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We were driving the Northern loop through Yellowstone National Park when we arrived at a traffic jam, a scene not uncommon in the park as cars slow down to take in the always-present wildlife. This one, however, was taking a while, and our 2- and 4-year-old children were getting restless in the back seat, so we walked a few car lengths up the shoulder to investigate the cause. A bison stood cleaning a baby she’d just delivered in the middle of the road. A conservation officer nonchalantly explained that as soon as the placenta was delivered, the bison would likely be on her way. A few minutes later, the birth was complete, the calf stood on shaky legs for the first time and followed its mother into the grazing herd nearby.
Just another day at Yellowstone.
Yellowstone National Park spans 3,400 square miles across Wyoming, bleeding into Montana and Idaho. A mélange of mountains, meadows, lakes, canyons and rivers make it a natural wonderland for exploring and watching wildlife. Camping is, by far, the most intimate way to experience the sun casting a glow across the plains, to hear the eerie cry of a wolf echoing in the night or to breathe in the park’s fresh morning air.
When to Go to Yellowstone
While Yellowstone is open to visitors year-round, the most practical time for families planning to camp is June through August. We arrived in May one year and were greeted with snow flurries; we also experienced a dusting of snow in late August on another visit, so whenever you choose to go, be sure to pack warm clothing.
Entrance Fees at Yellowstone
There are a variety of passes you can purchase for admittance to Yellowstone. A seven-day pass for a private, non-commercial vehicle is $35. It’s $20 per person (ages 16+) to enter on foot, bicycle or on skis. Admission is free for anyone 15 or younger. If your family plans to visit more than once, consider the Yellowstone National Park Annual Pass for $70, which covers the passholder plus up to three additional people (16+) when traveling by the snowcoach or shuttle.
For families with plans to visit more than one national park, there are options like the America the Beautiful passes, which include annual passes, fourth grade passes and senior passes. Here’s what you need to know to visit America’s national parks for less.
Camping at Yellowstone
Yellowstone has 12 campgrounds. Five of these can be booked six months to one year in advance through Xanterra ($26–$31/night) (even if booked, keep checking the site as cancellations do occur and spots open up). If you don’t always map out your adventures a year in advance, there are seven first-come, first served campgrounds available. You can find the full listing of sites and amenities here. ($15–$20/night)
Our Picks for Sites You Can Reserve
We stayed at Madison campground situated along the Madison River with a mountain looming in the background. It is centrally located and near Old Faithful and the Upper, Middle and Lower Geyser basins. The town of West Yellowstone and its amenities are a short trip (14 miles) away. It is a non-electricity campground and accommodates tents, trailers and RVs. Sites have picnic tables, fire pits and access to flush toilets. We took advantage of the nightly Ranger Talks highlighting wildlife species in the park.
Grant Village campground is popular with families as it offers many amenities such as a general store, restaurant and close proximity to showers. Nestled along the shore of Yellowstone Lake amid lodgepole pines, the campground is only a few miles from attractions like West Thumb Geyser Basin.
First-Come, First-Served Site Picks
Norris campground has 100 sites tucked in a lodgepole pine forest, and is popular due to its central location in the park and its campfire programs.
Mammoth Hot Springs campground is a good base for exploring the northern part of the park and its many attractions such as Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces and Boiling River; this campground has the bonus potential for Bison and elk sightings.
In my opinion, you’ve hit the jackpot if you are camping anywhere in Yellowstone National Park.
Must-Do Activities While at Yellowstone
If you’re lucky enough to plan a family trip to Yellowstone, you’ll be rewarded with plenty of activities. Here are some of my family’s favorites.
One of the main attractions at Yellowstone is the free roaming wildlife. Our children were enthralled to see bison, elk, deer, a wolf, fox and even a porcupine roaming the plains. We had to abandon a pleasant picnic one afternoon when a bison tried to join us for lunch. The animals are both common and king in this park. We did not encounter bears, but visitors should exercise caution and heed advisories. Using bear boxes to store scented products at campsites is mandatory and carrying bear spray when hiking is recommended. Overall, the park does an excellent job of alerting visitors of all wildlife sightings.
Geysers and Thermal Pools
Yellowstone boasts over half the world’s total number of active geysers. Old Faithful is a good place to start — especially with children in tow — as it erupts with flair roughly every 90 minutes. Kids will enjoy the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center as it offers films, interactive displays and a very hands-on Young Scientist exhibit. A boardwalk leads visitors to several other geysers in this group along the Firehole River. This is a stroller-friendly 3-mile trek — easily walkable for most children 5 and up. (If you need to upgrade your gear, here’s a look at the best baby carriers and strollers for active families.)
Families can spend anywhere between half a day to several days exploring Yellowstone’s geysers and thermal pools, which are too numerous to mention in full. One of our favorites is Grand Prismatic Spring, which is the largest and deepest pool in the park and has mesmerizing blue water. The spring is accessible by a half-mile boardwalk. Our kids found Fountain Paint Pot — a series of mud pots that sputter, bubble and gurgle — another highlight.
Several walks for younger children can be found right at the geysers and thermal pools. A 1-mile loop through a burnt forest leads to Artist Paint Pots, geological features of various sizes and colors.
Yellowstone is full of trails that lead to waterfalls, lakes and meadows. Trout Lake is a short, but steep 10-minute hike that delivers visitors to picturesque Trout Lake. If you’re still feeling energetic, you can then take a leisurely stroll along the grassy path through meadows and around the lake (another 20–30 minutes).
Mystic Falls is a quiet and rewarding three-mile loop (with the option of adding another mile) that is suitable for families with older children. The hike offers views of the Firehole River and leads to the 70-foot Mystic Falls. We completed the entire 4-mile trail in about three hours with our 9- and 11-year-olds.
If you want to get wet, you can take a dip in the warm pools of Boiling River. A hot spring enters the Gardiner River, and the hot and cold waters mix to create a comfortable spot for splashing around. There are no facilities at the site. Another lukewarm swimming hole popular with kids is the Firehole Swimming Area. Change rooms and washrooms are available.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
No trip to Yellowstone would be complete without a stop at the park’s Grand Canyon. The Canyon Visitor Education Center will enthrall children, with its room-sized relief model highlighting the park’s volcanic activity, and a rotating globe that shows the earth’s volcanoes, along with exhibits, murals and dioramas.
The canyon itself is inspiring and unexpected when you first lay eyes on it. A product of volcanic activity, it seems to split the park open, with red, rust and yellow rock that is a product of the area’s thermal activity. You can watch the Lower and Upper Falls tumbling into the canyon from various viewing points.
Yellowstone is sprawling and filled with possibility and diversity, and camping is an iconic way to experience it. If you decide to pack it up and stay in a hotel for a night, you can use 45k IHG points to stay at the Holiday Inn West Yellowstone or 15k Wyndham points to stay at the Days Inn by Wyndham West Yellowstone.
While Yellowstone can be overwhelming, focusing on a few areas of the park makes it manageable. Plan to stay in the areas you wish to see. Due to the wildlife sightings, scenery and traffic, travel can be slow going. Sit back and enjoy the ride — and you may even witness a bison being born!
If you’re new to the great outdoors, here are TPG‘s top tips for visiting national parks with kids. If you need to start earning some points to cover your next vacation, here are some of the top rewards credit cards for traveling families.
Featured image by Chris Leipelt/Unsplash
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