Yellowstone for all ages
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One wonder-filled, kid-approved week in America's oldest national park
From Old Faithful to Hayden Valley and all of the wildlife, geysers, hot springs, mud pots, hiking trails and swimming holes in between, Yellowstone exists "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people."
It sounds crazy, but right in the middle of an interstate move, we carved out one week at the end of July to take in the first national park, knowing we'd be the better for it. Yellowstone left our fun group of seven, ages 7 to nearly 70, in awe for days.
Our tour guide for the week
We relied heavily on Fodor's Complete Guide to the National Parks of the West. The handy maps and family friendly suggestions guided our week and made planning a breeze.
A great online tool is findyourpark.com. Just remember once you enter a national park, you're likely to be without cell service. So take your Fodor's guidebook and the free park map handed to you upon entrance with you every step of the way.
Give your kids buy-in
Simple, really. All six of us, plus a dear family friend, looked through the map and guidebook and then picked one thing each we really wanted to see and do while in Yellowstone. This gave our kids buy-in and no one was disappointed. Everyone was excited to explore the park.
Our base for the week
We rented this gorgeous cabin just on the outskirts of West Yellowstone, Montana. We were 7 miles from Yellowstone's west gate.
Our first adventure in the park was a sweet picnic and wading through the Madison River (see above). Buffalo and elk sightings. Kids and water. It's the little things.
We gawked at thunderous Gibbon Falls and jumped out to see the bubbly blue gassy Beryl Spring before heading to the Artist Paintpots (see below).
And then we did the unthinkable
We ran out of gas at Norris Geyser Basin. Yes, we are those people. If you wanna see just how truly kind and helpful park rangers can be, run out of gas twelve miles from the nearest gas station in the park. Take our advice: be sure you have a fairly full tank before entering the park. Ahem.
Yellowstone is one huge supervolcano
Strung along by a system of boardwalks, Norris Geyser Basin belches and bubbles or bursts skyward depending where you are on one of the two loops: Porcelain Basin and the Back Basin. Porcelain Basin (above) was my favorite.
Be safe. When you're checking out geysers and hot pots, always keep hold of your little ones' hands, stay on the paths marked well before you, and read the signs. Boiling, gassy substances lurk under the crust just inches away from you and the path, so be alert and be smart.
Float through thermally heated Firehole Falls
A family favorite adventure in Yellowstone. Pack a picnic lunch and a few flotation devices (life jackets for younger, less experienced swimmers) if you have them.
Helpful directions: From the Madison information station, head south on Grand Loop Road towards Old Faithful and soon after take a right turn onto Firehole Canyon Drive. Towards the end of the 2 mile drive, look for a left hand pull out, porta-potties included, and search for a place to park.
The best, more hidden jumping-in spot is upstream a tad: at the top of the stairs, turn just to the left, off the path, and make your way down. Jump in feet first and float gently through the canyon for a minute. Get out and do it again!
Grand Prismatic Spring
The world's third-largest hot spring. Bacteria provide the rainbow of colors. Follow the boardwalk loop all around.
Did I mention this is a HOT spring? This is a popular sight with lots of people taking pictures on a narrow boardwalk, so stay alert and no one gets hurt.
We lucked out and caught Old Faithful going off just as we walked up. She goes off every 94 minutes, give or take 10 minutes.
We checked out the visitor center for a while before watching her blow her top again. She shot upward much higher the second time around.
Old Faithful sometimes reaches as high as 180 feet, but averages about 130 feet.
This will most likely be the busiest, crowded place in the park, with day-trippers driving through just to see Old Faithful, but YES! of course she's worth your time.
Next time we'll be sure to check out the Old Faithful Lodge, one huge log masterpiece that first opened in 1904. If walls could speak...
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
I was wondering how Yellowstone got her name. And then I saw the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Pictures don't do her justice.
Helpful directions: Take the South Rim Drive until it ends into the parking lot for Artist Point. Take a short hike through the trees to the aptly named overlook along the canyon rim.
Admire the Lower Falls and the yellow, orange, and red colors laced through the gorge sprinkled with pine trees. Count osprey up above. Pose for wonky pictures with your kids cupping your hands to "catch" the falls.
Get lost in the moment and stay a while, or turn around and hike Uncle Tom's Trail to Upper Falls View. You won't regret it.
Ice cream junkies, take note: Canyon Village is the best place to buy souvenirs and enjoy ice cream, all under one roof. Java Mocha Chunk please.
Hayden Valley wolf sightings
Driving through Hayden Valley, scanning for wildlife as the sun goes down definitely merits your time.
We stopped at one of the many pull-outs intrigued by a growing number of people scanning the horizon in the meadow. Way far away across the river was a mama wolf bedded down with her three pups. A kind man with a large, powerful spotting scope let us take turns peeking at her. Awesome!
We missed meeting a grizzly at a picnic sight by five minutes. We had just laid our food out on the table when a couple parked in a nearby car rolled down their window and informed us the grizzly had just ambled down the hill straight through our very picnic spot. We quickly re-packed our food and raced to the next pull-out, only to have just missed him crossing the ravine.
Soak in the Boiling River
The cold Gardner River blends with the hot springs at Boiling River making for a perfect soaking location. Our kids loved it.
The parking lot is just a couple of miles north of Mammoth Hot Springs, then take the 0.5 mile walk to the soaking site.*
Boiling River is Yellowstone's second naturally heated legal swimming hole. Read the signs before you get in and don't dip your head underwater; disease-causing microorganisms thrive in thermal waters.
*Stop at the Albright Visitor Center in Mammoth Hot Springs first and ask a ranger for directions to Boiling River. It's not on the park map and they can tell you if it's open (closed during high waters in spring and early summer).
Also, check out Fort Yellowstone and the many live elk lawn ornaments.
"For the benefit and enjoyment of the people."
We made a short stop for pizza near Roosevelt Arch in Gardiner, Montana. Sitting at the north entrance to Yellowstone, this small town has great places to eat, like Yellowstone Pizza Company, as well as funky places to shop.
Riding horseback under Big Sky
Our number three child really wanted to ride a horse under the Big Sky. That was the one thing she asked to do all week.
So on our final day, we saddled up six horses with Creekside Trail Rides just outside of West Yellowstone. We road the meandering trails through the trees under Two Top Mountain and she loved it. Creekside also hosts rodeos at night.
Wonderstruck in Yellowstone
This article is by no means an exhaustive list of what to do in Yellowstone.
Next time we'd love to check out Lamar Valley. It just seemed so far away from where we were staying in West Yellowstone.
This and That
As far as budget friendly lodging is concerned, Canyon Village campground looks like a great central location within Yellowstone.
Also, check out these great restaurants in West Yellowstone:
Wild West Pizzeria Who doesn't love pizza? Great service. Very good pizza. Reasonable prices. Twelve thumbs up.
Madison Crossing Lounge My husband and I devoured the most amazing bison burgers here. A little pricey, but amazing homemade fries and beef burgers too. Inside a little shopping mall.
Woodside Bakery We discovered this the morning we left Yellowstone. We walked out of there with freshly baked cinnamon rolls, croissants, scones, and fresh-out-of-the-oven blueberry muffins. I'd drive to Montana just to eat here again. We ate every last morsel. Yum.
Have you been to Yellowstone? What are must-sees, must-dos for tweens and teens in this national park? We'd love to know what you think! Please comment below.
All photographs by Tanya Raedeke. Please do not use without permission.