My husband and I live in Missoula with our two boys, ages three and five. We are spending three nights in Yellowstone, and it will be our kids’ first visit. 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.
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, stop at Tower Fall and take the short walk to this impressive, 132-foot-tall waterfall plunging below basalt pinnacles, with views of the canyon of the Yellowstone River. The drive over Mount Washburn and Dunraven Pass gets you to the highest spot on a road in the park, with quite spectacular views along the way. The 6.2-mile, round-trip hike up Mount Washburn from Dunraven Pass follows a wide path to the summit, which offers a 360-degree panorama of the entire park.
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The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River is one of the scenic highlights of the park. I like cross-country skiing it in winter, but spring-summer-fall are cool, too, although busy with tourists there. If your family is up for it, hike the fairly flat, 6.4-mile, out-and-back of the North Rim Trail from Inspiration Point (near Canyon) to Upper Yellowstone Falls; you’ll pass several viewpoints of the canyon. (The trail also partly parallels the North Rim Drive, so you can take shorter walks to viewpoints along the trail from parking areas along the road.) One of the highlights is the steep but short (three-quarters-of-a-mile round-trip) spur trail to the very brink of 308-foot-tall Lower Yellowstone Falls (above photo).
Otherwise, take the very short walk to Artist Point for its killer view of the canyon, and the short walk to Upper Yellowstone Falls.
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if you want to find books for young kids, the visitor center in Mammoth Hot Springs has a good bookstore, and I’m sure other visitor centers in the park do, too.
You should read my story “The 10 Best Short Hikes in Yellowstone.”
You might also enjoy 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, including cross-country skiing in Yellowstone.
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.
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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.