The Ultimate Family Tour of Yellowstone

By Michael Lanza

Every American should see Yellowstone—and not just for the historical significance of it being the world’s first national park. Few places in the United States still host the range of wildlife thriving in Yellowstone: You are likely to see numerous bison and elk, bald eagles, osprey, possibly wolves, maybe black and grizzly bears (usually from a distance), and trumpeter swans among the park’s 285 species of birds. With more than 10,000 thermal features including hot springs and more than half the planet’s geysers, and nearly 300 waterfalls, it often feels like the park is putting on a live performance.

Arguably best of all, many of Yellowstone’s signature natural features, as well as abundant wildlife, can be seen on short walks—making a trip to see this fascinating landscape ideal for families with children of all ages and anyone willing to walk 15 to 30 minutes, or an hour or more to see a bit more of some areas. My kids have seen Yellowstone several times, dating back to their first visit at ages four and two, and they loved it even then.

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A hot spring in Midway Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park.
A hot spring in Midway Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park.

This article will list my expert tips—based on numerous trips to Yellowstone over more than three decades—for a tour of the park’s top features that can be seen on short walks, with a few tips for longer excursions thrown in. See also “The 10 Best Hikes in Yellowstone.”

I’ll order my suggestions below in a way that makes sense if you’re driving through the park. Please share your questions, comments, or suggestions about Yellowstone in the comments section at the bottom of this story; I try to respond to all comments.

A hiker watching sunrise at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park.
A hiker watching sunrise at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park.

Mammoth Hot Springs

Entering Yellowstone through the North Entrance (via Livingston), begin your visit at Mammoth first. The walk around Mammoth Hot Springs is easy, gorgeous, and engaging for kids.

At grade-school age, my children were fascinated by the steam billowing from the springs and all the leaves, sticks, and other vegetative matter that had fallen into the hot water and become crystallized. And there are usually elk grazing right in Mammoth village and around the hot springs.

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Northern Yellowstone

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 our kids were school age, we took 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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At the brink of Lower Yellowstone Falls, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, Yellowstone National Park.
At the brink of Lower Yellowstone Falls, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, Yellowstone National Park.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

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 wonderful, too, although busy with tourists in summer. 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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Like this story? You may also like my “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids
and “The 10 Best Family Outdoor Adventure Trips.”

See “The 10 Best Short Hikes in Yellowstone” and all stories about Yellowstone National Park at The Big Outside.

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.

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13 thoughts on “The Ultimate Family Tour of Yellowstone”

  1. Michael wonderful advice. Yellowstone is special. My wife and I joined our daughter and grand daughters, aged six and eleven in July 2018. We visited many of the sites you recommend. Our girls live in Florida making Yellowstone, along with Craters of the Moon, Grand Teton, Lewis and Clark and Glacier, was a real change of scenery. They saw deer, bison, elk, Pronghorn, coyotes and a black bea plus myriad bird life.

    Our daughter had her oldest do research of Yellowstone including identifying several waterfalls to visit, animals to identify, etc. Helping her complete her assignment was a blast, and informative. As was helping both girls complete their respective Junior Ranger programs.

    Exploring special places like Yellowstone should be on everyone’s must do list. But please follow the driving and stopping rules on the Park’s roadways. Countless times we saw drivers stop in the middle of the two lane roadway, all four doors fly open and people of all ages piling out to gawk at wildlife. Yikes!


  2. If you’re travelling with kids who are good swimmers, there’s no greater thrill than jumping into the short rapids at the swimming hole on the Firehole River (on the Firehole Canyon Drive). Went there with my 13 year old niece and she spent hours just jumping into the rapids and letting them shoot her down the 20 yard run – she had almost as much as fun as I did! Better than any water park!

  3. Awesome family focused article! I love hearing about the not so mainstream places to go! Those are usually the best! Keep up the good work Michael, it is much appreciated!!

    • Our family has been to Yellowstone only once, but it was a great time. Our kids were seven and nine during the summer of 2013. We really enjoyed staying at the Madison campground. When we were tired at the end of the day, we could relax by the river and just slowly meander it. We also stayed at Bridge Bay, but there wasn’t room to explore. Our kids enjoyed the drive between Norris Geyser Basin and Mammoth because it seemed like the scenery was constantly changing. We waded in a lot of rivers and rated them on their temperature. Firehole was the warmest by far! We had fun exploring a lot of side roads. We will definitely go there again!