The nation’s most famous national park offers views most families only see in picture books.
Yellowstone National Park is busy with more than 3 million visitors annually. Spanning 2.2 millions acres across Wyoming’s northwest corner, the majority arrive in summer, yet for most families, summer’s the only time they can visit, so don’t let the prospect of crowds deter you. Ninety percent of visitors stray less than one mile from their cars, and it takes very little effort to escape the hordes. Try a hike to get away from the main road (few visitors hike), and visit popular sights at off-peak times of day.
Perhaps most importantly, book your accommodation early — several months in advance for camping and even earlier for motels. But call the park even if you’re not ahead of the game. You might get lucky. The lodging/camping staff are helpful, and they’re happy to help you plan your visit.
Wondering how to prioritize? Here are some of our family’s highlights:
Rides are available for one or two hours in length in the Mammoth, Tower-Roosevelt and Canyon regions. Yellowstone horse riding became a family affair for us — including my eager 8-year-old son who’d never ridden before.
Norris Geyser Basin:
Yellowstone contains the world’s largest concentration of geysers, and you don’t have to visit Old Faithful to appreciate the underground cauldron. Norris is reputed to be the hottest geyser basin in North America, and offers an enjoyable mile-long boardwalk to stroll around Porcelain Basin where you’ll see hissing steam vents, hot pools and small geysers. Be sure to hold your little one’s hand so he doesn’t misstep!
Mount Washburn Lookout:
Mount Washburn offers an easy six-mile, round-trip hike on a gravel trail that even our 8-year-old hiked with little complaint (and we saw younger visitors on the trail). The trail terminates at a large lookout that offers a 360-degree overlook of the park as well as on-site rangers to answer questions. Highlight: panoramic views, sighting bighorn sheep and carpets of wildflowers.
Uncle Tom’s Trail:
This trail, featuring 328 steps down to a viewing platform for the “Grand Canyon of Yellowstone” and a thundering waterfall, turned out to be a family favorite. Because the viewing platform is small, I recommend an early morning visit to beat the crowds. Back at the top, walk the canyon rim along the paved one-mile path to Artist Point for stunning views of the waterfall and canyon. Few people seem to know about the trail — we encountered fewer than five along the way.
We couldn’t miss Old Faithful, although my kids decided it was overrated (I didn’t). Old Faithful’s eruptions are predictable, about every 90 minutes — hence, the name — and there’s no avoiding the crowds. But while you’re there, don’t miss walking the boardwalks of the surrounding thermal area, which turned out to be more interesting to my kids. Old Faithful Inn’s lobby, with a 75-foot high ceiling and a massive stone fireplace, is also a must-visit. Not only is it a stunning building, the inn is one of the largest log structures in existence.
We allotted three-and-a-half days for the park, but if you’re traveling with younger children, consider allowing more time or picking an area of interest to avoid too much driving. Yellowstone is big, and animal viewing traffic jams can extend travel time considerably.