The writer’s daughter tries out her binoculars near Mammoth Hot Springs. // © 2015 Chelsee Lowe
Feature image (above): A bison family, including babies, eat grass in Hayden Valley. // © 2015 Chelsee Lowe
Encompassing some 3,400 square miles and home to abundant wildlife species and surreal natural wonders, Yellowstone National Park is an expected bucket-list destination for any outdoor enthusiast, from a budding birdwatcher to a die-hard hiker.
That said, traversing the park presents numerous challenges; throw a younger child into the mix, and you’re sure to have a few meltdown moments over the course of a Yellowstone adventure.
Following are some tips, from one parent to another, to tackling the park as a family.
Book a Hotel Inside the Park — Far in Advance
There are nine lodges inside Yellowstone, for a total of around 2,000 rooms, plus 1,700 campsites. However, more than 3 million people visited the park in 2014, and 25 percent of them came in July alone. Given this considerable accommodation gap, it’s advised to book a room six to 12 months in advance.
Old Faithful Inn, Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel & Cabins and Roosevelt Lodge & Cabins are great family picks for their proximity to major park sights with lots of infrastructure, from restaurants and gift shops to museums and picnic areas.
Prepare for Lots of Driving
Staying near a park entrance is the next option, but know that this will equal more time on the road. Many park-goers stay in the town of West Yellowstone, for example, which is located right at the west park entrance. From here, it’s 14 miles to the historical information center and campsites of Madison Junction, and another 16 miles to Old Faithful.
Normally, 30 miles doesn’t sound overly daunting, but in Yellowstone, the speed limit is 45 miles per hour or less on a two-lane road, and wildlife can slow or halt the flow of traffic. It’s common for lengthy jams to occur when drivers stop to watch deer frolicking in a meadow or an entire herd of bison decide to lumber across the road.
Packing snacks, books and games can help keep younger travelers entertained until it’s their turn to spot Bambi from the window.
Make a List of Personal Must-Dos
Yellowstone is expansive, so unless you have four or five full days to sightsee, it’s best to prioritize. This past summer, my own multigenerational family trip to the park required a list of top picks, as we had just three days in the park and were staying in West Yellowstone.
Though the amount of driving we did wasn’t ideal for our young daughter, we managed to trek around Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Norris Geyser Basin. We also spent more than two hours watching bison munch on wildflowers in Hayden Valley.
Take Advantage of Free Programming
Free ranger-led experiences abound in Yellowstone during summertime, and guests are given a handy list of the offerings when they enter the park. Informational walks and geologic talks are among choices, as are kids’ programs.
For example, visitors at Mammoth Hot Springs might learn about the history of the travertine formations while on a 1.5-hour walk with a ranger or get their blood pumping on a guided hike to nearby Wraith Falls. At Old Faithful, interactive kids’ presentations take place twice daily. And at multiple park sites in the summer, kids can participate in jumping contests, sack races and more as part of weekly Wildlife Olympics events.
Swap Your Stroller for a Carrier, or Bring Both
The park’s geothermal features are accessible via long wooden boardwalks, some of which do not have railings. When our daughter walked the boardwalks, I was preoccupied with her safety, since toddlers can be a little unpredictable.
While a stroller might help quell such fears, the crowds at the more famous sites make it hard to maneuver the walkways with even an umbrella stroller. Consider wearing your child in your favorite carrier or backpack so you can get around with ease. If space isn’t an issue, bring the stroller, too.
Spotting a brown bear or gray wolf in its natural habitat is a prime reason to visit Yellowstone, but it’s not likely these creatures will come within feet of your car like the bison do. A pair of decent binoculars — we spent $40 on a petite pair that our daughter could use, too — or a killer camera lens goes a long way.
While stopped in Hayden Valley in June, I chatted with a group of photographers who had set up makeshift camps on pullouts along the road. They had their cameras aimed at the edge of the forest, about two football fields away and across a meadow; this was where a trio of wolves had been playing a few hours earlier, they said.
If this kind of animal watching interests your group, make room in your pack — and your budget — for the necessary gear.
Visit Old Faithful Inn
My family spent a few days in Montana prior to visiting Yellowstone, and a common park recommendation from locals was to visit Old Faithful Inn. An example of “parkitecture,” a style aimed at creating buildings that harmonize with their surroundings, the inn is more than 100 years old and stands just steps away from the geyser it’s named for. The lobby is a sight in itself; I was mesmerized with the open, multilevel atrium built of local logs and stones, not to mention the towering fireplace in the center.
Our family enjoyed a sit-down dinner at the historic dining hall here. For something more casual, grab sandwiches or ice cream at lobby-level Bear Paw Deli and head to the second-level observation deck that overlooks Old Faithful itself — adult beverages can even be procured here, should parents need one.
Yellowstone is crisscrossed by beautiful rushing rivers, and it’d be a shame to not play in one at some point during your trip. In many places, the water is cold and not particularly inviting, but there’s a hack for that: Go to the known spots where piping-hot thermal water falls into the river, then play downstream.
One great place to do this is the portion of Firehole River that crosses Midway Geyser Basin. Our family stopped just below the wooden bridge that crosses the river, took our shoes off and got knee-deep in the current. From there, we could see a steaming stream of thermal liquid sliding into the river south of us.
Take a Hike
As first-time Yellowstone visitors and inexperienced backpackers, the only true hike we did was the paved one along the North Rim Trail of the Grand Canyon, but it was gorgeous and one of our favorite memories of the trip. Yellowstone River cuts through the canyon, and the pair of waterfalls that make up Yellowstone Falls creates a misty — and mystical — scene. So no matter your skill level, get out of your car and onto a trail appropriate for your group.
Perhaps Shakespeare put it best: “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”