The National Parks TravelingMom plays favorites. She loves one park more than the rest. Twenty years ago she packed up a pick-up with hand-me-down camping gear to explore Yellowstone with a boyfriend. The gear got dumped, but the boyfriend survived the most poorly planned road trip ever. Her love for Yellowstone prevails and she now shares it as a family of five, including that old boyfriend with the bad gear. Read on for her top tips and the ultimate family guide to Yellowstone National Park, including a tip for best tour company.
In a park bigger than the state of Rhode Island, Yellowstone National Park embodies the spirit of the West. Grandparents and grandkids spend a quiet moment together as they spot a bison in one of Yellowstone’s valleys. Moms and sons learn about volcanic activity and geothermal hotspots during a ranger program. Dads and daughters frame up a wildflower while learning how to shoot macro shots with a camera. More than a park, Yellowstone is an experience. Where kids forget about their phones, but remember each other in a maze of lodgepole pines, spewing geysers and free-roaming bison. Read on for the ultimate family guide to Yellowstone National Park to help plan your trip.
Ultimate Family Guide to Yellowstone National Park
Top Places to Explore in Yellowstone National Park
Old Faithful Inn
Old Faithful Geyser
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
Lamar or Hayden Valley
Mammoth Hot Springs
Yellowstone National Park was the first national park in the world. Created in 1872, it’s an American icon worthy of a park pilgrimage. So irreplaceable, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, attracting visitors from around the world. Since it’s in the northwest corner of Wyoming nearly everyone you meet is from somewhere else.
Family Fun in Yellowstone
Yellowstone is the ideal national park to explore as a family, or even as a multi-generational trip. Since it offers so many activities, from hiking to rafting, to animal spotting to guided tours, extended groups can enjoy different activities on the same trip.
With lodging and camping clustered in villages, extended families can choose to camp or stay in historic luxury suites within walking distance of each other. Meet your family for a tour or dinner, even the nicest restaurant within Yellowstone National Park is hiking boot friendly.
Yellowstone National Park’s concessionaires offer a range of activities and tours. Vacations are the ideal time to learn a new hobby or rediscover an old passion, like a photo safari or wildlife viewing tour.
History of Yellowstone National Park
On March 1, 1872, Yellowstone National Park became the first national park in the world. An idea that’s flourished across the world.
Though Yellowstone’s significance began long before. Approximately two million years ago, a super volcano erupted in Yellowstone forming a caldera, or basin. Find it in center of Yellowstone National Park measuring 45 miles across, now home to the largest concentration of geysers in the world.
The railroad arrived at the northern edge of the park in 1883. Then the first roads started to bisect the park allowing visitors more access to the geothermal features and the animals. More people meant more building with Lake Yellowstone Hotel and Old Faithful Inn a few of the surviving early lodges.
Yellowstone National Park was on the western frontier. So the U.S. Army built a fort to keep the law and chase away the poachers in the early years.
Organized Tours of Yellowstone
National Parks vacations aren’t easy to plan. I know, I’ve planned dozens for my family over the last decade. It takes me months of research and reservations at top lodges are nearly impossible to secure.
Hey good for the national parks, it sets attendance records year over year. But what about your trip?
If you don’t have time to plan a Grand Tour of Yellowstone then arrange a trip with a tour operator, like Austin Adventures with 25 years of experience.
Advantages of Austin Adventures
- Austin Adventures makes all the lodging and dining reservations. Some lodges, like Old Faithful Inn, fill 13 months in advance.
- They know the best hikes to optimize your time and experience.
- Since the tour guides spend the season in the park, they know when and where to find animals.
- Organized activities that appeal to the young and young-at-heart, like rafting and zip lines.
- Hit the highlights of Yellowstone National Park while letting someone else do the driving.
- End the trip with a pizza party for the kids and a gourmet meal just for the adults.
Families don’t have enough time together and planning time away soon turns into a job itself. Austin Adventures handles the details and logistics so adults can relax and enjoy time together.
Austin Adventures also knows kids will survive without their devices attached to the hands. Put a kid on a zip line or a whitewater raft and the phone is forgotten. Families want trips that they remember and Austin Adventures does that in Yellowstone.
Old Faithful Inn
Opening its doors on June 1, 1904, Old Faithful Inn is a symbol of Yellowstone. Built of local forest products, a young architect Robert Reamer dreamed up the idea of bringing the forest indoors.
As a result of his whimsical design and hand-crafted details, Old Faithful Inn is an Architectural landmark and one of the top notable buildings in the U.S.
Personally, it’s one of my favorite hotel stays of my career. It’s a delightful space and I enjoyed spending the evening listening to the live music that fills the cavernous lobby, seven-stories tall.
If not staying in the Old Faithful Inn, walk through or better yet take a free tour. The second floor offers a coffee and cocktail bar. Grab a drink and head to the outside balcony to enjoy Old Faithful Geyser erupt.
What to do at Old Faithful Area
- Walk through Old Faithful Inn
- See Old Faithful Geyser erupt
- Walk through Old Faithful Visitor Education Center
- Hike to the Morning Glory Pool, a 2.8-mile round trip path
Old Faithful Geyser
Hike through the Upper Geyser Basin to see the world’s largest concentration of geysers in the world. Yellowstone’s hydrothermal features demonstrate its volcanic energy with three powerful eruptions over the last two million years.
With Magna close to the surface, see the water bubble and boil away in the Upper Geyser Basin. Geysers are the star of the geothermal show when they blow water and steam over a hundred feet into the air.
Old Faithful Geyser erupts on average about every 90 minutes, though the range can be 50 to 127 minutes. With an eruption that lasts for 1.5 minutes to over 5 minutes, each eruption spews at least 3,700 gallons of water over a hundred feet into the air.
Check out other interesting geothermal features in the Upper Geyser Basin.
- Hot Springs—Pools of hot water in an array of colors
- Fumaroles—A steam vent without a lot water
- Mudpots—Hot sulfuric acid breaks down the rock into a smelly clay that bubbles on the surface.
- Check in at the Ranger Station for the approximate geyser eruption times for Old Faithful, Castle and Grand geysers.
- Stay on the paths and boardwalks in Yellowstone’s geothermal areas.
- Kids might be sensitive to the sulfuric acid smell.
Lake Yellowstone Area
Visit the largest high-elevation lake in North America. With fishing or scenic boat cruises, spend some time near or on the water. Take a moment to walk through the grand, historic Lake Yellowstone Hotel, that opened in 1891 and remains the oldest hotel in the National Park Service.
Top Activities in the Lake Area
- Take a free historic tour of Lake Yellowstone Hotel.
- Climb in one of Yellowstone’s historic yellow buses for a scenic tour.
- Take a scenic boat cruise on the Lake Queen to see Stevenson Island and a shipwreck.
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
When I say Grand Canyon, most Yellowstone visitors think of Arizona. Yellowstone National Park boasts a canyon more than 1,000 feet deep, but the Arizona Grand Canyon doesn’t feature the pair of waterfalls that make this a must for Yellowstone National Park.
The overall length of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is over 20 miles and the width from one rim to another is over 4,000 feet across.
Hiking at Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon
Artist Point—The most photographed spot in Yellowstone.
Uncle Tom’s Trail—Down 300 steps to see the Lower Falls. Strenuous
Upper Falls Viewpoint—See two different viewpoints of the Upper Falls. Easy
South Rim Trail—Hike 1.75 trail to see Uncle Tom’s Point and Artist Point. Partially paved.
Brink of Lower Falls Trail—A steep trail that drops 600 feet for a view of the Lower Falls.
Red Rock and Lookout Points—See the canyon from paved overlooks next to the parking lot.
Grand View—See the roar of the Lower Falls.
Inspiration Point—Climb down 50 steps to views of the Lower Falls.
Brink of Upper Falls—Walk down the steps to see water barrel over the Upper Falls.
The Animals of Yellowstone National Park
Some visitors enjoy the geothermal features, others want to see animals. Yellowstone National Park offers some of the best animal viewings in the US.
I recommend Hayden Valley or Lamar Valley, along the river. Best times to spot animals is dawn and dusk when animals are most active. Check in with the Park Rangers who know where animals frequent or take a guided tour.
- Grizzly Bear
- Black Bear
- Bighorn Sheep
- Mule Deer
- Bring binoculars and a chair to get comfortable.
- The Junior Ranger Booklet includes animal spotting activities.
Mammoth Hot Springs
See the best-protected travertine depositing hot springs in the world at Mammoth. With a series of boardwalks and overlooks, visitors can climb throughout the different levels of the terraced limestone. Water from runoff seeps into the fractures in the ground to be heated by a volcanic heat source.
Walk around the old Army Fort and see the newest visitor center at Yellowstone National Park’s headquarters. Elk are almost guaranteed in Mammoth.
What to See in Mammoth Hot Springs
As the headquarters of the park, this area offers more than the hot springs. In Yellowstone National Park’s first few decades, U.S Army patrolled the park to secure from poachers and rogue campgrounds. The assignment lasted 32 years and the U.S. Army constructed Fort Yellowstone.
- Tour the Albright Visitor Center
- Walk through Historic Fort Yellowstone
- See Liberty Cap
- Walk by Palette Spring
- See Opal Terrace
- Walk along the boardwalks of Main Terrace
- Climb the stairs to explore the Lower Terraces
- Drive the loop of the Upper Terraces
- Walk through the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel’s Map Room
- Gaze on the grazing elk that munch grass in front of the hotel and visitor center.
- The water of the hot springs can exceed 160F.
- Stay at least 25 feet away from elk.
Kids in Yellowstone
The Junior Ranger Program is the go-to program for families to learn more about a National Park Service site. It’s free and takes about two hours to complete. My kids love the badges that the Rangers present them after completing their booklet.
Kids love Yellowstone and kids love animals. So buy a Junior Ranger booklet at the nearest bookstore. In Yellowstone, the Junior Ranger booklets are $3 but kids who complete their booklets get a patch.
Yellowstone National Park divides the Junior Ranger booklet into three age categories, with age-appropriate activities. Kids 4 to 7, 8 to 12 and 13 and older each complete as many activities as their age.
Old Faithful Visitor Education Center also offers a Young Scientist Patch Program. Buy the $5 booklet at the visitor center’s gift store. The visitor center also checks out a pack of equipment needed to conduct experiments. Best suited for students spending a couple of day in the Old Faithful Area to finish the program.
Try to turn in your Junior Ranger booklet at Yellowstone’s National Park Junior Ranger Station, located near the Madison on the west side of the park.
Lodging in Yellowstone National Park
Kids like to camp and most moms don’t, including me. I would prefer to sleep with some kind of roof over my head and off the ground.
Yellowstone offers a range of lodging options from basic cabins to luxury suites. With nine properties and over 2,000 rooms, visitors can enjoy the best of Yellowstone.
- Old Faithful Inn
- Canyon Lodge and Cabins
- Grant Village Lodge
- Old Faithful Lodge Cabins
- Lake Yellowstone Hotel and Cabins
- Lake Lodge Cabins
- Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins
- Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins
- Make reservations well in advance for Yellowstone National Park lodging.
- Only Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotels remain open year-round.
Camping in Yellowstone National Park
For about $30 a night, your family can camp in a developed site. I advise reserving a site although Yellowstone National Park offers seven first-come, first-served campgrounds.
- Bridge Bay
- Grant Village
- Fishing Bridge RV Park
The campgrounds are found in villages that provides camper’s services. Find self-serve laundries, general stores, gas stations and cafes in Canyon Village, Grant Village and Lake Village areas.
Your First Visit
During my first visit to Yellowstone National Park, I made every newbie mistake.
- Didn’t make reservations.
- I camped in the same campground and didn’t move around the park.
- Didn’t research.
When the time came to plan another trip, I wanted to see more of the park. I planned a Grand Tour, much like the first visitors did over 100 years ago. I started in one area and explored before relocating to another area. It worked out great, minimized the driving and maximized the enjoying.
Bear Safety in Yellowstone
Yellowstone National Park features two types of bears: black bears and Grizzly bears. Knowing the difference is important since each species uses different behavior.
Park Rangers offer some guidelines to reduce bear encounters:
- Hike in groups of 4 or more.
- Keep campsites clean.
- Make noise while hiking by wearing bear bells and talking.
- Carry bear spray. Keep it accessible when hiking and know how to use it.
Bear spray is advised and can be rented in the park. Visit a visitor center or ranger station for more information.
To find out more information, attend ranger programs to learn more about bears in Yellowstone National Park. I did and it’s a great way to learn more about bears. My boys loved the bear programs and I felt more confident afterward.
Where’s Yellowstone National Park
It’s 320 miles northeast of Salt Lake City. Unless you arrange a tour, like Austin Adventures, you will need a car to explore.
Two major airports serve Yellowstone National Park. I’ve flown into both and I prefer Bozeman for convenience, schedule and lower fares.
- Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN)—Bozeman, Montana, offers everything you need to outfit your family for a national park adventure, from food to equipment.
- Jackson Hole Airport (JAC)—The busiest airport in Wyoming is a regional airport. Jackson is a quaint town with an Old West flavor.
Yellowstone National Park offers cafes, general stores, and restaurants. Though be prepared to picnic for lunch and grab some snacks and sandwich ingredients in Bozeman or Jackson.
Getting Around Yellowstone
Yellowstone National Park is open 365-days a year and 24-hours a day. Use an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80) or purchase a 7-day pass for $30 per vehicle.
Yellowstone National Park features five entrances.
- West Entrance—For families that are trying to add to their state count. Enter or exit through the west entrance to add Idaho.
- North Entrance—Closest entrance for Bozeman, Montana
- Northeast Entrance—Scenic highway to Billings, Montana
- East Entrance—Scenic highway to Cody, Wyoming
- South Entrance—The busiest entrance and gateway to Grand Teton National Park and Jackson, Wyoming.
Seasonal closures affect Yellowstone National Park. July and August are the only months that all roads and facilities are open.