With my ankle still healing, Brian and I decided to rent a kayak for one of Yellowstone’s classic backcountry trips. We paddled across two lakes to reach a remote thermal area. From that thermal area we backpacked another 10 miles into one of the finest soaking springs anywhere, Mr. Bubbles. I’m from Idaho which is famous for natural hot springs, but Mr. Bubbles is definitely unmatched.
We loaded our light blue, double sea kayak on a very cold, foggy morning. The boat quickly swallowed our gear and large amounts of decadent food. We started out with a calm paddle across Lewis Lake. During the first hour of our trip, a bald eagle hunted right in front of our kayak. He swooped down to the water and created a small splash over and over as he tried to catch a fish. We watched quietly, then cheered when he finally came up with a small fish in his talons.
The next portion of the paddle took us up the Lewis River to Shoshone Lake, the largest backcountry lake in the lower 48 states. As soon as we started up Lewis River, we found a snobby Osprey in a tree who turned his back to us as we approached, resistant to our attempts to get a nice photo of him. He was probably just hoping we would go away. Then, as we got closer, he took flight and left the area.
We also met a very friendly Beaver in Lewis River who glided along the top of the water for quite awhile examining our boat. He came closer and closer, and once he identified us as human he dove quickly underwater with a big splash of his round, leathery tail and was gone.
As Lewis River nears Shoshone Lake, the current becomes too strong to paddle and the boat must be drug upstream. The water is very cold and there are many rocks to rake the boat over. The larger rocks have colorful marks on them that look like crayon scribbles from all the different colors of plastic boats that have scraped them over the years. This is certainly not a trip for a delicate sea kayak. During this mile long boat drag, I got to sit in the boat and watch Brian yank the boat over rocks and splash through the current to pull it upstream. This was great fun for me, and he was happy to let me play “queen of the boat” while he worked hard to pull us upriver to Shoshone Lake.
Shoshone Lake is a magnificent sight, especially for someone who has just drug a boat upstream in a mile of freezing water. The lake is huge, lined with thick forest, with crystal clear water. We paddled all the way across the lake to our first camp, near the Shoshone Geyser Basin.
This steaming, bubbling backcountry thermal area has no boardwalks or signs, only a small footpath which winds its way through bright blue pools and calcite formations which intermittently bubble and even erupt over 25 feet in the air. We enjoyed a leisurely stroll along the footpath and then focused on our goal: to find the rumored soakable Shoshone Creek Hot Spring. We looked around for about an hour and finally decided to very carefully skirt a sign the park service had placed in the basin which said “Danger! Thermal Area.” Behind this sign we found some social trails leading to Shoshone Creek and we found our first soakable hot spring.
Clouds of steam indicated the hot water source on the hillside was very hot, and it needed to be mixed with the river water to make it a safe soaking temperature. When we first got into the small soaking pool at the side of the river, the streams of hot and cold were not well mixed. It needed some work since the last people had soaked there, which looked like quite awhile ago. Soakers create natural hot springs by building a ring of rocks at the side of a river which loosely hold a mixture of hot and cold water for soaking. Hand built rock channels move hot water from the spring and cold water from the river into the ring of rocks. Once the two channels are in balance the perfect soaking temperature is reached within the ring of rocks. I moved some rocks around in the hot and cold channels to modify the flow and we enjoyed a short soak before splashing off to find more hot springs. We joked that a park service sign which says “danger” means the area may be worth exploring and we should keep this in mind in the future.
The second soakable hot spring we found along Shoshone Creek was surrounded by red, orange, green and yellow moss which had been sculpted by the flowing water to look like very thick strands of hair. The hairy hot spring cascaded down some small terraces the size of stairsteps and then joined Shoshone Creek, where a small ring of rocks held the hot water loosely as the cold river trickled between the rocks into the soaking area. The hot water source was a milder temperature than the previous spring we found, and the soaking area was the perfect temperature without any modifications. The bottom of the small pool was filled with algae, so we cleaned it out and settled into the relaxing, hot water. Often these seldom used natural hot springs require a bit of maintenance upon arrival to create a pleasing soak, and it was well worth the effort to soak in a beautiful creek right next to a colorful hot water source and listen to a geyser regularly erupting nearby. Only in Yellowstone!
Satisfied with our two soaks in the Shoshone Geyser Basin, we enjoyed a dinner of fresh pasta, fresh basil leaves, butter and alfredo sauce. We then camped near the lake and slept near bubbling thermal pools and steaming fumaroles. We slept well after 12 miles of paddling, then exploring and soaking. The next day would start our backpack trip on the Bechler River trail to the famous Mr. Bubbles hot spring.
DAY 2As we were getting ready for the kayak trip I asked Brian where I should put my backpack. He looked confused and asked why I would bring it. I laughed, I guess he was offering to carry all our stuff on the backpack since my ankle is still healing. That morning we hid our kayak by a hillside, hung most of our food in a tree, and Brian packed up my two down coats as well as all our other backpacking gear and we set off to hike 10 miles to Mr. Bubbles. The hike was pretty but almost completely devoid of “dangerous and delicious” animals, as I had started calling them. Brian spotted a small deer, but my Grizzly Bear fantasies went unfulfilled.
Once we got to the small valley where Mr Bubbles sits, things got interesting. Steam filled the air and a huge white, yellow and blue pool cascaded down the hillside. It was one of the prettiest thermal features I had ever seen, but far too hot for soaking. We continued. Mr. Bubbles was waiting.
We got to the end of the trail and reached the grand Mr. Bubbles, a bright blue pool 30 feet across with a steady stream of big bubbles erupting in a three foot circle in the center. A hot creek surrounded by yellow flowers and red dragonflies fed the pool on one side, and a small river skirted it on the other. Steam from the other thermal features in the valley set the scene for an amazing backcountry soak in crystal clear water. Luckily, a group was just leaving as we arrived.
We spent hours in Mr. Bubbles in total solitude and even had a dinner of tortillas and a package of pre-cooked bacon in Mr. Bubbles. It was hard to finally leave, but when the next group arrived we felt it was the right time to hike back to camp. We heard animals outside that night but didn’t bother to investigate.While camping in the Yellowstone backcountry it’s easy to imagine every branch snapping is a ferocious Grizzly Bear, but at that point we were just too relaxed after the long soak in Mr. Bubbles to care.
We backpacked out to the lake and were happy to see our food still hanging in the tree. Our glorious boating food — including ham, avocados, and nectarines — was a welcome sight after the backpack. We began paddling and encountered some very strong afternoon winds. The boat bounced along in huge waves and I got a little nervous. We decided to cross the lake and in the middle the rolling waves got so big they lapped over the top of the kayak. I was frightened by the size of the waves and the cold temperature of the water and paddled as hard as I possibly could. The big, heavy boat just cruised right over the waves. After the crossing we camped for the night.
We enjoyed an easy paddle down the Lewis River with very little boat dragging. Once again, when it was time to drag the boat over rocks I got to occupy my “queen of the boat” throne as Brian lugged it downriver. Lewis Lake was very wavy, and after the exciting crossing on Shoshone Lake the day before we stuck to the shoreline. We ended the trip with big smiles and a beautiful drive to Jackson, Wyoming to return the canoe and enjoy a mountain bike ride in the Teton National Forest. The trees were changing color and riding a single track trail through bright yellow Aspen groves was magical.