My mom adventures in Fort Collins

Thoughts on Yellowstone with kids

A little over a year ago, we purchased a camper. In a kill-two-birds-type of move, we hoped to take vacations and build happy family memories. Let me give you the background in case you missed it here and here:  I never went camping as a kid and am a nature-lover-in-training, while my husband grew up camping as a kid and backpacking and hiking are two of his favorite hobbies. Last year was a bit of a learning curve for us, and with modest success under our belts we did attempt something ambitious and wonderful this year–a trip to Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone National Park was the first national park in the United States and the world. Most famous for its unique geothermal features, it is also home to majestic waterfalls, canyons, alpine meadows, mountain lakes and streams. This is not to diminish the many creatures that call Yellowstone home: pelicans, swans, moose, elk, deer, bison, bear, and the famous Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout, to name a few.

Old Faithful geyser, one of Yellowtone's great attractions

Old Faithful geyser, one of Yellowtone’s great attractions

Based on my experience at Yellowstone earlier this summer, I have a few thoughts on planning a trip to Yellowstone with young children. If you have time, get your hands on the DVD featured in this Youtube clip (we found it at the local library)–it’s a great, interactive introduction to the park for kids.

There are a million different ways to take a vacation at YNP, but if you had your druthers, you’d…

  1. Stay inside the park
  2. Make your car as comfortable as possible (with snacks, activities, etc.)
  3. Anticipate crowds and plan around them if possible
  4. Equip kids with camera and binoculars if age-appropriate
  5. Plan bathroom breaks around flush toilets (luckily, there are many!)

Contrary to a popular myth out there, camping at Yellowstone is not limited to hard-sided campers. There are plenty of options for tents or pop-up campers, although there are a few campsites within the park that are limited to hard-sided trailers due to bear activity. Furthermore, there are lodging  and food options that include high-quality hotels, restaurants and general stores. Despite a fair amount of first-come/first-serve options, we made reservations 6 months in advance to camp at Bridge Bay. Our particular site was set back in the woods in the most idyllic site with a distant view of Yellowstone Lake, but there were many other sites within this campground that were equally breathtaking and still others fully void of shade (those were mainly tent-only sites) . Learn more about the campgrounds here.

The view from our campsite--see the lake in the distance?

The view from our campsite–see the lake in the distance?

The Bridge Bay campground was a great fit for us. I enjoyed the following aspects:

  • Beautiful scenery
  • Clean campsites (maintained by Xanterra)
  • Well-maintained facilities, including flush-toilets and dishwashing sinks
  • Few major attractions close by, allowing for low-traffic and less noise
  • Close proximity to the Bridge Bay marina (boat rides) and the Natural Bridge trailhead (easy hike with little elevation gain, perfect for kids)

Staying inside the park is advantageous for many reasons, but mainly because it allows for better use of your time. Yellowstone is 2.2 million acres, and there is so much to see. The roads are slow-going due to a 45 mph speed limit, construction closures, wildlife sightings, and occasional curves and elevation gain/loss. Many wildlife sightings occur in the early morning hours or late in the day; staying in the park allows for more flexible use of the sun up and sundown hours. Weather can be an issue and temperatures can fluctuate. We found it nice to escape from the heat during the day, and we chose to visit many of the geothermal attractions in the evening hours when it was cooler. Since many tourist buses come through the park from “nearby” Jackson or elsewhere, it is preferable to avoid major attractions at the peak times when walkways and parking lots are considerably more congested.

Which brings me to four other thoughts:

  • Don’t underestimate the time you will spend driving. The number one way to travel through Yellowstone is via vehicle. There is so much driving involved to traverse the vast expanse that you do need to prepare the kiddos for how much travel time is involved. I am not ashamed to say that we used the portable DVD at times, because apparently my kids don’t think looking out the window is quite as fun as some of us grown-ups do.
  • Prepare the kids for the many wooden walkways. Kids will want to wander off the pathways. Prepare them in advance for the fact that you must remain on the wooden walkways, since the geothermal features are sensitive and walking disturbs the landscape. By the end of our four-day-stay, my daughter was policing the grown-ups who didn’t stay on the wooden walkway.
  • It was suprisingly warm. We had read the weather predictions ahead of time, and I thought I was appropriately prepared. Sadly, I should have considered two other factors 1) elevation and 2) the heat released by the geothermal features. As I heard one dad put it, “Geez, what do you expect, you’re standing on top of a supervolcano!” My kids were whiny and hot, and this makes me have a considerably less enjoyable time. During our four days in the park, we figured out a way to mitigate this issue (we saw more in the evenings, when it was cooler).
  • I’m sure this is a no-brainer and you will see signs in abundance warning you of exactly this, but remind kids that wildlife can be dangerous. YNP is most definitely not a petting zoo, although you will see many a crazy tourist acting as if it is just that.

And, last but not least, a few photos to give you the highlights for the kiddos.

Scout really enjoyed seeing the waterfalls--this is the Lower Falls at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

Scout really enjoyed seeing the waterfalls–this is the Lower Falls at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

Both kids really enjoyed seeing the mud pots

Both kids really enjoyed seeing the mud pots

All of us enjoyed seeing the grizzlies! (Can you see them???)

All of us enjoyed seeing the grizzlies! (Can you see them???)

There is so much to do in Yellowstone National Park. I hereby declare that it is downright impossible to be bored.  For kids, there is a Junior Ranger program that I’ve heard great things about but we didn’t use. In addition to the famous geysers and look-out points, we really enjoyed taking the boat ride on Yellowstone Lake and spending time at the lakeshore behind the Fishing Bridge Visitor’s Center. With any luck, we’ll be back at Yellowstone another day to do it all again!


3 Comments so far
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Yellowstone is truly one of the most amazing parks – we visited years ago & will never forget the experience. One of my dearest mentors & friends from overseas work built a beautiful log cabin 8 miles from the park – my brother & I called him & his buddies ‘Geyser-busters’ as they have these fancy gizmos to communicate when the geysers are about to blow…

It was a Blas (literally!! : ) – Virginia

Comment by Virginia

I would agree, it’s an amazing place that leaves a lasting impression. Bonus was that the kids really enjoyed the whole trip, too. Coincidentally, I just read your blog and saw a geyser photo there. I think seeing these things in person has changed my impression of all of those geysers–they are absolutely amazing, and I won’t look at a photo of them the same way since seeing them. Maybe it’s time to get me one of them geyser gizmos…

Comment by jaymers

[…] posted a few words about our trip to Yellowstone National Park (YNP) this past summer, and that’s a […]

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