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Yellowstone, America’s first national park, will celebrate its 150th birthday in 2022. You don’t have to be a nature lover to be wowed by this natural wonder. It’s huge, diverse and thrilling. You can’t see it in a day or even a couple of days. Plan to spend a week, move around the park and get off the beaten boardwalk to see parts of the park most visitors miss. This Yellowstone guide for families is the first stop on the way to an epic vacation your kids will talk about for years.
The writer was hosted.
Yellowstone National Park, the country’s first national park, is a national treasure. It’s filled with bison and bears, glorious geysers, soaring lodgepole pines, melting rocks, epic hikes and historic hotels. Seeing it all can be a family vacation challenge.
I’ve been twice so far, and I would return in a New York minute – not because I’m a nature girl, but because the park is such an incredible place.
My two visits could not have been more different. On the first trip, our wildlife watching was so successful – we even got a glimpse of the elusive grey wolves! — that after three days, we no longer stopped to watch the buffalo roam. On my second trip, we saw almost no wildlife — just two elk grazing near our hotel one morning and a couple dozen bison in a field as we headed out of the park at the end of our trip.
Was it a disappointment not to see a grizzly bear or wolf? Yes. But Yellowstone made it up to us with more spouting geysers, a beautiful blue sky and perfect weather.
Here’s everything you need to know — from Yellowstone’s weather to its iconic hotels — to plan a first family vacation to Yellowstone National Park.
Where is Yellowstone National Park?
About 96 percent of the park’s 3,472 square miles are in Wyoming, 3 percent in Montana and 1 percent in Idaho.
Which Yellowstone Park Entrance Should I Choose?
This is a key decision because it will determine which airport you fly into, which town you’ll stay in and which parts of the 3,472-square-mile park you’ll explore in what order.
Yellowstone National Park features five entrances.
- North Entrance—Closest entrance for Bozeman, Montana. This is the entrance I used on my first trip, a tour with Austin Adventures. Bozeman is the biggest town with the biggest airport and is likely to offer the best flight deals, a key determinant if you’re flying rather than driving to Yellowstone. The only year-round entrance to the park, Gardiner, Montana, is the closest town.
- Northeast Entrance—Scenic highway to Billings, Montana. Tiny and charming Cooke City (population 75) is the town at the entrance and home to a couple of affordable hotels for a night’s stay before entering the park. Plan to drive the Beartooth Highway if you’re visiting in the summer months. Expect road closures as soon as the snow flies.
- East Entrance—Scenic highway to Cody, Wyoming. I entered via Cody on my second trip and found plenty to love about this cowboy town. It’s a 52-mile trip from Cody into the park.
- South Entrance—The busiest entrance and gateway to Grand Teton National Park and Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Use this entrance if you want to tack on a visit to Grand Teton. It’s a 60-mile drive into the park from Jackson Hole.
- West Entrance—For families that want to add to their state count, enter or exit through west Yellowstone to claim a visit to Idaho.
TravelingMom Tip: Whichever entrance you choose, download the free Travel Storys app before you road trip into the park. It’s GPS enabled to give you information about the sites you pass on the way. We used it on our trip from Cody to the East entrance to the park and found the commentary to be interesting and insightful – until we drove out of cell tower range.
At an average elevation of 8,000 feet, the winter can come early to Yellowstone. Even in July, the height of summer, high temperatures average only about 71 degrees Fahrenheit (21.6 C). In December, highs are only in the mid-20sF (-4C).
Both of my visits came in late summer/early fall. Most of the time we had daytime temperatures in the 70s and nighttime lows in the 50s. But one morning was extra brisk as we shivered outside the bus waiting for the elusive wolves to make an appearance. Another day we woke up to a dusting of snow. In mid-September!
TravelingMom Tip: No matter what time of year you visit, pack layers and bring a day bag with extra layers, even gloves and hats for everyone. You’ll thank me later.
How Much Does It Cost to Visit Yellowstone?
Yellowstone National Park is open 365 days a year and 24 hours a day, although most of the park lodging and services are closed during the winter.
Buy an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80) to get into all of the US National Park properties for a full year. Or if you’re just visiting Yellowstone to celebrate the park’s birthday and have no plans to see other parks, choose the 7-day pass for $30 per vehicle.
TravelingMom Tip: Read these tips for visiting Yellowstone before your trip.
Lodging in Yellowstone National Park
Where should you stay in Yellowstone? The right answer is: Stay in the park. The challenging answer is: You really should change hotels every night.
This park is so huge that it makes sense to explore it the way the original visitors did in the 1890s. They boarded a stagecoach at the north end of the park near Mammoth Hot Springs, covered 20 bumpy miles to see one part of the park that day, checked into new lodgings that night and got up the next day to cover 20 new miles. Over the five-day trip, they made a loop to see most of the must-see sights of the park.
Staying in the park can be a challenge. There are nine lodges, five campgrounds with primitive as well as developed RV campsites, budget-friendly cabins and rustic camping options. All of the lodging and food service is run by Xanterra, a park concessionaire. There’s also backcountry camping in Yellowstone if you’re that kind of traveler, which I definitely am not.
These are the Yellowstone hotel options:
This recently renovated hotel is lovely and has views of the nearby melting Mammoth Hot Springs. Set your alarm to get up early and take a walk to look for the huge elk who make this area of the park their home. The cabins here include cabins without bathrooms. Be sure to visit the famed Map Room in the hotel to show the kids the a large wooden map of the United States constructed of 15 different kinds of wood from nine countries. And plan to eat at least one meal at the restaurant where we had wonderful food and cheerful service, even during a pandemic.
Built in 1920 near Yellowstone’s Tower Falls area, the rustic Roosevelt Lodge and Cabins are located near a campsite once used by President Theodore Roosevelt. Plan to spend some lazy evenings in the rocking chairs on the front porch, then take a stagecoach ride to the Old West Dinner Cookout, where the steaks are tender, the wranglers are friendly and the scenery is breathtaking.
This sprawling facility is the largest in Yellowstone with more than 500 rooms and cabins. Located on the east side of the park near the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, Canyon Lodge is open from the beginning of June through early October. Accommodations options include 2-bedroom suites for larger families.
Completed in 1999, the Snow Lodge is the newest of the park’s full service hotels and it’s one of the few park properties that stays open all year round. The heavy timber construction, exterior log columns and cedar shingle roof were part of the design known as “parkitecture.” The Snow Lodge features a full-service dining room, quick service “Geyser Grill” and the charming Bear Den Gift Store. An outdoor skating rink with free skate rentals is just outside the lobby each winter.
Built in 1903-1904 with local logs and stone, the Old Faithful Inn is considered the largest log structure in the world. The towering lobby features a massive stone fireplace and a hand-crafted clock made of copper, wood and wrought iron serving as focal points. Even if you don’t stay here, be sure to include a visit to the lobby, the gift shop and the outdoor patio that offers an elevated view of the world-famous Old Faithful Geyser. Note that the original rooms at the Inn do not have private baths. But the shared baths are lovely, including a “tub room.”
Lake Lodge Cabins features a main lodge with a large porch offering a spectacular rocking chair view of Yellowstone Lake. Located behind the lodge are 186 cabins with private baths as well as the basic Pioneer cabins. Lake Lodge is open from early June through the end of September. The main lodge houses a delightful lobby where two fireplaces, a lounge and gift store warmly beckon guests to linger and chat.
Located near Old Faithful Inn, this one-story main lodge was built in the 1920s featuring massive logs and stone pillars. Tremendous views of the Old Faithful Geyser can be seen from the lobby area, which houses a bakery/snack shop and cafeteria-style food court.
This Colonial Revival hotel is the most elegant Yellowstone property. It sits on the shore of the lovely Lake Yellowstone and is the place to catch a Yellowstone tour in one of the iconic 1950s Yellow Coaches. A multi-million-dollar hotel renovation in 2014 included all guest rooms, dining room, bar and public spaces and a redesigned deli. Lake Yellowstone Hotel offers wired internet service and a business center, although I was not able to get the internet to work when I stayed there in 2021, despite the efforts of the helpful front desk staff and their box of internet adapters.
Built in 1984, Grant Village is named after Ulysses S. Grant, president when Yellowstone became the world’s first national park in 1872. Located near the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake, it features 6 two-story buildings each containing 50 rooms; none have elevators. The lodging complex features a full-service restaurant, a lakeside restaurant with a casual menu, lounge and gift store. The village is nearest to Grand Teton National Park.
TravelingMom Tip: Only Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotels are open year-round; the other lodges are open generally from early May to early October.
Multigen Trip to Yellowstone
If you’re planning a multigenerational family vacation to Yellowstone, consider one of the centrally located lodging areas like Lake Yellowstone, where the grandparents can sleep in luxury at the lovely Lake Yellowstone Hotel while the families with kids stay in one of the nearby cabins. Then meet up for a stagecoach ride to dinner at night.
Other visitor needs, such as grocery stories, gas stations and souvenir shops are clustered around the lodge areas. Save money by bringing a cooler and buying groceries before you enter park. Fill up your gas tank too, since gas also is more expensive inside the park.
TravelingMom Tips: If the hotel you want is sold out, call back regularly. People do cancel, especially these days.
When is the Best Time to Visit Yellowstone National Park?
The majority of the early 4 million visitors to the park arrive during the summer months. While that means you’ll have to cope with bigger crowds and likely will find it harder to get park reservations (book early!), it’s also the time you’re most likely to have decent weather.
Both of my visits to Yellowstone came in late summer/early fall, just as most kids were heading back to school. Crowds were manageable but the weather at this 8,000-foot-elevation park was unpredictable.
Must-See Attractions at Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park was the first national park in the world. Created in 1872, it’s an American icon deemed so irreplaceable that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
These are the incredible sights that made the park famous:
Old Faithful Geyser
This aptly named geyser is the most predictable one in Yellowstone. It spews forth just about every 90 minutes. Each eruption shoots at least 3,700 gallons of water over 100 feet into the air. I have seen it four times with displays that lasted from a little over a minute to more than five.
The majority of Yellowstone visitors will stop here to watch Old Faithful do her thing, then get back in the car to drive on to the next attraction. Don’t do that! Instead, follow the stroller-friendly boardwalk around to see a portion of the largest concentration of geysers in the world.
Why You Should Head to the Upper Geyser Basin
Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin is home 60 percent of the world’s geysers — all in one square mile.
When we visited on our last trip, we watched several of the Upper Geyser basin geysers spew for more than 10 minutes. We only left then because we had to move on to Grand Prismatic.
Other interesting geothermal features in the Upper Geyser Basin:
- Hot Springs—Pools of hot water in an array of colors thanks to the different bacteria in the water.
- Fumaroles—A steam vent with very little water
- Mudpots—A smelly clay that bubbles on the surface thanks to hot sulfuric acid that breaks down the rock.
TravelingMom Tip: Some kids might be sensitive to the acrid sulfur smell of the geysers. And, if the wind is blowing and the geyser mist lands on your sunglasses, clean them immediately. If you leave it, it will pit your glasses.
Grand Prismatic Spring
This stop at the Midway Geyser Basin is my favorite spot in Yellowstone. There are two ways to see the gorgeous blues, greens and yellows of these hot springs. The hues come from the different types of heat-loving bacteria living in the progressively cooler water around the spring. And the deep blue center? That’s because water scatters the blue wavelengths of light more than others, reflecting blues back to our eyes.
You can see them up close by walking the stroller-friendly boardwalk. Or take the short, not-too-strenuous hike up to see it from the top.
Both are well worth the time and will reward you with Christmas-card-worth family photos.
Yellowstone Lake Area
Yellowstone Lake is the centerpiece of the park and it’s a beautiful, peaceful spot. You can fish and boat on the lake – it’s mighty cold for swimming with water temperatures in the mid-40s.
If you have the time, splurge on a guided tour in one of the charming restored 1950s yellow buses. I learned more than my brain could remember about the park’s history, the personalities that made it famous and ensured its preservation and the flora and fauna of the area. Plus, we got a private tour of the guide’s favorite waterfall!
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.
TravelingMom Tip: Everyone 16 and older needs a license to fish in Yellowstone.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Not the Grand Canyon that immediately comes to mind for most people, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is a 1,000-foot-deep canyon painted by Mother Nature in gorgeous pinks, purples and yellows. A smoky haze from the California wildfires blunted the vista during my 2021 visit, but I have fond memories of the rich colors from my previous visit. Plus, this Grand Canyon boasts two waterfalls.
The canyon was cut by the Yellowstone River. The only un-dammed river in the lower 48 states, the Yellowstone River runs 692 miles through Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota. Two of its most dramatic waterfalls are in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
The canyon runs for 20 miles, but most visitors see only Artist Point. This highly Instagrammable spot is the most photographed place in Yellowstone. But there are even more lovely vistas across the 4000-foot divide of the canyon. Walk a short way along the path to get equally breathtaking views, without standing elbow-to-elbow with others.
Best Hikes at Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon
- Uncle Tom’s Trail—Walk down 300 steps to see the Lower Falls, but remember you’ll also have to walk back up on this strenuous hike.
- Upper Falls Viewpoint—This is an easy hike that gives you two different views of the Upper Falls.
- South Rim Trail—This hike is partially paved. In total, it’s 1.75 miles and you’ll see Uncle Tom’s Point and Artist Point.
- Brink of Lower Falls Trail—A very strenuous hike on a steep trail that drops 600 feet for a view of the Lower Falls.
- Red Rock and Lookout Points—These are paved overlooks of the canyon right 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.
TravelingMom Tip: If you’re planning to take a longer hike through Yellowstone’s backcountry, rent some bear spray before you go. And ask an NPS park ranger for tips and advice before setting off on your trek.
Hayden and Lamar Valleys
Lamar Valley, sometimes called the Serengeti of the United States, and Hayden Valley is the place for an almost guaranteed bison sighting (and the only place we saw them on my last animal-less visit).
Generally, the best time for wildlife viewing is at dawn when the animals are most active. That’s when we saw the wolves on my first visit. Get the kids a Junior Ranger booklet at one of the park visitor centers. It includes animal-spotting activities.
Other animals to look for in this area of the park:
- Grizzly Bear
- Black Bear
- Bighorn Sheep
- Mule Deer
TravelingMom Tip: Bring binoculars to increase the chances of spotting animals in the distance. Stop at all of the “bear jams” – what they call traffic jams on the park roads in Yellowstone – and ask what the people are looking at. Some will have super high-powered telescopes trained on the animals. I have always found them willing to let a stranger have a look, if you ask nicely and handle these expensive scopes with care.
Mammoth Hot Springs
This is definitely a highlight at Yellowstone. Here, the travertine rocks are melting under the constant flow from the hot spring. The area is covered in easy to walk boardwalks that offer views from all sides.
This area also is home to many of the park employees and a huge number of elk who make themselves at home on the front lawns of the employee housing. Elk sightings are almost guaranteed here. It’s where I saw the two elk on my last visit.
TravelingMom Tip: Stay at least 25 feet away from elk. They are large and powerful animals.
Norris Geyser Basin
If you didn’t get your fill of geysers at Upper Geyser Basin, stop here to check out the world’s tallest active geyser, Steamboat Geyser. Don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t perform for you. Its eruptions are less predictable than those in the Upper Geyser Basin. But when it goes off, it goes big. Major eruptions can reach more than 300 feet.
Norris is Yellowstone National Park’s hottest and most changeable thermal area. Most of its thermal features have temperatures above the boiling point of 199°F.
History of Yellowstone National Park
The bubbling caldron of Yellowstone was created by three super volcanoes over the past 2 million years. The spewing geysers, simmering hot springs and smoldering mud pots are signs the hot magma still lurks below the surface.
It was explorers’ letters home telling of the strange bubbling pools and spouting geysers that first drew attention to the geothermal wonders of the area that would become Yellowstone. And it was the foresight of the US Congress and President Ulysses S. Grant who took steps to protect the natural wonders.
The Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, a partnership between the US Geological Survey, National Park Service, University of Utah, University of Wyoming, University NAVSTAR Consortium and State Geological Surveys of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, created in 2011, continues to monitor volcanic and earthquake activity in the Yellowstone National Park region.