Closest entrances: Approximately 27 miles from Fishing Bridge to the east entrance; 43 miles from Fishing Bridge to the south entrance
Clear, deep, and expansive Yellowstone Lake ★★ dominates the southeastern part of the park. At 132 square miles, with 141 miles of shoreline, it is North America’s largest natural freshwater lake above 7,000 feet. People cruise and paddle its waters, fish, and camp along its rocky shores, while the lake and its beaches provide habitat for grizzlies, moose, golden and bald eagles, pelicans, and cormorants.
A lake this large can act more like a sea, with frequent winds whipping up treacherous waves. Combine that chop with water that averages 41°F (5°C) even in the height of summer, and swimming becomes inadvisable—and boating or paddling risky endeavors that demand plenty of know-how. Under the surface, Yellowstone Lake is just as turbulent: Researchers have discovered underwater fumaroles, geysers, and hot springs, and canyons plunge to at least 410 feet in depth. In two places, underwater volcanic vents called resurgent domes are rising and falling with an average uplift of an inch a year—lickety-split in geologic time.
The lake, which is roughly shaped like a four-legged octopus, has several distinct zones. Most boating happens in the broad main area, while the West Thumb branch features an active thermal zone. The South and Southeast Arms are much more remote and have more restrictions on motorboats, making them excellent places for kayak or canoe camping.
Lake Village forms the area’s primary developed hub, with a couple of lodging and dining options, plus a general store. The canary-yellow Lake Yellowstone Hotel is the park’s most elegant, while nearby Lake Lodge offers rustic cabins and a killer front-porch view.
Continue south on Grand Loop Road to Bridge Bay Marina, the hub for water-based activities. Boat launches grant entry for DIYers, and you can also rent motorboats or rowboats from park concessionaires in summer. There’s also a popular, 1-hour scenic cruise around Stevenson Island complete with historical tales from the boat’s skipper. The small general store sells food and fishing permits. The adjacent Bridge Bay Campground is Yellowstone’s largest.
Although the Natural Bridge, near Bridge Bay, is well marked on park maps, it’s one of the park’s best-kept secrets. The mile-long path down to the bridge, a geologic masterpiece consisting of a massive rock arch spanning Bridge Creek, is also one of the few trails open to bikes.
If you’re looking to get off the beaten path, one-way Gull Point Drive shoots off the main road just south of Bridge Bay and traces the lakeshore past a lovely picnic spot. If not, continue west to West Thumb.
So called because it would be the thumb on Yellowstone Lake’s “hand,” West Thumb represents a caldera within the larger Yellowstone caldera, formed by an eruption 174,000 years ago. The heat from underground hydrothermal features here can melt the ice that covers the rest of the lake surface for much of the year. It’s a great spot to look for bears and elk (especially in spring), river otters playing in the warm waters in winter, and bald eagles or osprey year-round. The small West Thumb Information Station is open 9am to 5pm summer through early fall.
The primary attraction here is West Thumb Geyser Basin ★, a unique shoreline thermal area where you can see hot springs pouring into the lake, brightly hued pools, brownish-green paint pots, and shoreline geysers. It’s less crowded than the bigger basins, but still advisable to stroll the .25-mile inner loop and .5-mile outer loop early or late in the day to avoid tour bus jams. Fishing Cone gained fame in the late 1800s, when anglers would catch trout and then cook them, still on the line, in the spring’s hot water (a practice that is decidedly not allowed today, for health reasons).
As you depart the West Thumb area, you are presented with two choices: either to head south, toward Grand Teton National Park, or to head west, across the Continental Divide at Craig Pass, en route to Old Faithful.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.