Backpacking Light and the Yellowstone River
The Yellowstone River is a special place for us. It’s home to some of our Montana Packrafting Courses & Expeditions, and being the longest undammed river in the Continental U.S., it’s probably one of the last major rivers in the lower 48 that’s least influenced by human development. Combined with the fact that it’s a big river, with a wide corridor offering plenty of options for camping, it’s a wonderful venue for long, human-powered river expeditions. What better way to explore the corridor, than by foot and packraft?
Packrafter camp between Emigrant and Livingston.
About the Yellowstone
The Yellowstone River headwaters are fed by the snowfields perched at 10,000 feet on the high flanks of Younts Peak in the Absaroka Range, southeast of Yellowstone National Park.
This spot is not only one of the remotest spots in the Continental United States, it’s one of the most pristine. There is no trail to the headwaters. They remain untrammeled by man or horse, and one can drop his lips into the clear water and suckle the clean elixir without fear of a future fever.
For the wilderness traveler, a trip to this region (a.k.a. “The Yellowstone Thorofare”) is the trip of a lifetime.
Packrafting the headwaters region of the Yellowstone River on a tributary (the Thorofare river) in 2008.
Seven hundred (decreasingly glorious) undammed miles later, the river discharges nearly 14,000 cfs into the Missouri River near Williston, North Dakota, home of the nation’s largest current oil shale boom. Up to 25 million barrels of oil may eventually be extracted from the Bakken oil formation here using the highly controversial technique of fracking.
Fracking is not the only risk to the Yellowstone River. After having paddled and fished hundreds of miles of the Yellowstone, here are my observations of the Yellowstone’s major threats:
- Oil and gas pipeline pollution. In 2011, more than 60 thousand gallons of oil escaped a leaky ExxonMobil pipeline running through the riverbed just west of Billings, Montana. Even though cleanup efforts have mostly been “completed”, one can still dig into the riverside mud with their bare hands and create the telltale rainbow eruption of color from residual oil.
- Streamcourse manipulation. The Yellowstone is a mighty powerful river. Through its upper reaches in Paradise Valley (between Gardiner and Livingston), the river volume increases thirty-fold during peak runoff in June. This, of course, wreaks havoc on landowners as the river carves away valuable property. Upstream landowners build riprap banks that transfer and concentrate river energy downstream. The result? Downstream landowners build riprap...
- Residential property development. The Yellowstone attracts some of the wealthiest people in the world. It’s a beautiful river corridor, so it’s hard to blame them for building their trophy homes on its banks. Increasing land subdividing along with trophy and vacation home development is not only interrupting the visual purity of the river corridor, but is placing increased stress on the river’s environmental and ecological buffer (e.g., big game migration pattern interruption, septic system failures, landscaping chemical runoff).
Fishing a deep run for large brown trout near Springdale. Note the riprap bank on the opposite shore. This man-made structure prevents erosion of land mass - an undesirable outcome of spring runoff if you’re a riverbank property owner. Unfortunately, these structures don’t dissipate river energy and thus, magnify the problem for downstream landowners.
In addition to these relatively new threats, the Yellowstone has suffered a number of other threats for many years, including irrigation diversion and return that increase water temperatures (and alter fish habitat and species distribution) and prevent fish migration, uninhibited grazing practices that contribute to erosion and fecal pathogen contamination, and the invasion of noxious weeds seeded by contaminated livestock feeds.
Trophy homes threaten the visual landscape of the river corridor, but cause other problems as well, including septic systems, which commonly contaminate the river. Note the bank erosion below the home to the left. How long will it be before the homeowner installs riprap to protect his investment?
The Yellowstone remains a beautiful gem of a river corridor for those of us that treasure it, but make no mistake: once the river leaves Yellowstone National Park at Gardiner, Montana, it’s not the river that Lewis and Clark found.
Friday, April 26, 1805, on the Missouri River, near the entrance of the Yellowstone River: “...on the forks ... a beautiful low level plain commences ... and widens as the Missouri bends north, and is bordered by an extensive woodland for many miles up the Yellowstone river ... I saw many buffalo dead on the banks of the river in different places, some of them eaten by grizzly bears and wolves, or drowned in attempting to cross the ice during the winter, or swimming across to bluff banks where they could not get out (and were too weak to return). We saw immense numbers of antelopes in the forks of the river; buffalo, elk, and deer is also plentiful. Beaver are found in every bend." - Capt. Wm. Clark
Today, one stands at the very spot where Captain Clark penned this famous observation, and while the scenic vista hasn’t changed much, by the time the Yellowstone reaches Williston, ecological diversity and animal populations have been destroyed by two short centuries of perhaps irreverent upstream activity.
Overview of River Sections
Having focused most of my attention on the Upper Yellowstone (where water character is most interesting for packrafters), I’ll leave the lower river (from Big Timber, MT to Williston, ND) for your own research.
Headwaters to Yellowstone Lake
The infamous “Thorofare” region of the Yellowstone River is its most remote, accessible only by foot or horse, and is contained entirely within the protected wilderness of Teton Wilderness and Yellowstone National Park. The headwater streams offer challenging and technical whitewater paddling for the determined packrafter. The best floats are the North, South, and Main Forks of the Yellowstone, and the Thorofare River. Use extreme caution below the confluence of the North and South Forks, below Woodard Creek, where a dangerous gorge exists.
The bridge at Hawk’s Rest in the Teton Wilderness makes a good takeout point for the packrafter traveling from the Yellowstone River headwaters down and through Yellowstone National Park.
Many other tributaries provide short stretches of very exciting technical creeking during spring runoff. Check out Woodard, Castle, and Atlantic Creeks.
June is a good time to visit the Thorofare region. Atlantic Creek, behind me, can be floated in its entirety from Two Ocean Pass down to its confluence with the Yellowstone, with a few exceptions - the occasional logjam that needs to be portaged. The first half mile of Atlantic Creek crashes hard down a steep gradient, then evolves into a twisting ribbon through bear-infested willows, and then opens up into the grand meander through Yellowstone Meadows.
Don’t forget to get out of your packrafts at the Yellowstone National Park boundary on the Yellowstone and Thorofare Rivers. Floating is prohibited inside the Park.
Camping in the wilderness is open. Camping in the National Park requires reservations at pre-designated campsites.
Yellowstone National Park is strictly a paddle-in-your-pack sort of place - floating is prohibited on the Yellowstone River here. Here, I’m overlooking Beaverdam Creek en route to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
OK, so it’s technically not part of the river, but this massive alpine lake (136 square miles) is the largest freshwater lake above 7,000 feet (elevation) in North America. I’ve packrafted the East shore as part of a longer packrafting expedition across the Yellowstone-Teton-Washakie wilderness complex. Even if lake packrafting isn’t your thing, it’s worth a few miles of paddling (especially if a big westerly comes up) simply for the feeling that you’re paddling in an ocean surrounded by mountains.
There are a handful of campsites along the east shore, and require reservation with the National Park.
Paddling the east shore of Yellowstone Lake.
Yellowstone Lake to Gardiner, MT
With the exception of the two little drops at Upper and Lower Yellowstone Falls (109 and 308 feet, respectively), this is the section that packrafter dreams are made of. Long stretches of big and dangerous Class V whitewater dominate this section through the Grand and Black Canyons, but during low-water off-seasons, this has the potential to be one of the world’s greatest packrafting trips.
The incredible Black Canyon of the Yellowstone River.
But alas, it’s not to be quite yet - remember, floating in the Park is not allowed. But for the long distance expeditioner, one can easily link trails (and Yellowstone Lake) through the Park to enjoy a premier foot-and-paddle experience through the Yellowstone river corridor in the Yellowstone-Teton-Washakie wilderness complex.
The Yellowstone River corridor inside Yellowstone National Park is limited to foot and horse travel only. Even though you have to keep your paddles in your pack, knowing this corridor, like this one through the Black Canyon, is essential if you want to understand the Yellowstone in its entirety.
Camping is allowed only on developed campsites in this river corridor, and require reservations with the Park.
Gardiner, MT to Yankee Jim Canyon
The Yellowstone River leaves the National Park at Gardiner, MT and offers the packrafter an enjoyable Class II+ run through boulder gardens before the river mellows out. Above the canyon, however, you can see the horizon line drop and the canyon walls echoing of what’s to come...
There are a few developed and one or two primitive campgrounds in this stretch that require you to leave the river. River corridor camping is allowed all the way down to the Montana border, as long as you’re not within 500 feet of a residence, you remain below the high water mark, and stay off of private islands. However, places to camp in this section are few and far between, and small - the banks are steep. My favorite camps in this section are little patches of grass tucked away in willow thickets - about the right size for a bivy sack or two.
Between Gardiner and Yankee Jim canyon, the river gradient moderates and Montana’s Big Sky once again starts to open up around you. This stretch is famous for its colorful reflected sunsets. Its proximity to Yellowstone National Park’s high plateau and summer storms create ample opportunities for beautiful skies and water surfaces at dusk and dawn (Photo: Andrew Skurka).
Yankee Jim Canyon
One of my favorite days with Andrew Skurka was spent packrafting through Yankee Jim Canyon. Andrew was a green packrafter at the time, and I recall being sicker than a dog the day we drove over. I opted to shuttle the car, and let him float the canyon. I just wanted to take a nap.
But when we arrived at the put in, I forgot about my sore throat and drippy nose, and heard the siren song of Yankee Jim. I didn’t regret joining Andrew on that float, and still giggle when I watch the goofy video we put together.
You should see a video below. If you don't, refresh this page by clicking on this link.
Yankee Jim is home to mostly Class II+ water at low flows, and gnarly Class III-IV when the river is raging. The Boxcar Rapid is great fun at low water (Class III) and offers the beginning packrafter a safe runout for attempting big water without risk of getting stuck in a hole or hitting his head on a rock. At higher flows, the Boxcar feels like Lava Rapids in the Grand Canyon: it’s not about what to do if your packraft flips, it’s about when to do when your packraft flips.
Camping in the canyon is possible - there are a few sandy beaches for small parties of 1 or 2 shelters, but it’s cold and loud down there.
Yankee Jim Canyon to Livingston
From Yankee Jim to Emigrant, MT, the river is a cruise. At Emigrant, get out and hitchhike three miles to Chico Hot Springs for an old style Montana hot springs experience, then return for lunch at the Emigrant Bar before hitting the river again.
Emigrant to Carter’s Bridge provides the occasional Class II rapid, but most of this section is slower, and scenic, with expansive views of the snowy Absaroka Range. As you approach Livingston, pay attention to boulder gardens and bridge abutments, which have been known to eat a number of boats.
The canyon gives way to expansive views of the Absaroka Range, and the densest population of trout outside of Yellowstone National Park.
A few Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks campgrounds are available in this stretch, as well as some beautiful riverside B&B’s if you need that sort of a break. Wild camping can be challenging as you leave Emigrant and enter the stretch where trophy homes begin to appear.
Expeditioning on a long trip with a big pack, with the Absaroka Range in the background.
Livingston to Big Timber
Below Livingston, a potentially dangerous bridge passage (with rapids plowing into an abutment that’s often choked with wood) gives way to sustained Class II water until Springdale. Between Springdale and Big Timber, long stretches of windy flatwater exist, interspersed by the occasional and sometimes large and welcome Class II+ wave train.
Camping is plentiful here, with a number of gravel beaches, a handful of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks primitive campgrounds, and beautiful pastoral scenery interrupted by the magnificent Sheep Cliffs and Crazy Mountains.
Expect railroad whistles at night.
Packrafter camp near Springdale, with sunset glowing off the river in the background.
- Deadly gorges and wood pileups in the Teton Wilderness;
- Incredible populations of mosquitoes above Yellowstone Lake;
- Grizzly bears upstream of Gardiner, MT;
- Park rangers wondering why you have paddles sticking out of your pack;
- A few pourover holes that can swamp your boat just downstream of Gardiner, MT;
- Big rapids in Yankee Jim Canyon;
- Strong currents taking you into sizable logjams between Emigrant and Livingston;
- Bridge abutments;
- Complaints by residents that you’re camping too close to them;
- The occasional riverside bull (cattle);
- Rattlesnakes below Livingston;
- Big, dangerous water with huge floating debris and whirlpool eddies during spring runoff on all sections of river.
Pileup on the upstream side of the Springdale bridge. I’ve seen the river running so high that not even a packrafter would be able to duck to clear the bottom of the bridge deck. Most boat accidents on the Yellowstone occur in Yankee Jim Canyon, and at bridges
Don’t be put off by the hazard list above. The rewards of tripping down the Yellowstone River corridor are well worth it.
- Remoteness above Yellowstone Lake;
- Fishing for wild cutthroat, the way it used to be, above Gardiner;
- The chance to catch a 10 pound trout below Livingston;
- Big river paddling combined with big mountain views, between Emigrant and Livingston;
- Opportunity to create a number of different foot-and-paddle options in the Teton Wilderness, or for the expeditioner, anywhere above Gardiner;
- Peaceful nights in Montana camped on a gravel bar under the shade of a cottonwood.
A packrafting trip down the Yellowstone is one of my favorite human-powered trips. Whether by foot-and-paddle in the Teton wilderness, pedal-and-paddle through Paradise Valley, or just a long float in search of big trout, the moods of the Yellowstone will not disappoint.
Backpacking Light Packrafting Expeditions & Courses on the Yellowstone River
The Yellowstone is one of our favorite locations for teaching packrafting, and taking groups on expeditions. Stay tuned, we’ll be releasing our Yellowstone River packrafting course schedule for 2013 in the next few weeks!
A Backpacking Light Packrafting Course in the shadows of the Absaroka Range (Photo by Andrew Skurka).
More Info & Resources
- Learn to Packraft with the Backpacking Light Wilderness Trekking School;
- Support Backpacking Light's efforts to create the online course Learn to Packraft! and the documentary The Packrafter on Kickstarter;
- Join the American Packrafting Association and get involved in conservation, access, and safety issues of interest to packrafters.
- Rent a packraft for any expedition, anywhere, from Jackson Hole Packraft Rentals;
- Where the Yellowstone Goes (documentary film), by Hunter Weeks (View Trailer).