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Yellowstone Lake: Why The Heart Of The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem Is So Special

TheTravel logo TheTravel 8/5/2022 Aaron Spray
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  • Yellowstone Lake Is America's Highest (& Peculiar) Alpine Lake
  • Yellowstone Lake Is Freezing
  • Take A Scenic Cruise On The Lake

Yellowstone Lake is one of the great alpine lakes of the United States and the largest freshwater lake, about 7,100 in North America. Yellowstone Lake is one of the most special lakes in the United States for a range of reasons. Like the greater Yellowstone region, it is home to plenty of contrasts, wildlife, geological activity, and hydrothermal activity.

Yellowstone Lake is well worth a visit while touring the Yellowstone eco-region. It is the largest lake in the national park and a place with its own unique things to see and explore. Yellowstone Lake is a stunning lake of very different worlds. Above the lake is frozen for much of the year, but below are hydrothermal vents (like one finds in the Ocean). By these vents live a forgotten rich mosaic of life, including bacterial mats, sponges, and earthworms.

Yellowstone Lake Is America's Highest (& Peculiar) Alpine Lake

Not only is it America's highest alpine lake, but it is also a large lake. Yellowstone Lake is around 20 miles long and 14 miles wide. The lake has an altitude of 7,732 feet.

  • Altitude: 7,732 Feet or 2,357 Meters
  • Average Depth: 139 Feet or 42 Meters
  • Size: 132 Square Miles (342 km2)

Yellowstone Lake is a very special lake for a number of reasons. For the anglers out there, Yellowstone Lake is known to have the largest population of wild cutthroat trout on the continent. It is still a matter of puzzlement how the Pacific Ocean fish managed to get trapped in a lake that drains the other way to the Atlantic Ocean. It seems that in the past, Yellowstone Lake must have drained through the Outlet Canyon and Snake River to the Pacific Ocean.

  • Cutthroat Trout: The Largest Population

The bottom of the lake is similar to the more familiar landscapes of Yellowstone and is characterized by hot springs, geysers, and deep canyons. The underwater geysers, fumaroles, and hot springs can be found at the West Thumb, Mary Bay, and Sedge Bay of the lake. Rock spires as high as 20 feet have been recorded under the surface.

  • Dynamic: Yellowstone Lake Is Tilting Southward

The lake is geologically dynamic. The Sour Creek Dome is uplifting by around an inch every year; this is causing Yellowstone Lake to "tilt" southward. That is giving rise to larger sandy beaches to the north shore, while the lake's southern arms can be flooded.

Related: How To Plan A Visit Around Yellowstone's Wildlife Mating, Migration Patterns, and More

Yellowstone Lake Is Freezing

Yellowstone Lake is cold, being frozen for much of the year. In the winter, ice covers the lake with nearly 3 feet of ice (except for shallow water where hot springs bubble into the lake).

The season to explore the lake is quite short; the lake freezes over around early December and remains frozen until late May or early June. But even after it thaws, the lake remains very cold, and the lake is not a good choice for swimming even in the height of summer. The average water temperature of the lake is only 41°F (5°C).

  • Frozen: From December to May or June
  • Temperature: Average Temperature 41°F (5°C)
  • Survival Time: 20-30 Minutes

Because of the freezing temperature of the water, the National Park Service does not recommend swimming. At these temperatures, a person's estimated survival time in the water is only 20 to 30 minutes.

The hottest spot on the lake has been found at Mary Bay. There, temperatures have been recorded as high as 252 °F (122 °C).

Related: Want To Make The Most Of Your Stay In Yellowstone National Park? Consider A Wildlife Tour

Take A Scenic Cruise On The Lake

Come at the right time of year and climb aboard the vessel, Lake Queen II, for a tour of Yellowstone Lake. The tour lasts for an hour and departs from the Bridge Bay Marina. On the trip, one will learn about the history and ecology of the area - keep one's eyes peeled for eagles, shorebirds, and sometimes even elk and bison along the shoreline.

The tour operates daily between June 10 and September 11.

  • Duration: One Hour
  • Season: June 10 to September 11
  • Adult Rate: $19.25
  • Child Rate: $11.25 (Aged 3 to 11)

There are plenty of other options for tours of Yellowstone Lake. There are also multi-day guided kayaking tours of the lake with camping and fishing. The Yellowstone region is a place where one can get lost in exploring its endless natural wonders.


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