Shoshone Lake Solo Canoe Camping
Saturday-Sunday, August 28-29, 2021:
- ~30 miles of canoeing (~8 day one / ~22 day two).
- Overnight at Moose Creek Beach, a campsite close to the channel.
- Two-mile hike through the Shoshone Geyser Basin on day two.
- One brown trout, catch and release, in Lewis Lake on the way home.
Ten Years on the Wish List
I added Shoshone Lake to my wish list in 2011 when I worked in the Canyon Village restaurant. It was the summer before my sophmore year in college. My new friends and I hiked 120+ miles of Yellowstone that summer. We explored Bunsen Peak, Mount Washburn, Seven-Mile Hole, Fairy Falls, Elephant Back (in the snow), the Canyon rim, all the major geyer basin trails, Lamar Valley on an overnight, etc.
After a morning shift at the restaurant, I stopped by the backcountry office to brainstorm trek ideas. The backcountry ranger had two recommendations: Heart Lake with an ascent of Mt. Sheridan and Shoshone Lake. By the end of the summer, we crossed off Heart Lake / Mt. Sheridan, but Shoshone slipped away. It's been on my list ever since.
Yellowstone's a massive park. At 2.2 million acres it's larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. With almost 5 million visitors in 2021, Yellowstone's also one of the busiest. Crowds at Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic can make it feel like Disney World. Backcountry treks are the best way to find solitude with the Park's wildlife, thermal features and unique topography.
Shoshone Lake is the largest backcountry lake in the Lower 48, accessed only by foot or canoe via Lewis Lake. Shoshone features a backcountry geyser basin on its far west bank and about 20 campsites. Wildlife is sparse compared to Hayden and Lamar Valleys.
Shoshone was barren of fish until a 1890, when Park lodges introduced brown and lake trout. Those lodges ran commercial fishing operations for visitor dining via an access road, long since reclaimed by forest. Absent a native trout species, Shoshone's one of the few bodies of water without lake trout elimination efforts.
Fun fact: The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem spans 12-22 million acres (depending on your definition). It spans three states—Wyoming, Idaho and Montana—and consists of Grand Teton National Park, five national forests, three national wildlife refuges, BLM holdings, state/private/tribal lands, and of course, Yellowstone National Park.
It was August 2021, and after a year living in Jackson, I was itching to cross Shoshone Lake off my wish list. I'd also suffered from a case of runner's knee since early July, limiting my ability to go after longer hikes and backpacking treks that summer. A canoe trip allowed me to scratch that camping itch.
On a weekend camping trip, I dropped by the Grant Village backcountry office for intel. The ranger and I discussed permits, departure timing, solo safety concerns and bear activity.
Permits: In late August, he didn't expect booking a last-minute campsite permit to be much trouble. Visitation tends to slow when kids start returning to school in mid-August. (Any overnight in the backcountry requires a permit.)
Timing and solo safety: I didn't own a canoe, so I was planning a two to three-day rental with one or two overnights. With an 8am pick-up in Jackson, I'd launch from Lewis Lake by 11am at the earliest. All boaters are required to stop for an AIS inspection and permit. (On a larger lake like Shoshone, afternoon winds kick up swells, so earlier departures are generally safer.)
The ranger thought an early afternoon departure was doable, assuming I booked a campsite near the channel.
Boaters have died on Shoshone, including two paddlers a couple months after my trip. If you capsize in the middle of the Lake, you can succumb to hypothermia in minutes—my biggest concern on a solo trip.
But I was confident in my paddling skills from a childhood of surfing / kayaking in the ocean off Long Island, NY. And I planned to hug the shore, no more than 100 feet out. The only exception was a mid-Lake crossing of the "Narrows" assuming clear weather. If the conditions turned at any point, I'd paddle to shore and wait it out. I also planned to wear a life jacket for all the open water stretches.
Bears: There were no recent reports of bear activity. In any event, I had a bear keg / spray and was well-versed in bear safety. (E.g., tent located 100 feet from cooking area and all attractants locked in the bear keg.) The NPS has some good guides on the subject if you need to brush up: general safety and attacks.
I settled on one overnight, leaving Saturday and returning Sunday afternoon. If you have more time, I'd recommend a second night to explore, fish and enjoy Shoshone. But you can cover a lot of ground with one.
I called the backcountry reservations office a couple days in advance and booked a campsite less than a mile from the channel. (Note: the backcountry permit process changed in 2022 to include an online lottery.)
I also ordered a three-day Yellowstone fishing permit on Recreation.gov. Wyoming fishing licenses aren't valid in Yellowstone, unlike in Grand Teton.
I stored most of my gear in two plastic totes at the front of the canoe. That balanced weight and kept gear dry from spray. Remaining items were loose or stored in a waterproof backpack.
I wore L.L.Bean supplex shorts, a Free Fly sun hoodie, a baseball cap, sunglasses and floating sandals. I added bear spray to my hip and a sheathed hunting knife / whistle in my pockets.
In plastic totes
- Warm layers: Sweatpants, hoodie, Patagonia down sweater, Under Armour base layers and wool socks
- Two-man, A-frame Coleman tent (inherited from my parents; still going strong)
- Light-weight sleeping bag (not warm enough; should've packed one of my heavy-weight bags)
- Folding sleeping pad
- Inflatable camp pillow
- Coleman portable gas stove and two 1lb propane bottles
- Matches, lighter and firestarter
- Rain poncho
- HOKA Speedgoat trail runners for the hike
- First aid kit
- Space blankets for emergencies
- MARCHWAY 30L floating waterproof bag: phone, wallet, keys, battery pack / chargers, topo map, field guide, extra bear spray, Leatherman, etc.
- Bear keg: Utensils / pan and food (Mountain House dehydrated meals, baby food, granola bars, instant coffee, etc.)
- LifeStraw water bottle to cut down on water weight
- LLBean spinner / fly rod combo
- Tacklebox with basic lures, flies and extra line/tippet
- Bailing bucket / sponge
- Parachute chord tied to the front of the canoe
- "Chillbo Shwaggins" inflatable lounger for sunset reading (fun fact: I bought this for my midtown Manhattan office, as a more comfortable option than sleeping under my desk)
- 1-gallon, back-up water jug
- Extra life jacket and paddle
- Rubber sandals for the portage
I picked up the canoe at ~9am from Rendezvous River Sports, a bit behind schedule. From Jackson, the drive to Grant Village is about two hours. Grant had the only AIS inspection that summer. (A requirement to launch in the Park.)
The forecast was clear with daytime high of 70F and overnight low of 30F.
After the AIS inspection and lunch, I backtracked toward the South Entrance to Lewis Lake. At 1:30pm, I arrived at the boat launch and started unloading.
Lewis Lake and River
By 1:45pm, I set off from the Lewis Lake boat launch, working my way toward the north shore. It was warm with just a few clouds in the sky—a perfect late summer afternoon.
Lewis Lake allows motorized travel (alone with Yellowstone Lake), but I only saw one fishing party that afternoon. Once you enter the channel to Shoshone Lake, it's back to self-propelled only.
I cast a small krocodile spoon behind the canoe with my spinner rod and trolled for most of the paddle. (The tin dragged ~30 feet behind the canoe, in case I crossed paths with a hungry trout.)
After an ~hour paddling along Lewis Lake's north shore, I arrived at the mouth of the Lewis River Channel. I watched another canoe party land a trout and I decided to try a few casts. I alternated between the spinner and fly rod, aiming for rises in the river, but no luck.
It was 3:30pm and I still had the portage ahead, so I started back up Lewis River.
On the paddle upstream, I was joined by families of ducks swimming, dragonflies hovering over meadows and a mule deer in a meadow. The foot trail to Shoshone Lake follows the river, so I also had brief company from hiking parties.
The navigability of the river varies with seasonal water levels. (High early in the season and low late.) In the summer, you can generally paddle for the first couple miles. Then the river becomes too shallow and a portage begins. In my case, that portage lasted a ~mile.
Two miles in, I hopped out of the canoe, tied some parachord to the bow and started walking upstream. The water was generally always deep enough for the canoe to float without my body weight. But a couple times, I needed to lift the nose out of the water to clear ledges and other obstacles.
Given my runner's knee, I was most worried about the portage. But by 6pm, I reached a navigable stretch at the end of the Lewis River and started paddling into the channel flowing out of Shoshone Lake.
Shoshone: Camp, Dinner and Reading
At first impression, Shoshone felt much larger than Lewis Lake. Shoshone is shaped like an hourglass with an east and west section, joined by the "Narrows."
Every guidebook advises against an open-water crossing of Shoshone's east side. In general, lakes should be navigated by self-propelled vessels along shorelines where possible. Unpredictable mountain weather kicks up swells in short order and self-propelled vessels move too slowly to get out of harm's way. If capsized, boaters can face miles of open-water swimming in frigid water—without a wetsuit, that generally doesn't work out well.
I had a couple hours before sunset and a ~mile to site 8Q7 along the southest shore of Shoshone (between Lewis River Channel and Moose Creek). Shoshone Lake was calm in that southeast corner; any afternoon winds died down by my evening arrival. I passed two camps with boats visible on shore, but no parties still on the water.
Each campsite is marked with a small blaze-orange marker atop a sign with the site number. The markers are easy to spot within 100 feet of shore. By 7:30pm, I landed at 8Q7 and started setting up camp.
I found the bear pole on the west side of the campsite just before the open-air pit toilet, overlooking the marsh behind camp. Campsites are spread out enough to be very private. Pit toilets in backcountry sites are a luxury that avert digging holes (and hoping prior parties didn't get lazy). In busiest parks like Yellowstone and Grand Teton, backcountry waste can become a nuisance.
The east side of the campsite had flat sites for tents. I pulled the canoe ashore in the middle of the site, carried the camping tote to the tent-site and the cooking tote / bear keg to the bear pole.
Bear safety 101: set your tent 100 yards away from your cooking area and any attractants (toothpaste, sunscreen, bug spray, etc.). If you don't have a bear keg, you'll want to suspend a bag with all cooking supplies and attractants from the bear pole or a high branch if not available. Black bears climb well, so my preference is a bear keg. For backpacking trips, parachord and a bear pole can be less burdensome.
I pitched my tent, laid out a sleeping pad / bag and inflated by camp pillow. Temperatures were dropping with the sun, so I changed into sweats and a puffer.
Then I headed back to the cooking area to start boiling water with my Coleman camp stove. I had two Mountain House dehydrated meals from 2011 as Plan A and some granola bars as Plan B. Dinner ended up perfectly timed with sunset.
The lake was still, glowing orange in the dusk. After cleaning up and packing food in the bear keg, I settled into the Chillbo Shwaggins inflatable lounger. Originally bought as a joke for my Midtown New York office, the lounger's come in handy a few times out west. Happy hours at String Lake in Grand Teton, wine nights in Russ Garaman, and now, a couple sunset chapters of American Canopy on Shoshone Lake.
I'd rank that sunset as one my most surreal moments in the mountains.
And when the orange glow faded, a sky full of stars took the baton. Some of my most vivid night skies have been in Yellowstone—about as far from city lights as you can get in the Lower 48.
At ~10pm, I settled into my tent.
With temperatures dropping below freezing and only a summer-weight bag (rookie move), I tossed and turned a bit that the night.
Sun peered through the tent seams at 7am. I peaked through the front panel at dense fog floating over the Lake. Frost covered the shrubs and grass in the marsh behind the campsite. The only sound was gentle waves rolling onto the beach.
I made my way to the cooking area for breakfast and coffee. After another Mountain House pack and some instant coffee, I warmed up my fingers and packed down camp. By 8:30am, I pushed off into the Lake.
Back on the Water
Day two's objective was the Shoshone Geyser Basin on the far west shore of Shoshone, then a return to the Lewis Lake boat launch. In total, ~22 miles of canoeing, versus ~8 miles on day one.
From site 8Q7, I headed west along the south shore. The fog burned off as the sun rose in the sky.
Before leaving, I transitioned back to supplex shorts, a sun hoodie and a vest. At 7,795 feet elevation, temperatures at Shoshone Lake can swing forty+ degrees between night and day. At 7am, it was below freezing; by 9am, it was in the 50Fs.
Between the campsite and the Narrows (mid-point of the Lake), I passed three other groups heading toward Lewis Lake. From then on, I didn't see anyone else until returning to Lewis Lake.
I spotted a couple mule deer on the south shore, a few bald eagles flying overhead and some trout in the shallows. Larger wildlife like bison and elk are more common around Hayden and Lamar Valleys, barring fall elk migrations.
By noon, I arrived at the Shoshone Geyser Basin on the northwestern edge of the Lake and dragged the canoe up on muddy flats.
From the bank, the basin is a ~one mile hike over flat terrain, following well-marked trails. The basin has a number of hot springs, steam vents (fumaroles) and geysers, most notably the Minute Man Geyser. As the name suggests, Minute Man spurts water every few minutes, bursts of activity separated by a few hours.
Most important, you won't find a packed boardwalk—a contrast to crowds at Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic. After an hour exploring, I headed back to the Lake.
By 1pm, I launched back into Shoshone.
Long Way Home
With westerly winds at my back, I rigged a camp towel and extra paddle as a sail. (It worked better than you'd expect.) I also rigged a spoon behind the canoe to troll for trout. (Again, no luck...)
Since the weather looked clear, I followed the north shore planning to cross at the Narrows, the Lake's midpoint. Had the weather been spotty, I could have returned along the south shore, a slight detour.
By 1:30pm, I arrived at the north part of the Narrows and crossed south. Swells were a bit larger from afternoon winds, but still mild.
After another hour and a half of paddling, I reached the channel of the Lewis River. Paddling with the current, I was able to (mostly) skip the portage. I stood-up paddled (SUP canoeing) and maintained momentum to skim over shallow stretches. The only exception was a rock ledge that required some maneuvering.
Back in the deeper section of the Lewis River, I tried a bit more fishing with my spinner. Trout: 3; Alex: still 0.
By 4:30pm, I was back on Lewis Lake. To save time, I paddled across an open-water stretch aiming for a midpoint on the west shore. By now, westerly winds picked up, making it challenging to stay on course with one paddler. But after about 45 minutes of crosswinds, I reached the west shore.
Finally, Some Luck
I started trolling again on the final paddle, hoping my luck might turn. Within a few minutes, the rod bent. After a short fight, I pulled in an 8-inch brown trout. No time to fillet and cook a fish, so catch and release it was.
Trout: 3; Alex: finally 1.
A loon greeted me on the way into the boat launch. Otherwise, the final paddle was uneventful. By 5:45pm, I landed. In the ~30 minutes it took to empty and load the canoe, I enjoyed loon calls echoing across Lewis Lake.
I drove back down to the South Entrance, then through Grand Teton to Jackson. I was early, so I stopped at String Lake to crack an IPA from Snake River Brewing and enjoy refreshingly clear views of the Cathedral Group. (That weekend was one of the few haze-free stretches of an otherwise smoky summer.)
Finally, I checked Shoshone Lake off the wish list.
Next Up for Yellowstone
- Winter non-guided snowmobiling (checked off in February 2022)
- Stock camping trip in Lamar Valley
- Ski Cooke City and Beartooth Pass (not quite in the Park, but close)
- Circumnavigate Yellowstone Lake via canoe
- Explore the southeast corner, one of the most remote parts of the lower 48