Ask Me: The Ultimate Family Tour of Yellowstone
My husband and I live in Missoula with our two boys, ages three and five. We are spending three nights in Yellowstone over Mother’s Day weekend, and it will be our kids’ first visit. Two questions: Any particular Y’stone books you recommend for kids? Also, this is a bit of a silly question, but are there any sites or activities that were unexpectedly or just especially fun?
Thanks for your help and for the inspiration to get outside with the kids even when the thought of packing the car is feeling daunting.
Thanks for getting in touch. I’d be happy to offer some suggestions for what to see with your kids in Yellowstone. I’m glad you asked, actually, because you’ve given me an excuse to post a suggested family tour of Yellowstone in summer (or from spring through fall), which I’ve been wanting to do. I may have more suggestions below than you’ll fit into a long weekend, but I hope this is helpful and gives you ideas for a return visit. Check out the photo slideshow with this post, too.
By the way, our kids’ first trip to Yellowstone was at ages four and two and they loved it. Yours are at a great age to enjoy the park because the landscape there is so active and right in front of you, and so many features require only a short walk to see them. I’ll order my suggestions in a way that makes sense if you’re traveling through the park.
Entering Yellowstone through the North Entrance (via Livingston), you’ll hit Mammoth first. The walk around Mammoth Hot Springs is easy, gorgeous, and pretty cool for kids. Mine were fascinated by all the leaves, sticks, and other vegetative matter that had fallen into the springs and become crystallized. And there are usually elk grazing right in Mammoth village and along the road up to the springs.
The northern road to the Lamar Valley is a great area for seeing wildlife: bison, elk, coyotes, maybe even bears and wolves if you’re lucky. (Winter is actually a better time to see wildlife; when your kids are a little older, you should take them cross-country skiing in Yellowstone, which I think is one of the greatest national park experiences.)
Heading south, Tower Fall is a fairly short hike and impressive, if your kids like waterfalls. The drive over Mt. Washburn and Dunraven Pass gets you to the highest spot on a road in the park, with quite spectacular views. This story I wrote for Backpacker Magazine describes the hike up Mt. Washburn.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River is one of the scenic highlights of the park. I’ve actually been there more times in winter, but spring-summer-fall are cool, too, though busy with tourists there. If your family is up for a 6.4-mile, out-and-back hike, do this one. Otherwise, take the short walk to Artist Point for its killer view of the canyon, and the short walk to Upper Yellowstone Falls. When my kids were little, we walked down Uncle Tom’s Trail, which drops a very steep 500 feet down metal stairs bolted into the cliff to an overlook by Lower Yellowstone Falls–really cool spot, but it’s a strenuous climb back out for little kids. I think my 4-year-old made it and I know I carried my 2-year-old.
Continuing south, plan to pull over in the Hayden Valley and have binoculars, it’s another of the park’s great spots for seeing wildlife. Also, stop and take the walk around the Mud Volcano area, which isn’t as well-known but has wonderful, stinky, belching mud pots.
On our last visit with our kids, just a couple summers ago, I visited the geyser basin at West Thumb for the first time and was blown away by the colors in the thermal features there. Highly recommend it. There was also a good restaurant for lunch in West Thumb, as I recall.
If you had one to three days to spare (perhaps on a later visit), and bring or rent a canoe, paddle across Lewis Lake, pull the canoe up through the slack water connecting Lewis to Shoshone Lake, and then canoe around and camp on Shoshone Lake; it’s a classic, fairly easy backcountry trip in the park (although the wind can pick up and raise whitecaps on Shoshone Lake). The Shoshone Geyser Basin is widely considered the best backcountry geyser basin in Yellowstone. Another classic hike is the overnight out to Heart Lake and the side hike up Mt. Sheridan. Lots of wildlife, including grizzly bears, in that area (it’s typically closed in spring because of bear activity in there), and there’s a nice geyser basin at Heart Lake.
Even though it’s easy for adults to be turned off by the massive crowd, take the kids to watch Old Faithful erupt. We were with other families with young kids for that, all age 2 to 4, and they busted out laughing so hard that all the parents started laughing. Then hike around the Upper Geyser Basin (behind Old Faithful) to see the various geysers, Morning Glory Pool, etc. You may see bison and other wildlife there, too.
I think Grand Prismatic Geyser, in Midway Geyser Basin, is one of the coolest in the park–absolutely kaleidoscopic. Lower Geyser Basin has some belching mud pots, like Fountain Paint Pot, whistling fumaroles, and geysers, too, one of which erupted when my kids were there. As early in the season as you’ll be there, you might see some grizzly bears along the stretch of road between Midway and Lower Geyser Basins. The bear are known to feed on winter-killed elk in there in spring.
The road to West Yellowstone, following the Madison River, is very scenic and a good area to see bald eagles (there’s consistently a nest in a snag along the road there every spring) and watch for trumpeter swans in the river.
Lastly, Norris Geyser Basin is worth taking some time to explore, as this online tour of Norris shows.
To answer your question about books: I don’t remember now what books my kids got at Yellowstone (they’re now 12 and 10), but I do remember the visitor center in Mammoth Hot Springs had a good bookstore, and I’m sure the other visitor centers in the park must, too.
I hope that’s helpful. Let me know if you have other questions, and I’d love to hear how your trip goes. Get in touch anytime. Here’s my opportunity for shameless self-promotion: You might also be inspired by my book, Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks, about taking our kids (at age nine and seven) on a series of national park wilderness adventures. Thanks for following The Big Outside.
Holy cow. That’s a helluva response. My sincere thanks. We are really looking forward to getting out of Dodge and having family time in a beautiful spot. Thanks again for your help.
[In Ask Me, I share and respond to a reader question. Got a question about hiking, backpacking, gear, or any topic or trip I write about at The Big Outside? Send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet it to @MichaelALanza. I will answer the ones I can in a post, using only your first name and city, with your permission.]