The roughly twenty two miles from West Thumb Geyser Basin north to the Yellowstone Lake Hotel is one of the most pristine waterfront drives in America.
Yellowstone Lake is huge – it is a mini Great Lake – with over 141 miles of shoreline. Situated at 7,733 feet above sea level, Yellowstone Lake is the largest high elevation lake in North America.
Its frigid waters have a depth of nearly 400 feet.
When I first encountered Yellowstone Lake I was on the edge of eighteen and instantly overwhelmed by the magnitude of this clear vast lake. It felt like another world – a hidden myth I had uncovered like an Arthurian legend come to life.
Yellowstone is unique given its interconnected and diverse ecosystems. Yellowstone’s mini ecosystems can create unique weather patterns that vary widely throughout the park. Yellowstone Lake is usually colder than Old Faithful.
The lake remains frozen until late May.
When working at Old Faithful during college, I remember the manager rushing into our morning meeting with the report from the main office that ‘the lake is thawing – the ice has broken’ – this was on May the 15th.
Later that week my coworkers and I drove across Craig Pass from Old Faithful to Lake. The weather at Old Faithful was in the seventies with blue skies. By the time we reached Lake we were caught in a snow storm and nearly skidded off the road.
Imagine this North Carolina girl experiencing snow right before Memorial Day. I learned quickly to prepare for all weather in Yellowstone. Layering is key.
The winding drive from West Thumb to the Lake Hotel hugs the western edge of Yellowstone Lake.
On clear days in the distance you can see the Tetons peaking over neighboring Mt. Sheridan (right across the water). Grand Teton National Park is an hour south from West Thumb (closer depending on roadwork/traffic).
Several lakeside picnic areas like Pumice Point are ideal for a scenic lunch overlooking Yellowstone Lake.
The lake is frigid and not viable for human swimming. However you can enjoy a boat ride from Bridge Bay Marina or a kayak tour.
Stevenson Island is visible in the near distance. It is one of the lake’s biggest islands.
This portion of Yellowstone feels like you are at the ocean – with seagulls and pelicans flying over the lake. Words cannot describe the beauty and peace of a quiet afternoon sitting by the lake.
As you near the Lake Hotel area, you can access several popular trailheads. Natural Bridge (near Bridge Bay) is popular with families because it is fairly flat and takes you to a unique natural stone bridge.
Elephant Back will work your lungs as you trek 800 feet up forest switchbacks to a grand view of Yellowstone Lake and the hotel below. I remember the pain of this hike, but the joy of the view. It was hard going up but a breeze going down.
Bridge Bay is the ideal place to camp at Lake, especially if you bring your boat.
Speaking of boating – Yellowstone does have a lake cruise daily during peak summer months – check at the Lake Hotel for more info (or book online at Yellowstone Lodges).
Just before arriving at the Lake Hotel, you’ll pass the Fishing Bridge junction. This bridge leads to the eastern entrance of Yellowstone and is a true wilderness road. The east entrance is 70 miles west of Cody WY and very rural.
Fishing Bridge is a great stop for families. You can park and take pictures of the headwaters of the Yellowstone River as it meanders through canyons, valleys, badlands from Yellowstone NP to it’s terminus in North Dakota.
Fishing Bridge used to be a popular fishing spot in the early days of the park. Trout was abundant at this location as it is spawning ground for Yellowstone’s native cutthroat population. To learn more about Fishing Bridge click here.
Unfortunately fishing at Fishing Bridge decimated the trout population and ironically you can no longer fish from Fishing Bridge.
The good news is Yellowstone has tons of fishing options throughout the park – to learn more and sign up for your fishing license click here.
We’ve had a full day – so I recommend lunch at the amazing Lake Hotel.
The Lake Hotel is tied as my favorite hotel in YNP (with Old Faithful Inn) and has the best dining room view anywhere in the park.
Stepping into The Lake Hotel you’ll feel as though you’ve entered the romance of a bygone era – the elegance of Downton Abbey meets the laidback lake culture of modern life.
When I’ve having a bad day I often dream of sitting in The Lake Hotel, listening the piano playing in the background -with a huckleberry lemonade in my hand as I stare into the heart of Yellowstone Lake.
We’ll take a tour of the Lake Hotel in my next blog before we continue onto the Mud Volcano and Hayden Valley areas.