in 2016, I went on a family trip to Yellowstone. We made minor adjustments to trips made by the Rosenberg and Grossman families, and without their help in planing and blazing a trail, we would have been too intimidated to go. This post is designed to help guide travelers, especially those with kids, to make planning and visiting Yellowstone a less overwhelming experience.
Yellowstone has something for everyone. There is incredible natural beauty of waterfalls, an enormous lake, mountains, canyons, large meadows and meandering rivers. It has an stammering variety of rare wildlife. To top it off, it’s geological features are otherworldly and certain to appeal to young and old scientists.
First, understand that Yellowstone is vast. It comprises 3,500 square miles, which, to put into perspective, is about 3 Rhode Islands and half of Delaware. It’s roughly 3.5% of the entire state of Wyoming, which is a rather large state. So while nature is best experienced on foot, an essential part of the Yellowstone experience is driving around taking in scenery and searching for animals. Be mindful of this when you are selecting the type of car to rent. It takes four hours to drive top to bottom without stopping, and three hours left to right.
When to Go
Yellowstone gets 4.1M visitors a year, a vast majority in the summer. Many guidebooks warn of traffic jams and instruct parkgoers to pack their hiking boots and loads of patience for traffic. We went at the end of August, leading up to Labor Day. Families that went this week in prior years told us that many kids were already back in school that week, and those that weren’t were at home preparing to return to school with some downtime. They were right. While more popular locations were certainly filled with people, only once did we find ourselves slowed by traffic, and in that case the inconvenience merely added five minutes to our journey. The point is to consider carefully what time of year you go, and be accordingly mindful of the crowds.
We also benefited from a large forest fire that had closed the south entrance for a week, which meant that those who had planned to stay to the south of the park couldn’t get in, and that further reduced the crowds.
Where to Stay
It’s possible to stay in the small towns that have accreted by the various entrances to the park. You’ll find a greater selection of creature comforts as these locations, although each is very “small town” with corresponding hours of operation and limited choices of various local merchants. Staying at an entrance by definition means you are close to some things and very far from others, so it’s not an efficient way to see things in the park given its size.
To simplify the layout of the park, the roads form a large figure eight with two loops stacked on one another. Radiating from these two loops are roads that lead to the five entrances: North, South, East, West and Northeast. That’s really it. There are several junctions in the park that form villages, although “villages” may be too strong a term in some cases. Lodge (non-campsite) accommodations are located at these villages. Each village has a limited number of dining options– anywhere from two to four choices. Because of the size of the park, you can’t just check out dinner in another spot or outside of the park. You are generally stuck with the food options in your village. It’s wise to make dinner reservations when you make your hotel reservations for this reason. If you aren’t able to get dinner reservations, it’s not the end of the world, but you may be eating at the less refined cafeteria and quick-serve-style dining choices.
Canyons is one such junction that is centrally located. We spent three nights at Canyons and it was a good amount of time and it was a good location. Canyons also has two new lodges that were built in the summer of 2016, and two more lodges expected to come online in the fall of 2016. This is welcome since much of the park has older accommodations including rooms with shared bathrooms. We stayed at the Hayden Lodge which was a nice, modern room. Reserving a “superior” room I believe will wind you up in the new lodges. Unfortunately, from the new lodges you have to drive in a car to get to the Canyons “village” where there are dining options, a general store, post office and an information building. It’s a 15min uphill walk otherwise.
See the section below on what to see to give yourself an idea of other locations to stay in at the park.
Keep in mind that every May 1, reservations go on sale for the following year. This means to get the best rooms during the busy summer season, you have to reserve over a year in advance! There are periodic cancellations, and new lodges that they open for reservations throughout the year, but it can be slim pickins if you don’t book far in advance. At the time we booked, there was no fee to cancel as long as you did so 30 days before your arrival date. Within that 30 day window, it was $15 cancellation fee, up until (I think?) 3 days before arrival. I called around all these windows when I wanted to change rooms. We reserved at the beginning of October for a trip that began at the end of August of the following year and got stuck with some rooms that were less than ideal.
Note that no rooms in the park have TVs nor air conditioning nor wifi. We went the last week in August and did not find the lack of A/C to be problem, although we used oscillating fans that were provided in each room each night of our stay.
Also recognize that Yellowstone is at altitude, roughly 7,500-8,000 feet. Naturally, this is relevant for those that are affected by altitude. Expect some bloody noses and fatigue, more labored breathing during exertion and drink lots of water. For comparison, Park City, UT is 6,800, Denver is 5,000 and the top of Vail mountain is 11,500.
Most junctions in the park have gas stations! I am told that the gas is expensive in the park, but I can’t verify it since we had the chance to fill up outside the park a couple of times.
All rooms (except suites) in the park have a maximum occupancy of 4 people. If you have 5 people in your family like us, you have to figure out where someone will sleep since there are no cots or inflatable beds. We brought a sleeping bag and the boys rotated. The park doesn’t like this and at one point, a hotel employee pointed out that we had reserved five people for the Roosevelt dinner but had occupancy in our hotel room of only 4. I changed the subject with a joke.
There are four medical clinics in the park that are open 7 days/week in the summer. They are mostly staffed with nurse practitioners. These clinics carry a simple inventory of medicine, but do not expect anything complicated. For example, our son came down with strep the first day we were in the park. The clinic had chewable and liquid antibiotics, but both were penicillin based, and our son is allergic. We had to drive to Cody, 2.5hrs from Canyons, to get the medicine the next day. None of the pharmacies on the border towns was open on Sunday.
Yellowstone suffers from frequent forest fires in the summer months. The rate and severity of these fires has increased with global warming. You may find various roads closed due to smoke concentration or nearby fires. During our trip, the south entrance to the park was closed for about a week. Although fires may not threaten where you are staying or roads you plan to use, it can produce a smoke haze in the park that can affect your experience or picture taking. During fire activity, you will notice a campfire smell throughout the park. This didn’t bother us (we rather enjoyed it) but those who are sensitive to such things should keep this in mind.
Grizzly bears are an issue in the park, and you have to take them seriously. Making noise while you walk (singing or wearing a cow bell on your pack are suggestions) and carrying bear spray are both recommended. The key is if you are confronted by a bear, walk away slowly. Do not run. A bear’s instinct is to chase you if you run. Easier to type on a blog post than to execute in real life, but this is drilled into you when visiting the park.
The villages at the junctions have limited food options. For example, at Canyons, there is one nice dining room, a cafeteria, a 1960s-style soda/lunch counter and a general store with groceries. The dining room is the nicest, but there can be long waits. I recommend making dinner reservations well in advance of your trip where possible. We made dinner reservations in the dining room of Old Faithful Inn about 7 months in advance and had to choose from lousy times. Canyon’s dining room doesn’t take reservations. Dining rooms had many gluten-free and vegetarian options.
We also bought groceries before entering the park. While each village has a decent-sized general store with a limited set of groceries (think twice what a 7-11 would have), you will spend less and have greater variety buying outside of the park (another reason to have an ample-sized car). Many, but not all, lodge rooms have refrigerators, so check ahead of time. We routinely made breakfast in our room and packed sandwiches for lunch so our schedules weren’t restricted by requiring us to be in a village for lunch.
All roads in Yellowstone are one lane in each direction. Mostly, the speed limit is 45mph, lowering to 35 or 25 in some areas near junctions. Yes, park rangers pull people over for speeding. There are turnoffs occasionally, as well as passing areas to pass a slowpoke. Also keep in mind that it is common for wildlife to be on the road which can cause traffic delays. I was told that some of these delays can go on for hours. Although we did encounter bison on the road twice, we found it easy enough to maneuver around them or wait as they moved along.
You have to be extra alert when driving in the park. First, other cars slow down to see wildlife without warning, and getting rear-ended is very common. We witnessed just such an accident in the park. Second, wildlife crosses the road often, including some that dart out quickly over the road. Finally, there are some brave souls who bike the park, and the roads are not wide enough to accommodate a typical bike lane. Driving at night can be a bit harrowing due to wildlife hanging around on the road that are hard to spot.
If you are interested in biking the park, there is a week where the park shuts down to cars and allows bikers to run rampant. I’d also suggest biking through Jackson Hole, as it has dedicated bike paths and a lot of flat areas in full view of the mountains.
One quickly learns that the best way to find exotic animals in the park is to be on the look out for many parked cars with tourists orienting cameras, scopes and binoculars in the same direction. That said, there were as many moments when we came upon animals by ourselves or with an smaller number of gazing humans.
You need a very good zoom lens for your camera. Mine gets to 300mm but I found at times that wasn’t even powerful enough. Anything more than 300mm, you’ll need a tripod and you’ll be limited to shooting in the daytime with a lot of light. I’m assuming, of course, that you bringing an SLR camera. Don’t expect to capture wildlife with your phone’s camera.
We had decent binoculars for each of the boys, and having them was essential. I recommend teaching your kids how to use them before the trip. It can get really frustrating for your kid when they miss an exciting animal because their binoculars are so unfocused it looks like they are opening their eyes underwater. Even the most powerful binoculars cannot compete with a wildlife scope, however. It’s a telescope designed for watching wildlife (duh), and it gets way closer to subjects than binoculars can. We saw one that had an attachment to connect it to an iphone and record videos. The scopes require tripods, something I didn’t want to bring in carry-on luggage. People were pretty friendly and allowed our kids to use their scopes, to their regret as our kids fought over them and knocked them enough to no longer have them focused on the subject.
During our trip we saw: Grizzly bear, black bear, elk, moose, prong horn deer, big horn sheep, otters, bald eagles, bison, white wolves, black wolves, a red fox, a coyote, hawks, and a ton of more common animals.
We used a guide named Eric from Flying Pig Adventures in Gardiner, MT. He was great. A guide was helpful for several reasons. We opted for the guide to drive us, and while it’s more expensive that way, it allowed me to focus on the landscape and seeing/finding animals rather than avoiding cars, bikes and animals…all while reading a map and scouting for wildlife in meadows. I say it’s more expensive, but we would have had to rent a much larger car for the whole trip to allow for seating for six rather than five, so it probably was cheaper to keep a regular-sized car and have the guide drive. We also started our first day with the guide (the whole day) so we had a good orientation to the park and tips for great hikes for the days following. The guides also know where hard-to-find animals have been in the previous days, and they communicate with other guides, and so they can also be the difference between seeing a grizzly and not.
I had bought two laminated animal sight guides on Amazon before our trip. It allowed our kids to match up animals and their tracks as we explored the park. As we came through the entrances, we were given Junior Ranger booklets and also a game to check off which animals the kids had seen. The Junior Rangers program is really well done and thought out. It encourages kids to explore lots of activities in the park, and keeps them busy with word searches during down times.
Your kids, like ours, may be used to having ipads and devices on long car rides. But because so much of the park is experienced in the car, we made clear early on in the trip that we wanted them to help us spot animals, find areas where there were forest fires, and find steam from hot springs. This helped us break the habit, and the fear of missing an interesting animal was a powerful force to keep each kid with their nose pressed to the glass.
My kids were 10, 9 and 7 on the trip. I thought these were good ages. We were able to choose several hikes that were no more than 1.5mi, with the exception of one that was 3 mi (Old Faithful to Morning Glory and back). The 3mi was too long for my 7 year old. There was no significant elevation on the hikes we chose except Uncle Tom’s. Also keep in mind that for many adventure activities outside of the park, 7 is the bare minimum, and many excursion companies require kids to be 8 or 9 or older.
Splitting up the parents isn’t the greatest option if you only have one car and lousy cell service to rely upon to meet up. We had one circumstance where my wife stayed in the lodge with the youngest and I took the other two on a hike.
When they are older they also tend to know the animals better. Plus they have to be tall enough to see out of the car windows.
You should assume you will not have cell service or wifi in your hotel room. The only place to get reliable Internet is in main lobbies of some of the larger hotels in the park over wifi. Wifi is relatively expensive. Even if you pop on wifi, you may find wifi choked with too much traffic. We found that after 10:30pm, we could get a cellular data connection on our AT&T phones over two-generations-old 3G. Do not assume you can get text messages or place phone calls in the park. I regret not getting two-way radios for our visit in the circumstances where my wife and I had to split up and could not rely on text messaging as we normally do. We were told that Verizon has better coverage in the park, but again, don’t rely on this. For someone like me who finds it hard to disconnect from email while on vacation, I found it refreshing to have no choice but to step back from my electronic leash.
Keep in mind that this means navigation apps in the park are useless. You may be able to download the map to use offline, but it’s best to plan to use a paper park map– GASP– like the olden days. AAA also has a Yellowstone/Wyoming map we found indispensable.
The NPS had a program where 4th graders (and their families) were admitted into any national park for free. We printed out a voucher on the NPS website and saved $50. I know they continued this program in 2017, so check before you go. If you plan to visit both Yellowstone and Tetons, you can buy a cheaper, combined pass. The ranger stations at the major park entrances are open 24 hours a day, so don’t worry about trying to get a pass beforehand.
Sites and Activities
MUST SEE-Yellowstone Canyon, 7 minutes away from Canyons Village (hence the name). The Canyon has two falls, upper and the more impressive lower falls. I recommend seeing the canyon from several vantage points:
– Artist Point. This is the most stunning view straight down the canyon and an iconic view of Yellowstone. Easy walk from the parking lot.
– North Rim drive is the easiest, it’s no effort to see the lower falls and the canyon from the top.
– Uncle Tom’s Trail. This is a very steep trail lowering you into the canyon right next to the falls. It’s a very strenuous climb of 308 stairs (about a 15 storey building) back up, so be prepared. Remember, Yellowstone is at 8K feet in altitude, so consider this when assessing the fitness level of your group.
MUST SEE- Canyons is a short drive to Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley, which are the best places to see animals in the park from your car or short hikes. Even if you do not see any animals, the scenery is breath-taking.
From Old Faithful Area
MUST SEE – Old Faithful
Old Faithful is not the tallest nor the most reliable geyser in Yellowstone. Nonetheless, it is the most famous and popular. The nearby information center is a small and fabulous museum that is especially good for kids.
MUST SEE – Morning Glory
Morning Glory is an extremely colorful and deep pool that is 1.5 miles from Old Faithful. It’s worth the walk (entirely on boardwalks and very flat). Along the way, there are a number of geysers. Castle and Grand Geyser were the most impressive when not erupting. Beehive was the most impressive that we saw erupt, but it only goes off twice a day.
MUST SEE – Old Faithful Inn
the Old Faithful Inn was built in 1904 from timber in the park. It’s possibly the largest log building in the world. In addition to the impressive outside, the lobby is 7-stories high and very impressive. It’s also worth poking your head in the dining room. The second-floor balcony in the front of the building is one of the best vantage points to see Old Faithful.
MUST SEE – Grand Prismatic Spring – Midway Geyser Basin
A short drive from Old Faithful is the Grand Prismatic Spring. It’s a very large, near-boiling pool of water with colors that are hard to believe. It’s the picture featured at the top of this post. Like a lot of features in the park, it looks other-worldly. It’s slightly uphill but only about a half mile from the parking lot to the spring. There is a pool you pass on the way that is boiling and has incredible deep blue color.
From Lake Junction
MUST SEE – Lake Yellowstone is the highest-altitude lake in North America. It partially fills a volcanic cauldron that at one time covered most of the park. The lake is too cold, even in the summer months, to permit swimming. What’s crazy is that at the very bottom of the lake, the water is boiling driven by the magma that once spewed from the volcano. There are some canoe and kayak options but no motor boats are allowed.
MUST SEE – Butte Overlook. The Butte Overlook is a short drive from the main road. As the name implies, it overlooks Lake Yellowstone and it’s an impressive view.
Good things to see but not Must Sees
Tower Falls (worth a short walk from parking lot to see). 14 miles from Canyons and 2 miles from Roosevelt Lodge
5 minutes past Tower Falls is a junction called Roosevelt. It has a small lodge there and is famous for Teddy Roosevelt staying there while he was president. Roosevelt has a horse stable and offers horseback rides and a wagon cookout. We did the wagon cookout, and it was fun for the kids but perhaps too touristy if it were just adults. You load up in these horse drawn wagons (which hold 30 people each, so not so quaint) and you ride off into a nearby meadow (during our trip, the meadow was filled with 40 bison) where you get a steak dinner cooked for you. It’s combined with the horseback riders, and perhaps our trip had 250 guests, so while they attempt to simulate an outdoor and rustic experience, it’s hard to deliver that vibe at that scale. The kids enjoyed it though.
Mammoth, which is by the north entrance, is worth visiting for its terraced hot springs. It also has many historic buildings and houses the central administration for the park. For people flying into Bozeman or Billings, it’s a natural way to enter the park and worth stopping to see. Mammoth is roughly 2 hours from Canyons and not worth a separate four hour round trip.
Artists Paint Pots. Gurgling and bubbling mud pots, including several with vibrant colors. Also includes a splashing and boiling water pool that has been that way for 15,000 years.
Mud Volcano. This is a gurgling, boiling slurry of sulfuric acid and dissolved rock. Hard to believe it’s earth. Dragon’s Head is also near by.
Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park is all about the Grand Teton mountain range. We found most of our activities were about seeing the mountains from different vantage points and taking pictures. There are many fewer animals in Grand Tetons, but they are out there, particularly around Kelly and the Mormon Row.
MUST DO – Jenny Lake
Jenny Lake abuts the mountains, and the 7 mile loop is a very popular and picturesque hike. Because that is a long hike for our kids, we drove the Jenny Lake drive and turned off and hiked part of the trail. It was away from the crowds, and was just enough for the kids.
MUST DO – Schwabacher Road
On a gravel road turn off from the main road is Schwabacher Road. Park at the second to last turn-out. The last one is a boat-launch. From the second turn-out is a short half mile hike along a river where you get views of the Tetons framed by trees and reflected on the river. There are also many beaver dams and lodges here.
Good things to see but not Must Sees
Mormon Row includes old Mormon homesteads that include old wooden barns. The Tetons rise behind the prairie the homesteads occupy and it makes for insane pictures.
We went on a whitewater rafting trip in Jackson on the Snake River. Many companies will require kids be 8 or older, but our company took our almost-7-year old. I think this is because in the late summer, the river is a lot calmer than in the spring. Although many companies offer a calm float down the river to see animals, we saw a ton of animals (bald eagle, otters, sheep) and got the thrill of the whitewater.
We also went on a horseback ride up a mountain that had great views of the Tetons. They also took our almost-7 year old. We had a good experience with Mill Iron Ranch.
There are a lot fewer adventure companies in either park, since their operation is restricted. There is some horseback riding at Roosevelt Lodge in Yellowstone and perhaps one or two other areas. This is why we did all our adventure stuff in Jackson.
Our trip was from August 27th through Sept 2.
We flew from Chicago to Bozeman, MT via United, connecting in Denver.
We rented a car in Bozeman and after picking up groceries, drove to the north entrance to the Park in Gardiner. It was about an hour drive from the airport to the entrance. In addition to being one of the fastest ways to get into the park from a decent-sized airport, it also allowed us to go from north to south without having to double back, knowing we wanted to end the trip in the “more-civilized” Jackson, WY.
We then spent three nights in a superior lodge room at Canyons. This was a good amount of time given how much can be seen from Canyons. We then drove south and west to Old Faithful where we stayed in the in a 2-queen room with a bathroom in Old Faithful Inn for one night and a suite in the same place for another night. Any more time by Old Faithful and it would have been overkill. Geysers are neat but after the 6th one, you get the idea.
From there, we drove south out of the park and into Grand Teton National Park. The two parks are adjacent.
We stayed at the Wort Hotel in Jackson for two nights. It’s an historic hotel, opened in the 1940s. Check out all the silver dollars that compose the bar in the connected restaurant. It’s relatively easy to access Grand Teton National Park from Jackson, and I figured at this stage in the trip that the family would appreciate access to a greater variety of modern comforts. Jackson is a really cute town with plenty of eating options. The more popular restaurants require reservations. Jackson is also a good launching point for adventure outings. Some people stay in Teton Village. This is the village at the base of the Jackson Hole ski area. There are ropes courses for kids, a gondola ride, and similar adventure activities that can be found out of Jackson. Although Jackson is no bargain, the village is very expensive. There are fewer dining options there, but you are trading that for being much closer to the entrance to the park.
We flew out of Jackson Airport, which has direct flights to Chicago.
I hope you have found this helpful, and if you choose to go, please send along your tips to add!