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Ask Me: The Ultimate Family Tour of Yellowstone

Ask Me: The Ultimate Family Tour of Yellowstone

Hi Michael-

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.

Take care,
Laurie
Missoula

 

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

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

Hi Laurie,

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.

 


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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 brink of 308-foot-tall Lower Yellowstone Falls, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River.

The brink of Lower Yellowstone Falls, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River.

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.

 

Check out my “10 Tips For Getting Your Teenager Outdoors With You
and “My Top 10 Family Outdoor Adventures.”

 

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. My four-year-old made it and, of course, I carried my two-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.

 

Abyss Pool, West Thumb Geyser Basin, Yellowstone.

Abyss Pool, West Thumb Geyser Basin, Yellowstone.

On our last visit with our kids, I visited the West Thumb Geyser Basin for the first time and was blown away by the colors in the thermal features there. Highly recommend it. There are a couple of good restaurants in Grant Village, too.

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 Mount Sheridan. Lots of wildlife, including grizzly bears, in that area (it’s typically closed in spring because of bear activity), and there’s a nice geyser basin at Heart Lake.

 

Plan your next great backpacking trip in Yosemite, Grand Teton, or other parks using my expert e-guides.

 

Old Faithful, Yellowstone

Old Faithful

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 two to four, and they busted out laughing so hard that all the parents started laughing. Then hike around the Upper Geyser Basin to see the various geysers, Morning Glory Pool, etc. You may see bison and other wildlife there, too.

The kaleidoscopic Grand Prismatic Spring, in Midway Geyser Basin, is one of my favorite spots in the park. The 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. In spring, you might see grizzly bears along the stretch of road between Midway and Lower Geyser Basins. The bears 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); 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.

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 Ask Me post describing “The 10 Best Short Hikes in Yellowstone.”

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, 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.

Thanks for following The Big Outside.

Best,
Michael

Hi Michael,

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.

Take care,
Laurie

 

I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life.

Got questions about hiking, backpacking, planning a family adventure, or any trip I’ve written about at The Big Outside? Email me at michael@thebigoutside.com. I’ll answer your questions to help ensure your trip is a success. See my Ask Me page for details.

—Michael Lanza

 

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About The Author

Michael Lanza

A former field editor for Backpacker Magazine, Michael Lanza created The Big Outside to share stories and images from his many backpacking, hiking, and other outdoor adventures, as well as expert tips and gear reviews to help readers plan and pull off their own great adventures.

12 Comments

  1. John Kelly

    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!

    Cheers

    Reply
  2. John Kelly

    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!

    Cheers

    Reply
  3. Joe

    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!

    Reply
  4. Joe

    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!

    Reply
  5. Paul

    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!!

    Reply
    • Brenda Kadrmas

      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!

      Reply
      • michaellanza

        Nice story, Brenda. Thanks for sharing it.

        Reply
  6. Paul

    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!!

    Reply
    • Brenda Kadrmas

      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!

      Reply
      • michaellanza

        Nice story, Brenda. Thanks for sharing it.

        Reply

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Hi, I'm Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside and former Northwest Editor at Backpacker magazine. Click my photo to learn more about me and my blog. Sign up for my free email newsletter in the blue box above. Click on Subscribe Now! in the main menu (top right) to get full access to all of my stories on America's best backpacking, hiking, and outdoor adventures. And click on Ask Me in the main menu to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

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