Way Out And Way Up There

By Pat Piper

It was the first national park in the United States. In fact, when Yellowstone became a park in 1872, the land it covered weren't yet states: Montana (1889), Wyoming (1890), and Idaho (1890). And then there's the lake.

photo of a man fishing on Yellowstone Lake

"Yellowstone Lake is big, remote, and cold," observes Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash. He's right. The lake has a 110-mile-long shoreline, measuring 20 miles from east to west and 14 miles from north to south. Indeed, it is remote, at an altitude more than 7,000 feet above sea level. And yes, it's cold. This year, the ice cover was gone from the lake by June 12, and that's pretty late. Usually it's gone by Memorial Day. Average water temperature? 50 degrees in June. Doesn't sound too promising for a person with a boat in tow, does it? Guess again.

"You're going to be blown away by Yellowstone Lake" promises Richard Parks, owner of Parks' Fly Shop (www.ParksFlyShop.com) in Gardiner, Montana, and author of Fishing Yellowstone National Park. "It is tremendously scenic, there are islands, there's camping, and there are moose, buffalo, elk, and eagles to be seen."

"I tell people with boats that they have a pair of boat ramps from which to choose," says Nash,"and both are free." The Grant Village ramp (on the lake's West Thumb) and the Bridge Bay ramp (on the north side) provide more than adequate parking.

Don't Miss This From The Water

More than 300 geysers are found throughout Yellowstone National Park (Old Faithful is still making an appearance every 45-60 minutes) and Yellowstone Lake has a number of these thermal springs. In fact, beneath Mary Bay along the northeastern shore is the largest geyser basin on the lake. From a boat, you'll not know its location as the depth here is 300-plus feet and the rising warmer water has cooled by the time it reaches the surface. This is a deep lake, reaching more than 430 feet just east of nearby Stevenson Island. However, there are two much smaller thermal geysers clearly visible and worth seeing, along the shore.

Steamboat Point, located on the lake's northeast side at the south end of Mary Bay, is one such destination. It's an area where 40-foot-high geysers are common. "Steamboat Point has the name because those first seeing these thermal springs were reminded of the plumes spouted by steamboats," noted Nash. "Yellowstone has thermal features on shore as well as underwater. I always tell visitors with a boat that if it doesn't look like a standard shoreline and you can see bubbles, be careful because it can be hot."

photo of people boating on Yellowstone Lake

"The winds are out of the southwest 90 percent of the time," Parks cautions, "so if you're getting close to Steamboat Point on the water and your engine fails, you're going to be blown into the rocks, and the hot steam."

On the other side of the lake from Steamboat Point is the West Thumb where the Fishing Cone is located. This, too, is a geyser known for its circular shape in the shallow water. "I describe it as an upside down ice cream cone," says Parks. "In the early days when people were still working on how to be stupid with the scenery, fishermen would catch a fish and then turn around to poach it in the hot water from the Fishing Cone." Parks says there were a number of instances where it wasn't just the fish that got poached. "Besides," he philosophizes, "I'd prefer to clean my fish before I cook it." This practice is illegal now. The Fishing Cone even has its own website (www.fishingcone.com).

Oh, And The Fish!

Speaking of fishing, Yellowstone Lake is known for two kinds of trout: the native cutthroat, noted by a red mark under its jaw, hence the name; and the non-native lake trout, common throughout the United States and Canada. Until 1994, Yellowstone had been known only for the cutthroat, but after someone dropped a few lake trout into its cold, clear, and deep water, the lake trout began consuming cutthroat at a rapid pace. Add to the fact that a lake trout lives longer than two generations of cutthroat trout and one can easily understand the reason why anglers are urged to catch lake trout while only catching and releasing cutthroat.

"Fishermen have to get a fishing permit," advises Parks, whose tackle shop sells them, as do other area stores. "You can't use live bait on the lake, and only barbless hooks are allowed. Our guides tell their customers, "If you're looking for lake trout, we'll go to the West Thumb of the lake. If you're looking for cutthroat, the general rule is go anywhere but the West Thumb. The fish in Yellowstone Lake have to do the same thing for food that fish in any other lake do, and that's to find some sort of structure. Our guides will put people on fish near the islands, points, and shallow areas."

One other item about fishing on the lake: Fishing Bridge, located near the Visitors Center along the lake's north shore, spans the Yellowstone River into which Yellowstone Lake flows (Yellowstone River is where the Exxon Mobil Silvertip oil pipeline broke last July but, because the river flows north, none of the oil reached Yellowstone Lake). Built in 1937, Fishing Bridge was a prime place, besides from a boat, for anglers to catch the sought-after cutthroat trout. However, when the trout population declined, the bridge was closed to fishing in 1973. While the name remains, Fishing Bridge continues to be a superb location for observing the fish — just don't try to catch them.

Yellowstone Lake has seven islands, the largest of which is Frank Island that can be visited by boat, though you're required to anchor 100 feet from shore. This is for safety as the lake has few sandy beaches and lots of rocky shoreline. A backcountry permit, available from any Yellowstone Ranger Station or Visitor Center, is required to go ashore.

The lower end of the lake is where smaller boats are usually found. Here, a peninsula called the Promontory, with the South Arm on the west and the Southeast Arm to the east, juts out with camping venues along either shoreline. Going south from the northern tip of Promontory, a 5-mph wake zone is in effect.

"The location of Yellowstone Lake gives a boater the opportunity for solitude," Al Nash says,"as well as absolutely amazing scenery. But you have to be more prepared when you arrive here than any other place you take your boat. Sure, bring the flip flops but also have a fleece jacket."  

This article was published in Fall 2011 issue of Trailering Magazine.

Yellowstone Boating Need-To-Knows

  • National park officials require a boat permit for every motorized and non-motorized boat, including tubes, on Yellowstone Lake.
  • The cost is $20 for a period of seven days.
  • No boat larger than 40 feet is allowed.
  • There is a maximum speed limit of 45 mph on the northern half of Yellowstone Lake. From the Promontory south, there is a 5-mph speed limit.
  • No PWCs, waterskiing, or wakeboards. Tubes are allowed so long as they aren't pulled behind the boat.


The Air Up There

At 7,731 feet above sea level, Yellowstone Lake is the largest body of water at such a high altitude in North America. Because the air is thinner, your tow vehicle's engine is going to be less efficient by a factor of 3-4 percent for every thousand feet. Put another way, your engine could be operating with as much as one-fourth less capability around Yellowstone Lake. Diesels will handle high altitudes better than gas-powered engines but are still affected by the less dense air.

Operating in a mountain environment means possibly cutting the tow capacity of your vehicle by a fourth so be sure the weight you're pulling is still below the tow vehicle's ability. Fishing guide and bait shop owner Richard Parks recommends that you "be sure the dog is bigger than the tail." The altitude affects more than your tow vehicle. Yellowstone Park's Al Nash says many visitors fly into a nearby airport, rent a car, drive to the park, and suddenly feel "draggy," and experience a headache. "It's your body struggling to adjust," he notes, and park rangers will usually suggest the person take an Aspirin, drink fluids, and rest awhile.



  • On-the-road assistance for your trailer and vehicle
  • Only $38 Annually! ($24 Membership + $14 TRAILER ASSIST)