There’s one family vacation I’ve made sure my children (and now my grandchildren) have had a chance to experience—a trip to Yellowstone National Park. It’s not just because Yellowstone is the first national park in the world and its formation was the beginning of the conservation of our natural treasures. It’s because Yellowstone is a downright incredible experience! It’s never boring. There are so many awesome things to do in Yellowstone.
Yellowstone National Park is huge. It covers more than two million acres across Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. You can see colorful hot springs, mud pots, and geysers. You can explore mountains, forests, and lakes. You can watch wildlife. If Yellowstone is on your vacation to-do list, take a look at 10 things you absolutely must do for family fun at Yellowstone National Park.
TIP: Pack a cooler with drinks and food for your travels within the park. Buy these items at a grocery store outside the park. The stores inside the park, when open, are pricey.
Stay in the park or as close as you can to the park entrance
If you aren’t planning to stay inside the park, stay very close to the entrance.
Yellowstone has 5 entrances to the park. The entrances to the park and the towns closest to those entrances are:
North Entrance – Gardner, MT (The only park entrance open to wheeled vehicles all year. Closest airline service is Bozeman, MT.)
Northeast Entrance – Cooke City/Silvergate via Beartooth Hwy (Closest airline service is Billings, MT.)
East Entrance – Cody, WY (Closest airline service is Cody, WY.)
South Entrance – Jackson, WY (Closest airline service is Jackson, WY.)
West Entrance – West Yellowstone, MT (Closest airline service is West Yellowstone, MT, Bozeman, MT, Idaho Falls, ID, and Salt Lake City, UT.)
We usually stay in West Yellowstone. Yellowstone Park lodging and hotels are plentiful near this entrance. You have your pick of hotels, motels, inns, guest ranches, dude ranches, cabins and lodges and the West Yellowstone entrance is only a 15-minute drive. If you plan on visiting for only a few days and want to experience some of the main attractions then West Yellowstone would be a good base.
The park is very popular (more than 4 million visitors a year,) so not only do you want to stay nearby, you want to get there early (before 10 am) or you’ll end up in a back-up of cars.
Tip: There are 9 in-park lodging facilities as well as campsites.
Attend a ranger-led program
Many of Yellowstone’s free ranger-led programs are geared specifically for kids. Activities might include wildlife talks, games, hikes, and science programs. A good program to start with is the Explore Yellowstone program presented each morning at 9 AM at the West Yellowstone Visitors Center. The 30 minute talk will gives you lots of ideas of what to see and do in the park as well as let you know where wildlife is most likely to be spotted that day.
There are other ranger programs on bear safety, geology, history and native animals. There are also ranger-led hikes and campfire programs. You can find a schedule of the programs in the park newspaper or you can go online to check out the schedule for the time you’ll be at the park.
Get to the park early for animal watching
Yellowstone is well-known for its wildlife, including elk, moose, bison and bald eagles. The big mammals of the park are particularly thrilling for kids: You may see grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, bison, and elk in the open meadows or forests. Look for park volunteers with spotting scopes—they’ll let you take a peek at whatever they’ve seen.
Arrive at the park early when the animals are most active. Bring along binoculars for some prime wildlife viewing and your safety. The wildlife is, well, wild. Give them some distance and never approach them. Each year, park visitors are killed or injured by wildlife when approaching too closely.
Watch Old Faithful Erupt
This is a must see for first-time visitors. Park at the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center and check inside for the day’s predicted eruption times. Old Faithful erupts every 35 to 120 minutes. Be sure to also check out the Old Faithful Inn, a lovely, old mountain inn in the Old Faithful Historic District. The hotel offers a large deck with plenty of seating that faces Old Faithful. This is a great place to sit, relax, and enjoy the eruption (even if you’re not staying at the hotel.)
Stamp Your Passport
First, buy a Passport to Your National Parks. You can buy one online or at the park visitors’ center or bookstore. Keep your eyes open for cancellation stamps and stickers. The passport is great to have for all the parks you visit.
Become a Junior Ranger
Kids love earning badges and patches at various national parks through the Junior Ranger program. You can pick up an activity booklet at any visitors center inside the park (booklets are free at most national parks, But there is a $3 each charge at Yellowstone). When the child completes a certain number of activities depending on their age they earn a patch.
Become a Young Scientist
Students ages 5 and up—you can become a Young Scientist when you visit Yellowstone National Park! Purchase your self-guiding booklet for $5 at the Canyon Visitor Education Center or Old Faithful Visitor Center. At the Old Faithful Visitor Center, kids can check out a Young Scientist Toolkit for use in the Upper Geyser Basin. The kit includes a thermometer, stopwatch and more. Kids complete an activity booklet to earn a Young Scientist patch or key chain (for kids ages five and up).
Explore Upper Geyser Basin
Yellowstone is Earth’s largest active geyser field. The park delivers big when it comes to providing visitors with views of these strange, mysterious, odd-smelling steaming vents and spouting features. From Old Faithful, walk along the one-mile boardwalk through Upper Geyser Basin to check out a variety of hot springs and geysers, including Morning Glory Pool. Take one of the short hiking trails that branch off the boardwalk to explore the geysers from a new vantage point.
In total, there are over 10,000 hot springs and geysers here. Some geysers erupt 300 times yearly. Many erupt faithfully, while others we don’t recommend you wait around for… (For example, there was a 50-year period that Steamboat Geyser did not erupt!)
Sing Songs, Roast Marshmallows, and Watch the Stars
Even if you’re not camping in the park you can still have a good old-fashioned cookout and campfire. Visitors are welcome one of the 52 picnic areas throughout the park. Signs are posted along the roadways that indicate each picnic area.
Camping stoves and self-contained charcoal grills may be used to prepare food at any picnic area. Wood campfires are allowed only in picnic areas with designated fire grates. After the weenie roast and campfire hootenanny search the night sky for constellations, the Milky Way, and craters on the moon from your picnic site.
Bike to Morning Glory Pool
Bikes are allowed on the paved path between the Old Faithful Lodge and Morning Glory Pool. Take this short (2 mi. round-trip) paved path and make three stops. Bikes are not allowed on the boardwalks, but there are several racks where you can park your bike while you explore. This route becomes busy with people walking so the best bicycling is early in the morning and in the evening. Bikes can be rented at Old Faithful Snow Lodge in the heart of Yellowstone’s geyser country.
Yellowstone National Park is a perfect multigeneration vacation destination. The kids love exploring Yellowstone’s trails and lake shores, spotting wild animals, and marveling at the geysers and hot springs in the park. And I never tire re-experiencing Yellowstone Through the eyes of my grandchildren. If you follow these tips on things to do in Yellowstone you will capture wonderful memories that will last forever.