Paddleboarding on Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park, Montana
Millions of years ago, massive glaciers carved up a huge slice of what we call northwest Montana, forming craggy peaks, striking cirques, and U-shaped valleys that would later house long, deep lakes. Eventually, this stretch of wilderness became Glacier National Park: a living testament to the power of ice and time. In that way, you might think of Glacier’s 700-odd lakes, nestled, jewel-like, amidst the peaks, as souvenirs from the last Ice Age. Of all the lakes, perhaps none is more stunning than Lake McDonald. Even on the Montana scale, Lake McDonald is massive, with a shoreline nearly 10 miles long, water 464 feet deep, and a surface area of 6,823 acres—over six times the size of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
Apgar Rentals, on McDonald’s south shore, rents out paddleboards. Rent a board, don a life jacket, and you can paddle directly into a postcard-perfect scene where lilac peaks ring the clear water and verdant expanses of ponderosa pine and western red cedar trace the shoreline. Love what you see? Look down, and you’ll view the whole splendid scene reflected in the glass-smooth water beneath your toes.
Would you rather sit back and drink in the scenery from aboard a historic boat? Good news! The family-owned Glacier Park Boat Company operates daily tours on Lake McDonald plus Two Medicine and St. Mary Lake at Rising Sun. You might catch the DeSmet, a cheery white vessel built in 1930, for an hour-long ride on Lake McDonald, or board the 94 year-old Sinopah to glide across Two Medicine Lake, where you’ll learn about Blackfeet history en route to a waterfall hike.
Floating the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Wyoming is, in many ways, quintessentially Western. It’s the Cowboy State, after all, home to Cheyenne Frontier Days, Butch Cassidy’s one-time hideout, and the town founded by Buffalo Bill Cody himself. So it seems apt that Grand Teton National Park offers an activity that ticks a lot of “quintessential West” boxes: floating down the Snake River.
The Snake, which takes its name from the Snake (or Shoshone) tribe, originates within Yellowstone along the Continental Divide and, after leaving the park, winds across Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington, feeding into another of the West’s great waterways: the mighty Columbia. Eight outfitters run float trips along a placid stretch of the Snake between Deadman’s Bar and Moose. For peak Western-ness, reserve a spot on Triangle X’s special dinner float, which kicks off with a hearty chuckwagon-style meal waterside. Once you’re aboard the raft, the real magic begins, as you glide beneath the craggy Tetons—they look close enough to touch!—and the brilliant golden-hour sky. Just remember to tear your eyes away from the peaks now and then; this area shelters moose and elk, bison and bald eagles: all the West’s best, all at once, before you.
If you’d like to play captain for an afternoon, head to Signal Mountain Marina on the shore of Jackson Lake. You’ll need to do a bit of advance footwork (calling to reserve a boat, purchasing a boat permit from Recreation.gov), but it will all pay off when you feel the wind in your hair as you fly across Jackson Lake on your own runabout or pontoon boat. Like the Snake River, Jackson Lake draws lots of wildlife, from elk on—yes, Elk Island—to pelicans savoring fresh-caught fish. It’s a wild place, agrees Marina Manager Chris Plum. “Every once in a while, we’ll see a bear swimming to and from the island across from us.”