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Travel on a Shoestring: Yellowstone National Park with Kids

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Travel on a Shoestring: Yellowstone National Park with Kids

Yellowstone National Park with Kids

National Park Week is April 16 – 24, and 2016 is the Centennial year for the National Parks!
We’re celebrating National Park week with some of our favorite posts about our amazing National Parks.

In summer of 2013, my family and I discovered one of my new favorite places on earth: Yellowstone National Park.  So incredibly much to see in one place, and it’s a fantastic place for kids to explore and discover.  Waterfalls, mountaintop hikes, geothermal features, a Grand Canyon, wildlife, and of course: Old Faithful.  It’s a long way from Northeast Ohio, but once you’re there you’ll find tons to do on a Shoestring Budget.

My kids were 2, 4, 6, and 8 the last time we went.  We’re headed back this summer, and just looking through this post again makes me so excited do do all these things and more!  Be sure to Pin this post on your vacation planning board–I promise it’s a trip you and your kids will love.

A Yellowstone Overview:

The Park:  Yellowstone is located in the northeast corner of Wyoming, and includes a little bit of Montana and Idaho too.  There are five entrance roads to the park coming from the north, west, south, east, and northeast; and they lead to a figure-8 shaped route in the center of the park called the Grand Loop.  It’s hard to fathom the scope of the park when you look at a map, but the park covers 3,472 square miles, and contains 310 miles of paved roads.

Geothermal Features:  Yellowstone is a unique environment because it sits atop the Yellowstone Caldera, a huge ancient volcano that sits under the most widely visited areas of the park.  Because of this, Yellowstone has a huge collection of fascinating geothermal features, which really caught my kids’ attention.  Hot springs, bubbling mud pots, steaming fumaroles, and the famous geysers are throughout the park, and boardwalks allow you to get an up-close and personal look (and smell–the sulfur scent is pretty strong in some places!).

Waterfalls:  I knew we’d see waterfalls, but nothing could prepare me for the views of the Upper and Lower Falls of Yellowstone.  So incredibly beautiful, especially the views of the falls and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone from Uncle Tom’s Trail.  This trail descends into the canyon via a series of staircases and paths to a platform near the base of the Lower Falls.  There were also amazing views from farther down the canyon at Artist Point and Inspiration Point.

Yellowstone with Kids Bison

Wildlife: We got so excited to spot our first bison as we drove into the park.  Little did we know that we’d encounter numerous “bison jams” throughout our stay, when herds of bison literally stop traffic by crossing the roads wherever and whenever they please!  Mule deer and elk are also easily spotted, and if you keep your eyes peeled you may spot brown bears, bighorn sheep, moose, wolves, or grizzlies, along with tons of birds, fish, and smaller animals.

Lodging: Yellowstone is home to several historic hotels, which are low-frills, but reasonably priced.  There are also numerous campgrounds, including the full hook-up Fishing Bridge RV Park where we stayed.  It’s tight quarters, but the price is right, and it served as a great base camp from which to explore the park…and also to see a bison walking down the road!

Top things to do at Yellowstone with Kids:

Yellowstone with Kids Junior Ranger Program

Junior Ranger Program:  The Junior Ranger packets at Yellowstone were fantastic, and full of interesting facts and activities to help the kids learn about what they were seeing.  Unlike the plastic gold badges received at most national parks and monuments, Junior Rangers earn patches at Yellowstone (different ones for the younger and older kids).   One of my favorite memories is all four kids working on their Junior Ranger packets on the boardwalk around Old Faithful as we waited for it to go off.  We also attended several park ranger programs geared toward the Junior Rangers, and they were extremely well-done, engaging for my kids, and also quick enough that they didn’t lose interest.

Yellowstone with Kids Uncle Tom's Trail

Uncle Tom’s Trail:  As we started, we weren’t sure if the kids would be able to handle it, but we figured it was worth trying.  The trail descends 500 feet of elevation through inclined paths and around 300 stairs.  It’s not a long trail, but the trip back up with four young kids was challenging toward the top (the kids were total troupers though!).  There are benches to rest as you come back up, and the views are so worth it!

Yellowstone with Kids Scenic Overlooks

Scenic Overlooks: Artist’s Point and Inspiration Point are two views that are just a short walk from parking areas, but provide incredible views.  Other spots throughout the park offer similar views without a whole lot of hiking (which is great for when kids and parents are tired!).

Yellowstone with Kids Old Faithful

Old Faithful: No matter how many times you’ve seen it in books or video, it’s so cool to see live and in person.  We saw two eruptions, and both were really close to the predicted time.  They have a formula based on the length of the previous eruption, and are usually correct within a few minutes.  There’s also a fantastic visitor center nearby, as well as the historic Old Faithful Inn–definitely pop into the three-story-tall lobby to check out this early 20th-century gem.

Yellowstone with Kids Grand Prismatic Spring

Grand Prismatic Spring:  It’s called “prismatic” because of the colorful bacteria that live in the different temperatures of water in and around this spring.  Deep blues in the super-hot center give way to oranges, reds, and rust colors along the slightly cooler edges.  My kids loved learning about the “why” behind the colors…and they just look super cool too! 🙂

Yellowstone with Kids 2

Other Hot Springs, Mud Pots, “Paint Pots,” and Fumaroles:  Such a huge variety of features in such a relatively small area!  There are deep, brightly-colored hot springs in the southern part of the park, then the mineral-rich Mammoth Hot Springs in the northern part, which have built towers and terraces as the spring water brings up and deposits minerals on the surface.  There are bubbling brown mud pots, then others colored by bacteria which are called “paint pots.”  Fumaroles are holes where super hot sulfuric steam escapes from the earth.  My kids loved the Dragon’s Mouth, where a combination of rushing water and steam coming out of a cave really does bring to mind a dragon!

Yellowstone with Kids 8

Chittenden Road toward Mount Washburn:  For a tremendous view of Yellowstone, take the small Chittenden Road spur up the side of a mountain.  From the parking area at the end of the road, it’s about a 2-mile hike to the peak of Mount Washburn.  The kids weren’t up for the whole hike this time around, but we went part way and took some fun pictures.  Next time, we’re climbing to the summit!

Yellowstone with Kids Exhibits

Visitor’s Center Exhibits:  We found the exhibits in the Visitor’s Centers to be really well-done and interesting.  We were able to get answers to a lot of the questions that had us curious after seeing natural features in the park.  They’re definitely worth the time to check out!

Boiling River:  This is one thing we didn’t get to do, but we heard great things about…there’s an area of the river where a hot spring bubbles into the cooler river water, and you can soak in the warm water while the colder water rushes around you.  A fun one for older kids, but when we were in the area it was just the wrong time of day and the kids were too tired…this is high on our list for next time though!

Don’t forget that if you’ve got a fourth grader this year, your family is eligible for a FREE National Parks annual pass–just click HERE and check out the fantastic Every Kid in a Park program.

For more information on Yellowstone, including maps, reservations for lodges and campgrounds, and more, check out the Yellowstone National Park web site.  If you’ve been to Yellowstone, I’d love to hear your family’s favorite activities too!


Have you checked out our other Travel on a Shoestring posts?

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