Located about as far from any roadway as it’s possible to get in the lower 48, the Thorofare region of Yellowstone is the most remote and spectacular feature of America’s first national park. It’s here that the Yellowstone River feeds into Yellowstone Lake through a reedy delta of interwoven canals, forming an American version of Africa’s Okavango Delta. All the key players are on hand: bison, grizzlies, wolves, elk, moose, bald eagles, ospreys, sandhill cranes, trumpeter swans, and cutthroat trout. Amazingly, Yellowstone’s animal surplus wasn’t even the deciding factor in designating this chunk of the northern Rockies as parkland in 1872. Geothermal displays were the cause célèbre. But as the frontier vanished, and with it the megafauna, Yellowstone’s intact ecosystem has come to the fore.
Witnessing this wild kingdom requires stealth. For best results, glide into the Yellowstone River off of Yellowstone Lake’s Southeast Arm at dawn or dusk in a sea kayak. From a quiet eddy, with the snowcapped Absaroka Range reflected on the glassy surface, the margins between land, sky, and water disappear. To reach the Promontory in the Southeast Arm—the start of the lake’s "no motors" section—arrange a shuttle at Bridge Bay Marina. You’ll save several days of paddling and avoid open-water crossings. High-elevation Lake Yellowstone is notorious for changeable weather that can swamp a sea kayaker in frigid waters, so stick close to shore. Same as the animals do.
Need to Know: Wilderness paddlers must register with Yellowstone National Park.
Originally published in the March/April 2009 edition of National Geographic Adventure magazine.