When first-time visitors see Yellowstone Lake, they are stunned by its magnitude. The statistics are impressive: 110 miles of shoreline, 20 miles north to south and 14 miles east to west, with an average depth of 139 feet and a maximum depth of 390 feet. This is the largest high-elevation (over 7,000 feet) lake in North America; Lake Tahoe is bigger, but lower.
Yellowstone Lake can seem like a sheet of glass laid to the horizon at one moment and just a half-hour later be a roiling ocean of whitecaps and wind-whipped waves. These changeable waters can be dangerous to those in canoes or small boats; several people have drowned, including experienced park rangers.
The water is covered by ice at least half the year, and breakup does not come until late May or early June. Even in summer, water temperatures are often only in the 40s. David Folsom, who was part of an exploration party traveling through the area in 1869, described Yellowstone Lake as an:
Inland sea, its crystal waves dancing and sparkling in the sunlight as if laughing with joy for their wild freedom. It is a scene of transcendent beauty which has been viewed by few white men, and we felt glad to have looked upon it before its primeval solitude should be broken by the crowds of pleasure seekers which at no distant day will throng its shores.
The area around famous Fishing Bridge (built in 1937) was for many years a favorite place to catch cutthroat trout. These same fish are a major food source for grizzlies, and this area is considered some of the most important bear habitat in Yellowstone. Conflicts between bears and humans led to the death of 16 grizzlies here. To help restore trout populations and to provide food for the grizzlies, the Park Service banned fishing from Fishing Bridge in 1973 and tried to move the park facilities to the Grant Village area.
Lobbying by folks from Cody (worried lest they lose some of the tourist traffic) kept some of the facilities at Fishing Bridge from closing. Remaining facilities include an RV park, Yellowstone General Store (gifts, groceries, and a snack bar), visitor center, amphitheater, and gas station. The bridge itself is still a popular stopping point and a good place to see large cutthroat trout in the shallows.
Fishing Bridge Visitor Center (307/242-2450, daily 8 a.m.-7 p.m. late May-Sept.) houses a few ancient bird displays and an information desk. Be sure to head out the back door for bucolic views across Lake Yellowstone.
Lake Yellowstone Hotel
Lake Yellowstone Hotel, the oldest extant park hostelry, was built in 1889-1891 by the Northern Pacific Railroad and originally consisted of a simple boxlike structure facing Yellowstone Lake. The hotel was sold to Harry Child in 1901, and two years later Robert Reamer—the architect who designed Old Faithful Inn—was given free rein to transform this into a more attractive place. Hard to believe that the same architect could create a grand log masterpiece and a sprawling Southern colonial mansion with distinctive Ionic columns in the same park!
Lake Yellowstone Hotel is the second-largest wood-framed building in North America and requires 500 gallons of paint each year to keep it in shape. During the 1960s and 1970s the hotel fell into disrepair under the management of General Host Corporation, and in disgust, the Park Service bought out the concession and leased it to another company. Major renovations in the 1980s transformed the dowdy old structure into a luxurious grand hotel with much of the charm it had when President Calvin Coolidge stayed here in the 1920s.
Today, Lake Yellowstone Hotel is one of the nicest places to stay in the park, with fine vistas out over the lake and comfortable quarters. Relax with a drink in the sunlit Sun Room while a pianist or a string quartet provides the atmosphere. Free 45-minute historic tours of Lake Yellowstone Hotel are given at 5:30 p.m. Monday-Friday early June-late September. The hotel also houses a restaurant, gift shop, and snack bar.
Be sure to take a walk along the lakeshore out in front of the hotel, where the Absaroka Range forms a backdrop far to the east. The highest mountain is Avalanche Peak (10,566 feet). Almost due south is the 10,308-foot summit of Mt. Sheridan, named for General Philip Sheridan, a longtime supporter of expanding the park to include the Tetons. Watch for the big white pelicans catching fish on the lake.
Just east of Lake Yellowstone Hotel is the Lake Ranger Station, built in 1922-1923 and now on the National Register of Historic Places. Inside the octagonal main room you will find a massive central fireplace, exposed log rafters, and rustic light fixtures. A short walk away is Lake Lodge, another rustic log structure, built between 1921 and 1929. It houses a reasonably priced cafeteria with grand windows fronting the lake. A Yellowstone General Store stands nearby, and dozens of plain cabins are behind it.
To West Thumb
The highway south from Lake Junction to West Thumb follows the lakeshore nearly the entire distance. A campground and boat harbor are at Bridge Bay, along with a ranger station, marina, and store. Stop here for hour-long boat tours of Yellowstone Lake, offered several times a day throughout the summer, or for guided fishing trips and boat rentals.
Back on the main road, keep your eyes open for Canada geese and trumpeter swans as you drive south. Gull Point Drive, a two-mile-long side road, offers views of Stevenson Island just offshore; farther south, Frank Island and tiny Dot Island become visible. The small Potts Hot Springs Basin, just north of West Thumb, is named for fur trapper Daniel T. Potts, one of the first white men to explore the Yellowstone country. His travels here in 1826 were described the following year in a Philadelphia newspaper article. It was perhaps the first published mention of Yellowstone Lake and the hot springs.
East Entrance Road
The park road splits east from Fishing Bridge and follows the shore of Yellowstone Lake past country that escaped the 1988 fires. Three miles east of the bridge are Indian Pond—popular with birders—and the trailhead for Storm Point Trail. North of here, Pelican Valley is considered important grizzly habitat and is closed to all overnight camping year-round. Even daytime use is not allowed until July 4, and then only between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. Before venturing out on the Storm Point Trail or into Pelican Valley, check at the Lake Ranger Station for current bear information. The 0.5-mile Pelican Creek Nature Trail starts one mile east of Fishing Bridge and provides an easy hike to a beach along Yellowstone Lake. Much of the way is on boardwalk over a marshy area.
At Steamboat Point the road swings out along the shore, providing excellent views across the lake and of a noisy fumarole. For an even better view (don’t miss this one!), take the Lake Butte Overlook road, which continues one mile to a small parking area 1,000 feet above the lake. This is a fine place to watch sunsets and to get a feeling for the enormous size of Yellowstone Lake. Back on the main highway and heading east, you soon leave Yellowstone Lake behind and it is visible in only a few spots as the road climbs gradually, passing scenic Sylvan Lake, a nice place for picnics. Just up the road is tiny Eleanor Lake (little more than a puddle) and a steep trail to 10,566-foot Avalanche Peak.
Immediately east of Eleanor Lake, the main road climbs to 8,530-foot Sylvan Pass, flanked by Hoyt Peak on the north and Top Notch Peak to the south. Steep scree slopes drop down both sides. East of Sylvan Pass, the road descends quickly along Middle Creek (a tributary of the Shoshone River), providing good views to the south of Mt. Langford and Mt. Doane. East Entrance Ranger Station was built by the army in 1904. For many years, the road leading up to Sylvan Pass from the east took drivers across Corkscrew Bridge, a bridge that literally looped over itself as the road climbed steeply up the narrow valley. The road continues eastward to Cody through beautiful Wapiti Valley.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Yellowstone & Grand Teton, 5th Edition