I looked at the shoreline and spotted the bright blue tent. I was still even with it. I hadn’t moved. I looked at my watch. It had been about 30 minutes. How was that even possible, I thought. I re-situated my feet that had fallen asleep on my paddleboard, leaned forward and dug into the water with my paddle, pulling as hard as I could and remembering this trip was my idea.
We’d heard about the winds on Shoshone Lake in Yellowstone National Park’s backcountry. We understood to start early and hug the shoreline. But we didn’t really know the reality of Shoshone Lake winds until we were in it, waves lapping over the edges of our boards. It scattered our four-person party across the lake, no one seeming to move.
Paddling to Shoshone Lake had long been on my Yellowstone tick-list. More recently I’d become intrigued with the idea of an overnight stand-up paddleboarding camping trip, packing gear in dry bags and strapping it to our boards. When I suggested putting the two together, I had envisioned peacefully and leisurely paddling, a beautiful mountain lake, taking in the scenery while standing on my board.
Instead I had barely stood on my board for hours, ever since a gust of wind knocked me off it while going up the channel from Lewis Lake. From then on I’d taken a more secure position kneeling or standing. We were lucky we’d planned our trip for late August. The waves splashing on me on Shoshone Lake were warm, as was the water I’d fallen into and later waded as I towed my board through stretches too shallow to paddle in the channel.
Paddling the 5.5 miles from the Lewis Lake boat dock, across the lake, up the Lewis River channel and to the mouth of Shoshone Lake, is one of the park’s more popular backcountry trips, said Dagan Klein, the central backcountry office assistant in Yellowstone.
In the early summer the water is cold from melting snow and people are advised to wear wet suits or waders, Klein said. While the water in the channel is deeper earlier in the summer, the current is much stronger and people walk the same mile people portage when the water is low, she said.
Most people who visit the lake go in kayaks or canoes. During our required watercraft inspection, the ranger checking our boats for signs of invasive species said we were the first paddleboarders headed to Shoshone Lake he’d seen all season. Another ranger who stopped us on the water to see our permits said he hadn’t seen any other backcountry paddleboard parties in the park.
It’s an unusual way to travel to Shoshone because of the speed (a paddleboard is much slower than a canoe or kayak) and also the wind, Klein said.
“Pretty much every afternoon the wind picks up, it just depends on how much …” she said. “It’s a rare day that after noon the winds aren’t at least creating a chop on the water.”
It took us 8 hours to reach our first campsite on the lakeshore. The next day it took more than an hour to cross the narrows as we paddled against whitecap waves to our second campsite.
More than 20 designated backcountry campsites are situated on the 8,050-acre lake. The lake, along with Yellowstone Lake, is one of the only options for overnight boat trips in the park, making it a popular trip.
“There’s a false premise that it’s a safer lake than Yellowstone because it’s a smaller lake, but the winds hit just as hard,” Klein said. “It should be just as intimidating as Yellowstone Lake.”
That wind thwarted our plan to paddle to the Shoshone Geyser Basin. The basin can only be reached by an 8.5-mile one-way hike or from the lake. We decided we had to see it since we were in the area and set out on an easy 3 mile hike from our campsite, along the shore, to the main trail and eventually the geyser basin.
We came out of the trees to a sudden landscape shift from woods to gurgling thermal pools and steaming geysers. We watched one geyser erupt twice. We were alone and in the quiet listened to the hiss of steam, plop of bubbling water and all the other sounds you can’t hear when you share a boardwalk at a front-country geyser basin with hundreds of other people.
The entire trip we saw only a few other paddlers. Most of the time we felt as though we had the place to ourselves.
“That’s the beauty of Yellowstone,” Klein said. “There’s just a lot of landscape.”
Wanting to beat the winds, we planned to leave camp early our third and final day. A slower paddler than the rest of my group, I got on the water first. My board cut easily through the still water. I moved easily near the shoreline. I watched an eagle in the sky and a family of ducks in the water and for a moment I had the backcountry stand up paddleboard trip I’d envisioned.
What you need if you want to go:
- A backcountry permit for a campsite. You can fill out a reservation form online.
- A board (and paddle) along with a boat permit and inspection sticker. Paddleboards are subject to the park’s rules governing all watercraft. If possible, get your board inspected the night before your trip so you can leave as early as you want in the morning.
- A personal floatation device and a whistle. Both are required on the board by the park.
- Repair kit and pump. We used inflatable boards so brought one pump along, just in case, as well as a small patch kit.
- Yellowstone fishing permit. (If you intend to fish).
- Bear spray and rope for hanging food.
- Dry bags. Stow everything in dry bags even if you don’t think it will get wet.
- Bungee cords. We securely attached everything to our boards with an assortment of bungee cords.
- Tow rope. There are section of the channel between Lewis Lake and Shoshone Lake too shallow to paddle. Pulling a board through the shallow water is much easier than portaging.
- Water shoes. You’ll end up walking through at least some shallow parts of the channel.
- Normal backpacking and hiking gear. An experienced paddleboard camper described it best to us, bring what you’d take on a backpacking trip with a few added luxuries since you aren’t as worried about weight.