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Yellowstone River Packrafting

An Introduction to Packrafting in the Yellowstone River Corridor between its headwaters and Big Timber, MT.

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by Ryan Jordan | 2013-02-05 00:00:00-07

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?

Yellowstone Packrafting - 1
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.

Yellowstone Packrafting - 2
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).

Yellowstone Packrafting - 3
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.

Yellowstone Packrafting - 4
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.

Yellowstone Packrafting - 5
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.

Yellowstone Packrafting - 6
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 Packrafting - 7
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.

Yellowstone Lake

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.

Yellowstone Packrafting - 8
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.

Yellowstone Packrafting - 9
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.

Yellowstone Packrafting - 10
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.

Yellowstone Packrafting - 11
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.

Yellowstone Packrafting - 12
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.

Yellowstone Packrafting - 13
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.

Yellowstone Packrafting - 14
Packrafter camp near Springdale, with sunset glowing off the river in the background.

Hazards

  • 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.

Yellowstone Packrafting - 15
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

Rewards

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.

Yellowstone Packrafting - 16
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!

Yellowstone Packrafting - 17
A Backpacking Light Packrafting Course in the shadows of the Absaroka Range (Photo by Andrew Skurka).

More Info & Resources


Citation

"Yellowstone River Packrafting," by Ryan Jordan. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/packrafting_yellowstone_river_jordan.html, 2013-02-05 00:00:00-07.

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Yellowstone River Packrafting
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Maia
(maia) - MLife

Locale: Rocky Mountains
Yellowstone River Packrafting on 02/05/2013 18:56:54 MST Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Yellowstone River Packrafting

Buck Nelson
(Colter) - MLife

Locale: Alaska
Re: Yellowstone River Packrafting on 02/06/2013 08:06:44 MST Print View

Very nice story and photos. That's cool that you did the upper reaches like that.

Last summer I paddled the Yellowstone in a canoe from the Park to the Missouri. Two of us ran Yankee Jim in a conventional raft, a stretch not to be taken lightly!

It's a beautiful river. Thanks for the article and congratulations on an epic trip.

Travis Leanna
(T.L.) - MLife

Locale: Wisconsin
Re: Re: Yellowstone River Packrafting on 02/06/2013 08:36:31 MST Print View

Thanks for the article, Ryan. I'm doing a 110 mile stretch of the Little Missouri (praying for a rainy season) this summer coupled with the entire Maah Daah Hey trail, and I'm concerned with the oil drilling in the area. I'm hoping I get to see the badlands before any oil boom really destroys the area.

diego dean
(cfionthefly) - M
beautiful country on 02/06/2013 08:49:12 MST Print View

I used to be a flight instructor out of Bozeman and I would sometimes follow this river by air with my students. Some gorgeous scenery that is still probably the highlight of my flying career. I miss Montana, but yes, even while I lived there the trophy houses were going up-everywhere. I only wish I could have afforded and had the time to do more of these activities while I actually lived in the area.

Richard Lyon
(richardglyon) - MLife

Locale: Bridger Mountains
Yellowstone packrafting on 02/06/2013 10:25:48 MST Print View

Anyone wishing to learn to packraft ought to consider the BPL course. Great fun as well as informative, and the river really is as beautiful as Ryan's photos indicate. When I took the course with Andrew Sturka we ran from the Park boundary in Gardiner through Yankee Jim Canyon twice, almost got arrested, and had a generally wonderful time.

Travis Leanna
(T.L.) - MLife

Locale: Wisconsin
Re: Yellowstone packrafting on 02/06/2013 10:27:39 MST Print View

"almost got arrested"

It ain't a good adventure without almost getting arrested!

J P
(jpovs) - F - M

Locale: North Shore
Re: Re: Yellowstone packrafting on 02/06/2013 11:25:32 MST Print View

-

Edited by jpovs on 06/27/2014 22:27:35 MDT.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
re: The Yellowstone on 02/06/2013 11:59:11 MST Print View

Anyone out there have any solid info on why boats are banned on rivers in Yellowstone? My assumption is that when the rule was made back in the ~50s fishermen didn't want driftboats, and the whitewater/packraft ban is merely bycatch.

I have no problem blaming the anthropocentric egomaniacs who build such awful houses. If you can't understand and care about how long the world will continue after you no derision is undeserved.

Thank goodness we have the stream-access laws we do in this state. I pity the Coloradians.

Richard Nisley
(richard295) - M

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: re: The Yellowstone on 02/06/2013 12:04:49 MST Print View

David,

I was in that area with my packraft and talked to the ranger 2 years ago. He said, "We don't have the budget to provide litter clean-up and rescues on the river. That is why we only allow boating in designated areas."

Edited by richard295 on 02/06/2013 12:05:35 MST.

Tad Englund
(bestbuilder) - F - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Re: re: The Yellowstone on 02/06/2013 12:08:08 MST Print View

Richard, you hit the nail on the head.

Tim Drescher
(timdcy) - M

Locale: Gore Range
Re: Re: Re: Yellowstone packrafting on 02/06/2013 12:36:59 MST Print View

"Why is Backpacking Light / Ryan Jordan focusing on pack rafting so much lately? I for one would like to see more reviews around backpacking not packrafting. Aside from that its a good article and nice pics."

+1

Travis Leanna
(T.L.) - MLife

Locale: Wisconsin
Re: Re: Re: Re: Yellowstone packrafting on 02/06/2013 12:45:05 MST Print View

My guess is that there is already a saturation of backpacking information/trip reports/gear, and packrafting is a subcategory that is growing.

I'm not saying there's an OVERsaturation of material, or that there isn't anything left to write about with backpacking. Packrafting is just a less-explored frontier.

Edited by T.L. on 02/06/2013 12:45:39 MST.

Sam Haraldson
(sharalds) - MLife

Locale: Gallatin Range
Yellowstone River Packrafting on 02/06/2013 13:01:28 MST Print View

You may have missed the middle quarter or so of the article in which Ryan speaks of backpacking across the entirety of Yellowstone National Park. ; )

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
Yellowstone packrafting on 02/06/2013 14:33:22 MST Print View

"We don't have the budget to provide litter clean-up and rescues on the river. That is why we only allow boating in designated areas."


I have no doubt that's a current justification, but doubt it was the original reason. Not that there isn't a lot to be said for keeping people from tubing over various waterfalls.

If the "designated areas" interpretation is that rigid, maybe we'll see the upper Yellowstone, Lamar, Snake, Heart, and Bechler opened up. (Effectively to packrafting only.)

Complaining about a backpacking mag covering packrafting is like complaining about a cooking mag covering bacon or ice cream. The awesomeness is self-evident.

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
packrafting, backpacking, and bacon on 02/06/2013 15:01:06 MST Print View

BPL's Mission Statement since '07 is "To promote multi-day, backcountry travel in a self-supported ("backpackable"), lightweight style."

Occasionally we'll pop out of this mission and perhaps drop one of the three components of the mission statement to explore an ancillary activity. We generally won't touch "lightweight" though. That's sort of a core premise.

It would be fun to do explore things like motorcycle camping, ocean rowing, dogsledding, and I'm not opposed to bacon at all.

J P
(jpovs) - F - M

Locale: North Shore
Re: packrafting, backpacking, and bacon on 02/06/2013 16:02:17 MST Print View

-

Edited by jpovs on 06/27/2014 22:28:06 MDT.

Richard Lyon
(richardglyon) - MLife

Locale: Bridger Mountains
Boating in Yellowstone on 02/06/2013 16:30:42 MST Print View

"If the "designated areas" interpretation is that rigid, maybe we'll see the upper Yellowstone, Lamar, Snake, Heart, and Bechler opened up. (Effectively to packrafting only.)"

Except maybe Heart Lake, I doubt it. NPS is really on a straitened budget, not likely to get any larger any time soon. And as you know the Park is full of folks with no notion of proper behavior even in the tourist areas. ("Son, get a little closer to the bison so I can get you both in the picture.") Imagine them on the water. However the NPS might make an exception if a person demonstrated, in advance, packrafting knowledge and skill and a plan for a particular route. I know a couple of guys who work in Yellowstone and I'll explore it with them.

"Complaining about a backpacking mag covering packrafting is like complaining about a cooking mag covering bacon or ice cream. The awesomeness is self-evident."

If its flavor isn't improved by bacon you shouldn't be eating it.

Ryan Smith
(ViolentGreen) - F

Locale: Southeast
Re: packrafting, backpacking, and bacon on 02/06/2013 18:44:36 MST Print View

Ryan,

I really enjoyed the article. Most of the areas you trek through I can only read about and salivate over from 2,000 miles away. Packrafting is a natural extension of BPL's core focus IMO, and I would love to see more of the technical aspects & how-to's in the future(or is there already an article somewhere?). Tennessee is NOT a hotbed of packrafting activity so I'm out of the loop.

All these Montana pics remind me of that old Steinbeck quote - "For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love."

Ryan

Edited by ViolentGreen on 02/06/2013 18:45:14 MST.

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Packrafting and Kickstarter on 02/06/2013 18:49:43 MST Print View

Josh wrote:

"Seems odd that all this coincides while Ryan trying to get his Kickstarter going. Just saying."

Really? I thought that would be a strategic and intentional thing to do, rather than an odd and suspect coincidence :)

Noted on your feedback and desire for more reviews*. The Kickstarter campaign only lasts a month, and the Yellowstone essay published today was the first article we've had on packrafting since the Alpacka Stowaway Dry Suit Review on December 18.

* We always have reviews in the queue, not to worry. Examples: Next big one is an SOTM on backcountry satellite communications devices.

Travis Leanna
(T.L.) - MLife

Locale: Wisconsin
Routes on 02/06/2013 18:49:59 MST Print View

Ryan,
It would be great if you wrote a tutorial on how to find good packrafting routes that had a good mix of backpacking and rafting. Maybe some good tips and resources.

Unless, of course, 'use Google Earth' would be your answer.