Table of Contents[Hide][Show]
- Touring with Austin Adventures
- Start in a Cowboy Town
- The Irma Hotel
- Rafting on the Shoshone River
- On to Yellowstone!
- The Wonders of a Yellowstone Tour
- Small is Better
- Austin Adventures Tour Guides
- Driving Beartooth Highway
- Red Lodge, Montana
- More about Austin Adventures
- What is a Family Tour?
- How Much Does an Austin Adventures Yellowstone Tour Cost?
Traveling like a cowboy through the American West is easy with Austin Adventures. There’s no need to sleep out under the stars, but there is pleny of hiking, wildlife, white water rafting and even a little horseback riding. And there are snacks. Oh so many snacks.
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Touring with Austin Adventures
For a city slicker like me, the idea of a family vacation to Yellowstone National Park can be a bit intimidating. I hike, but it’s through county-owned forest preserves that are home to squirrels, opossums and deer, all at a flatlander-friendly 500 feet of elevation. That’s nothing like hiking through rugged national forest that is home to bison, wolves and bears at 8,000+ elevation.
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Enter the high-end family tour operator, Austin Adventures. The company was named one of Travel + Leisure’s top 5 family tour companies in 2015. Austin runs tours to Yellowstone weekly in the summer, so the company’s guides know just where to go to find the bison, wolves and bears. They are willing to go to great lengths to educate guests.
Here, our guide, Sam Friedland, demonstrates in the most cringe-worthy way how to know whether bear poop comes from a male or female bear:
Even more importantly, the Austin guides know how to keep visitors safe while watching those majestic animals in their wild habitat. And the guides know that snacks can make or break a trip. So our guide kept those gummy fruit snacks coming.
Start in a Cowboy Town
Our tour left from Billings, Montana, the home of Austin Adventures and one of five gateways into Yellowstone National Park, where we would spend the bulk of our trip. First stop: Cody, Wyoming, the town that Buffalo Bill Cody built. Literally.
The town still revels in its cowboy history. Each night, there’s a campy cowboy play in the street outside the hotel that Buffalo Bill built: The Irma, named after his youngest daughter. The play is free, although there are folding chairs that rent for $2 each. We stood and watched for a bit as the cowboys and saloon girls bandied back and forth, shot their guns and ended up in jail.
Dinner at the Irma beckoned before we saw how the silliness ended, but if you’re on a family trip, plan to stick around.
The Irma Hotel
One of the few missteps on this trip was to book us into the new Cody Hotel for the night. The hotel was fine, but generic. Staying at the historic Irma Hotel would have added a bit more cowboy history to the tour. The hotel oozes history, but has been updated to include niceties like private baths. Room rates range from $225 in high season to less than $100 per night in the winter. There are family rooms with a queen bed and two twins.
The charming Old West rooms have big windows that look out over Cody’s main street. Even better, it’s haunted. At least Room 35 is haunted, according to Michael Darby, whose family has owned the hotel since 1989.
Even if you don’t stay at the Irma, book a reservation for dinner. You can order off the menu, or just eat from the prime rib buffet. The food is only OK; the big draw here is the historic dining room.
It’s dominated by a gorgeous carved wood bar that runs the length of the dining room. The bar was given to Buffalo Bill by Queen Victoria in appreciation for the many Wild West shows Bill brought to England. The cherry wood bar was built in France, shipped to New York by steamer, then put on a train to nearby Red Lodge and finally delivered to Cody by horse and wagon.
TravelingMom Tip: The dining room is filled with taxidermied animal heads — which my animal-loving daughter would have hated. Warn your kids before you go in.
Rafting on the Shoshone River
Active adventures can mean many things — biking 50 miles a day, hiking a mountain trail or kayaking a raging river. Kayaking is always my adventure of choice. We didn’t do that, but we did do the next best thing: A whitewater river trip with the family-owned Wyoming River Trips.
In mid-September, the Shoshone was a pretty tame river. But I can image that in the spring, when the mountain snows melt, the river gives a good ride. Even the tame ride managed to get us all wet. Owner Rick Blanchard says he takes his 3-year-old grandson, but I would say only the most adventurous preschoolers would enjoy the trip. Ages 6 and up is probably a better bet.
On to Yellowstone!
After a quick stop at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, we headed on to the main event: Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone was the first national park in the United States, and it’s a not-to-be-missed place.
I’ve been there before — a 6-hour visit that I think of as a “Yellowstone drive-by.” We did what the majority of Yellowstone visitors do: We watched Old Faithful erupt and walked the boardwalk to see the colors at Grand Prismatic. There were no bears and we didn’t even break a sweat on the walk.
Traveling like a cowboy on a Yellowstone family adventure trip with Austin means bears and (sometimes) breaking a sweat.
The Wonders of a Yellowstone Tour
The big advantage of taking a tour through Yellowstone is having the benefit of a seasoned guide. However, any tour is only as good as its guide. Ours was the sweet and solicitous Sam Friedland, who is wise and competent well beyond his 24 years. And, as the video shows, he is willing to go to extremes to educate and entertain.
His many trips in Yellowstone made him an expert on where to find the bears, bison, wolves, moose, pronghorn sheep, grizzlies, elk, mountain goats, ducks and chipmonks (the favorite of our Latvian traveling partner who squealed with delight each time we saw one of the cute little guys).
Small is Better
There were only five of us on the tour — all travel writers — so Sam was willing and able to be flexible. When we voted to get up before the sun in the hope of seeing the wolves, he got up even earlier to load the van with snacks and pick us up at the hotel. When he talked about the beauty of Grand Prismatic Spring, we opted to detour for a look, even though it wasn’t on the tour.
Obviously, last-minute schedule changes aren’t always possible. In fact, I consider that the big downside of most tours. Generally, there’s a plan for the tour and you stick to it, no matter what. But Austin Adventures offers custom tours for, say, a multigenerational family vacation. When you fill the van, you can make changes to the itinerary.
Austin Adventures Tour Guides
A regular Austin Adventures tour would have two guides, one of whom would always be working in the background to ensure the trip is running smoothly and provide what Austin calls “wow” moments.
Our small tour was all on Sam. He was part educator, part entertainer, part butler, part driver and all service. He was always thinking and adjusting to our needs. He even made an end-of-trip playlist for us on Spotify, called “Beartooth Sunrise.”
And, of course, he went well beyond the expected with that never-to-be-forgotten lesson on how to know whether that bear scat came from a male or female bear. (Yes, you really should watch that video above, if you haven’t already.)
Throughout the trip, Sam provided engaging commentary and useful information about Yellowstone. And he set up the wow moments — like the day we stopped to get photos of the sunset and turned around to find him standing with a silver tray full of gummy treats, our snack of choice.
Every morning, the van was stocked with snacks. Every afternoon, he would disapper into what we came to call his “bag of tricks” (the Austin Adventures trailer), crafting a surprise for us–from cheese and crackers to a guitar and harmonica that he turned into an impromptu concert on the shores of an alpine lake.
Driving Beartooth Highway
Whenever I’m out West — driving the Black Hills of South Dakota, being mesmerized by the wonder of the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone — I try to think like a cowboy. What must the early pioneers have thought as they rode their horses across the Great Plaines when they hit the Grand Canyon? Or saw the steam rise from the ground in Yellowstone?
I thought about that a lot as we drove the Beartooth Highway out of Yellowstone to Red Lodge, Montana. It’s 68.7 miles of twisting, turning beauty from the northeast entrance of Yellowstone to Red Lodge, Montana. We reveled in every mile.
Sam timed our drive out of Yellowstone so we could watch the sun set on the ride to Red Lodge. It was so breathtaking that we lobbied for a return trip the next morning to watch the sun rise and see the mountain peaks of the Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness and the Beartooth Pass that we missed after darkness fell.
TravelingMom Tip: The Beartooth Highway (also known as Highway 212) reaches elevations of more than 12,000 feet and the weather can shift from sunny and warm to cold and snowy in a day. With hairpin turns hugging the side of the mountains, a snowstorm will close the road (as it did the week before we drove it). Check to make sure the pass is open before you start driving and bring hats, gloves and warm coats if you want to get out and explore along the way.
Red Lodge, Montana
We ended our cowboy adventure in Red Lodge with — what else? — a horseback ride. This one was led by a real cowboy and was one of the best horseback rides I’ve had. While I am not horse expert, I’ve ridden enough to know that most horseback rides are slightly boring nose-to-tail saunters through well worn trails. The horse knows the ropes and couldn’t care less about the rider on his or her back.
But this ride with Elk River Outfitters wound through hilly countryside. We even forded Rock Creek, a stream that was deep enough we had to take our feet out of the stirrups to stay dry. Then my horse gamely plowed up the steep bank on the other side. When I asked him to pick up the pace, he did. When I asked him to stop, he did that too.
We were rewarded with another scenic vista at the top of the rise — a view of the seven mountain ranges that surround Red Lodge.
More about Austin Adventures
The Montana-based Austin Adventures offers small group adventure vacations for families from Alaska to Africa. But if you want to feel like a cowboy, choose one of the trips to Yellowstone, Grand Canyon or Grand Teton National parks.
What is a Family Tour?
Founder Dan Austin has been in the travel business since 1997. He still runs the travel company with his wife and two kids. Some Austin tours are clearly marked as family friendly, some are adults only.
The Yellowstone trip is family-friendly. Our guide said the tour is best for kids ages 6 and up, although I would think ages 8-11 would be best. The tour involves several hours spent riding in a van. Even seeing the wildlife requires patience, stillness and quiet. We spent an hour watching wolves waking up to the day through a powerful magnifying scope. We whispered and moved only enough to keep warm. Not surprisingly, there were no children with us there.
TravelingMom Tip: This tour would be great for teens, but you may need to prepare them ahead of time. Most of the park is out of cell range and we found wifi only near the Yellowstone hotels. So they will be offline most of the trip which is, of course, a mixed blessing.
How Much Does an Austin Adventures Yellowstone Tour Cost?
The 2020 tour prices are $2,898 for adults. Children’s prices start at $2,318. The price includes lodging, most meals, gratuties for local guides and all park entrance fees. It does not include transportation to the starting point (Bozeman, MT), alcoholic drinks, travel insurance or tips for the hard-working Austin Adventure guides. (The suggested tip is $100-$150 for a 6-day trip. Sam deserved that and more.)
TravelingMom Tip: You should ALWAYS buy travel insurance, especially for adventure travel like this. You never know what can happen. I buy Allianz Travel Insurance for my family. I highly recommend it for yours, too.