Friday, June 28, 2013

Packrafting Guide to Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park
painting by Henrich C. Berann

"As long as there are young men with the light of adventure in their eyes or a touch of wildness in their souls, rapids will be run." - Sigurd Olson

Yellowstone National Park is the heart of more than 20,000,000 acres of the wildest country left in the continental United States. Yellowstone also contains the largest concentration of wild and free flowing rivers. Administered as Wilderness, the Park is mostly roadless, untrammeled, and a potential packrafting paradise.

Unfortunately one of the least impactful means of wilderness travel is unjustly banned in the world’s first National Park. Based on unsubstantiated impacts on water quality, the condition of the river, on wildlife habitat and wildlife movements, the legacy of a 1950 fishing regulation continues today. Other than a short stretch of the Lewis River between Lewis and Shoshone lakes, paddling rivers in Yellowstone is prohibited and a federal offense.

If, however, that ever was to change, the potential for packrafting is awesome. Below is a guide to what might be possible. The information provided is an estimation of what the rivers and creeks are like. Hopefully, someday I will be allowed to fact check this guide.

What I do know and openly share has been gained over many years of walking and skiing alongside Yellowstone’s many waterways. Topographic maps, combined with both aerial and satellite photography, were used to fill in the gaps. Additionally, anecdotal information shared by those who have risked prosecution has been considered.

Access Trail or Route   River or Creek
Map of the Upper Snake River

Her history is in the glaciers, her present in the stone, and her future in the waters that flow through her landscape.” – Fritiof Fryxell

Upper Snake River

Length: 40 miles
Gradient: 30 ft per mile
Difficulty: Class III (V)
Season: May-July
Minimum Flow: 500 cfs
From Fox Park at the Park’s boundary with the Teton Wilderness to the South Entrance of Yellowstone National Park, this 40-mile stretch of the Snake River would be one of the best wilderness packrafting trips in America. Dropping an average of 30 ft per mile, the current is swift and the rapids of moderate difficulty. In between Crooked and Sickle creeks, however, are two sustained Class IV (V) gorges that are best portage on the pack trail on river right. Otherwise the Upper Snake River is Class III. Above the confluence with Heart River, paddlers would expect some portages around log jams.

The Upper Snake River can be approached in a variety of ways. The most direct option includes a 20-mile hike up Pacific and Gravely creeks to Fox Park. If combined with the Upper Yellowstone River or Thoroughfare Creek, Fox Park can also be approached from the Yellowstone River to the east via Lynx or Falcon creeks and a 12-mile hike across the Continental Divide.

A third option is to access the Upper Snake by floating the 5-mile long Heart River (Class III). Heart Lake and the Heart River, can in turn, be approached from the west via a relatively easy 8-mile hike from the Park Road. Alternatively, a 15-mile (mostly flat) hike from the Southeast Arm of Yellowstone Lake also leads over the Continental Divide to Heart Lake. As discussed later, the Upper Yellowstone River would provide an elegant route to Yellowstone Lake’s Southeast Arm.

 Access Trail   River or Creek
Map of the Upper Yellowstone River and Thorofare Creek

When you go into country by pack train the streams are only for crossing, or to camp beside. To know a stream you travel on it, struggle with it, live with it hour by hour and day by day.” - Olaus Murie 

Upper Yellowstone River

Length: 55 miles
Gradient: Upper 50 ft per mile, Lower 5 ft per mile
Difficulty: Upper Class IV (VI), Lower Class II
Season: May-August
Minimum Flow: 2,000 cfs

If paddled from the confluence of the north and south forks at the base of Younts Peak in the Teton Wilderness to the Lake, this 55-mile section of the Yellowstone River would be the longest pure wilderness packrafting run (hike in and out) in the lower 48 States. The river also flows by the most remote location (farthest from a road) in the lower 48 states. As previously discussed, packrafting the Upper Yellowstone River could be combined with a descent of the Upper Snake River.

From the confluence of the north and south forks to Yellowstone Meadows, the river drops an average of 50 ft per mile. This 10-mile stretch is swift and generally Class III, depending on the flows. There exists one Class VI section (a mandatory portage) about a mile below the confluence with Woodard Canyon. Located in the Teton Wilderness, not Yellowstone National Park, paddling this section of the Yellowstone River is currently legal.

From the confluence with Castle Creek, the Upper Yellowstone River meanders gently for 45 leisurely miles to Yellowstone Lake. Bison, elk, moose, wolves, and grizzly bears frequent the area. Dropping only 5 feet per mile this section is Class II.

The most direct way to reach the rivers highest reaches involves an arduous 27-mile hike from the Turpin Meadow Trailhead, up the Soda Fork of the Buffalo River, and across the Continental Divide to Woodard Canyon.

A more practical approach starts at the Turpin Meadows Trailhead and involves a 22-mile hike up the North Buffalo Fork River to Two Ocean Pass and the confluence of Jay and Atlantic Creeks. A fast, fun, and legal descent of Atlantic Creek leads to the Yellowstone River. This 5-mile stretch of Atlantic Creek drops an average of 50 ft per mile and is rated Class III+.

Thorofare Creek, Teton Wilderness 

Rivers must have been the guides which conducted the footsteps of the first travelers. They are the constant lure, when they flow by our doors, to distant enterprise and adventure, and, by a natural impulse, the dwellers on their banks will at length accompany their currents to the lowlands of the globe, or explore at their invitation the interior of continents.” - Henry David Thoreau

Thorofare Creek

Length: 25 miles
Gradient: 28 ft per mile
Difficulty: Class II+
Season: May-July
Minimum Flow: 2,000 cfs

A classy alternative approach to the Yellowstone River begins in the east and involves paddling Thorofare Creek. A descent of Thorofare Creek, in turn, requires an 18-mile hike that begins on the South Fork of the Shoshone River, ascends Deer Creek, crosses the crest of the Absaroka Mountains, and descends Butte Creek.

It’s even possible to approach the Deer Creek Trailhead from Dubois, Wyoming by first descending the headwaters of South Fork of the Shoshone River (Class IV). Linking descents of the Shoshone (South Fork), Yellowstone, and Snake rivers creates a several-hundred-mile world-class wilderness packrafting adventure. It wouldn’t get any better than this.

Thorofare Creek is navigable for 25 miles from Bruin Creek to the Yellowstone River. A massive logjam at the confluence with Open Creek is the biggest hazard. Thorofare Creek drops an average of 28 ft per mile and is generally Class II+, depending on flows. Located in the Teton Wilderness, it is legal to float the 20-mile section upstream of the park boundary.

 Access Trail   Yellowstone River
Map of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

In the adventure sports we learn how to work with the extremes of natural forces, riding a cascade of whitewater, scaling rock and ice, even flying though the air. As we learn control, deathly threats and dangers can become safe and even fun. In what seems a miracle, we absorb all of these like a child learns to ride a bike. And we use them to enter untold beauty and seemingly impossible environments.” – Doug Ammons

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Length: 15 miles
Gradient: 60 ft per mile
Difficulty: Class IV (V)
Season: April, October
Minimum Flow: 500 cfs

Paddling the Grand and Black Canyons of the Yellowstone has long been the holy grail of kayaking in the Northern Rockies. For an entertaining tail of three outlaw kayakers who braved the rapids and the law read Counting Coup along the Yellowstone River, by Doug Ammons.

Exploring the amazing and nearly inaccessible Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone with a packraft would be a serious and committing big water adventure. The gradient of this 25-mile section of the Yellowstone averages 60 ft per mile and includes Class V whitewater that is best navigated at low water.

For the intrepid packrafter, the canyon could be accessed via a 5-mile hike along a pack trail that begins near Inspiration Point, follows the Canyon Rim, and descends to Sevenmile Hole, which luckily is downstream of the worst section of whitewater. However, several big rapids remain. Portaging them would be a wise and prudent strategy.

After 15 miles of glorious paddling, the canyon could be exited at Tower Falls on river left or by utilizing a 7-mile Park Service trail that exits the canyon a mile before Tower Falls and leads to the road to Cooke City by Junction Butte. Below Tower Falls are “The Narrows” that involve negotiating sustained Class V Rapids that would be best left to experts in hard-shell kayaks.

 Access Trail  Slough Creek
Map of Slough Creek

Sometimes luck is with you, and sometimes not, but the important thing is to take the dare. Those who climb mountains or raft rivers understand this.” - David Brower

Slough Creek

Length: 25 miles
Gradient:  30 ft per mile
Difficulty: Class II (IV)
Season: May-July
Minimum Flow: 1,000 cfs

Flowing south from the rugged Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, Slough Creek offers a relatively gentle watercourse into the northern reaches of Yellowstone National Park. While navigable as high as Wounded Man Creek the sensible access is from Daisy Pass north of Cooke City. From the pass, a 14-mile downhill hike across the headwaters of the Stillwater River leads to Abundance Creek and the best put in. Six miles later, Slough Creek meanders past the Silver Tip Guest Ranch and into Yellowstone National Park. Another 19 miles lead to the Slough Creek Campground—the logical take out. Slough Creek is characterized by gentle meanders punctuated by restrictions with up to Class IV whitewater – all easily portaged.

 Access Trail   Lamar River
Map of the Lamar River

Swift or smooth, broad as the Hudson or narrow enough to scrape your gunwales, every river is a world of its own, unique in pattern and personality. Each mile on a river will take you further from home than a hundred miles on a road.” - Bob Marshall 

Lamar River

Length: 25 miles
Gradient:  30 ft per mile
Difficulty: Class II (IV)
Season: Season: May-July
Minimum Flow: 1,000 cfs

Unwilling to wander far from their vehicles, throngs of tourists crowd the 10-mile section of paved road that parallels the Lamar River in hopes of sighting its celebrated wildlife. Upstream of this spectacle is one of the West’s most majestic stretches of wild river. Flowing from the high Absaroka Mountains, the Lamar drops swiftly along the Park’s eastern boundary from the secluded North Absaroka Wilderness.

The upper reaches of the Lamar can be accessed from either Pelican Valley or the North Fork of the Shoshone. Starting at Pahaska Teepee just east of Sylvan Pass, the North Fork of the Shoshone approach requires an 18-mile hike over a 9,770-ft mountain that’s often still covered in snow. Alternatively the upper Lamar can be reached from a slightly longer 20-mile hike through Pelican Valley and over 8,750-ft Mist Creek Pass.

The Lamar River would be navigable from its confluence with the Little Lamar to its confluence with the Yellowstone. Both the Little Lamar and Lamar rivers are likely navigable above their confluence as well. The 25-mile section between the confluence and the Park Road drops 32 ft per mile and would be generally Class III. There would be one committing Class IV drop that could be easily portaged on river right.

 Access Trail or Route   River
Map of the Bechler and Falls Rivers

The river called. The call is the thundering rumble of distant rapids, the intimate roar of white water . . . a primeval summons to primordial values.” - John Craighead

Bechler River

Length: upper 8 miles, lower 11 miles
Gradient:  upper 150 ft per mile, lower 14 ft per mile
Difficulty: upper Class IV (VI), lower Class II (IV)
Minimum Flow: 1000 cfs

The Madison and Pitchstone plateaus dominate the high country of the park’s southwest corner and act like huge sponges that absorb spring snowmelt that’s slowly released into the majestic Bechler and Falls rivers. Numerous springs, hotpots, cascades, and waterfalls adorn lush forests of spruce and pine. Meandering rivers and creeks ornament green open meadows thick with grass and sedge.

Known as Cascade Corner, the region receives the most annual rainfall of anywhere in the park and a packraft would be the ideal tool to safely explore and travel through it.

The upper Bechler begins at Three River Junction and flows for seven miles through Bechler Canyon. The gradient of the river on this stretch averages 150 ft per mile and includes numerous Class IV cascades. Iris Falls, dropping 45 vertical feet, would be a mandatory portage.

Dowstream of Bechler Canyon the river meanders 14 serene miles to its confluence with the Falls River. Located just upstream of the confluence is Bechler Falls (Class IV+)—the only whitewater challenge on the lower stretch. If descended to the Cave Falls Trailhead, Class III cascades below the confluence with the Falls River would also need to be negotiated. Both rapids are easily portaged via a pack trail on river right. Cave Falls itself is a 20-ft vertical Class V drop and the sensible packrafter would exit the river well above it.

The most direct access to Three River Junction and a descent of the entire Bechler River would involve a 15-mile hike over Grants Pass from Lone Star Geyser near Old Faithful.  To float the lower Class II section would only requires an easy 8-mile hike from the Bechler Ranger Station to the mouth of Bechler Canyon.

If approached from the Bechlor Ranger Station a car shuttle could be avoided by exiting the river just upstream of Bechler Falls. An easy 2-mile hike along a pack trail would lead back to the Ranger Station.

"A venturesome minority will always be eager to set off on their own, and no obstacles should be placed in their path; let them take risks, for godsake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches - that is the right and privilege of any free American.” - Edward Abbey

Falls River

Length: 25 miles
Gradient: 50 ft per mile
Difficulty: upper Class IV (VI)
Minimum Flow: 1000 cfs

Historically, the river was referred to as the Middle Fork of the Snake River until the 1872 Hayden Geological Survey officially named it the Falls River. The name is appropriate. Along its course are numerous cascades and magnificent waterfalls including Terraced Falls, Rainbow Falls, and Cave Falls.

The major waterfalls would all need to be portaged, something easily accomplished with a packraft. Descending many of the river’s numerous cascades, characterized by moderately-angled Class IV slabs, would be reasonable for expert packrafters. Between these waterfalls and cascades, the Falls River generally would be Class II with surprisingly little wood.

The Falls River parallels the Park’s southern boundary and the Grassy Fork Road. Access and egress points include the trail to Beula Lake, the outlet of Grassy Lake Reservoir, Cascade Creek, Fish Lake, and Cave Falls Trailhead. For those willing to frequently portage, the river could be safely descended from its source to its confluence with the Henrys’ Fork River. The 25 miles of the Falls River within Yellowstone National Park descends an average of 50 ft per mile and is Class IV (VI).

An 8-mile packrafting loop from the Cave Falls Trailhead that combines cross-country hiking with a 2.5-mile section of the Falls River and a 3-mile section of the Bechler would allow the intrepid packrafter the opportunity to run two cascades (Class IV) on the Falls River along with Bechler Falls (Class IV+) with no car shuttle.

— Potential Packrafting Rivers and Creeks
Yellowstone National Park

The public must retain control of the great waterways. It is essential that any permit to obstruct them for reasons and on conditions that seem good at the moment should be subject to revision when changed conditions demand.” - Theodore Roosevelt


  1. Thanks for sharing Ammons' "Counting Coup" story. A great read.

  2. Bravo Forrest. It's hard for me to even comprehend how much great info you've just shared. Let alone the potential of Yellowstone's waterways.

  3. I'm planning a pack rafting trip now! Screw PCT lol