Weather in Yellowstone

When checking in to get your permit, rangers will not hesitate to remind you of incoming and unpredictable weather. Thunder and lightning storms come almost daily in summer and hit randomly. Typically in the afternoon, lightning, hail and rain can strike, while winds can gust up to 40 knots; in the middle of a lake, these are always bad news. Rangers will tell you to hug the shore whenever possible and avoid open water crossings unless absolutely necessary.

Wind can also pick up and gust much stronger than forecast. There can be surfable waves caused by the winds and the last place you want to be is in the middle of the lake trying to get to shore. Rangers and tourists alike have lost their lives from capsizing and hypothermia. But more often than not, the weather is splendid. The most memorable days of your life can be spent with your paddle in hand.

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