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

photo of a thermal geyser on Yellowstone Lake

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."

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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.


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