A trip to Yellowstone National Park is certainly a memory that any child of any age will appreciate for a lifetime. With so many different geological formations, geysers, and an endless array of wildlife, there is certainly plenty to see during your time in the park. We have been to Yellowstone over a dozen times with our children at various ages and every trip to the park has created new and lasting memories. Obviously, you will want to visit all of the major sights within the park and the maps that you receive upon entering the park will highlight all of the places that should certainly be on your list of things to see while in the park. In order to maximize your experience in the park, especially if it might be your only time that you get to go to Yellowstone, here are a few tips that you should consider as you prepare for your visit with children.
Go on a Ranger Led Hike – Taking the time to make arrangements to participate in a ranger led hike is something that will be something that the family will treasure forever. It is worthwhile checking on the availability of the ranger led activities in advance as some of them book out weeks in advance. Ranger led hikes allow limited numbers of participants, so you really get a one on one experience and learn things about the park that you never would otherwise. The rangers all have vast knowledge about the history of Yellowstone as well as everything to do within the park and they are enthusiastic to share that knowledge with you.
Join the Junior Ranger Program – You can find information on the Junior Ranger program at any of the visitor centers or ranger stations and it only takes a few minutes to get the information necessary to join. We’ve had our kids participate in the Junior Ranger program at several national parks and earn the Junior Ranger badge at each of them and it truly is an excellent program. The Junior Ranger program is a great way to entertain the kids during some of the downtime in the park while also helping them learn about the park and the animals that reside there. They are given a booklet with several pages to complete (simple games like word find or match this animal to its environment, etc.) and when completed and returned to the ranger station, they are awarded their very own ranger badge.
Visit the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center – While there is certainly a possibility that you might see a bear or wolf in the park, they are some of the more illusive animals to find. Going to the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center not only provides a safe environment to see the animals up close, but also provides a wealth of information about how they survive in the wild. Not only will you learn about the animals, but you will also learn about how the wolves were reintroduced into the park and the controversary that it caused when the initiative was introduced.
Rent a Boat on Lake Yellowstone – Renting a boat and going out onto Lake Yellowstone is a fantastic way to see the lake from a completely different perspective. For those that like to fish, you can certainly do that as well. Even if you just want to take the boat and enjoy the views, rentals are available by the hour for up to eight hours. Lifejackets are provided and the children must be at least two years old.
Hike One of the Many Trails in the Park – Before hiking any trail within the park, it is always a good idea to visit the ranger station to learn whether bears have been seen in the area or if there are trails that they don’t recommend that you hike due to animal activity. They can also make recommendations on trails that are right for your family’s fitness and ages. It never ceases to amaze us at how many people cram into the walkways and viewing stations, but as soon as we step onto a trail, we’re virtually alone in the park. Some of the most beautiful sites in Yellowstone can only be seen by hiking to them and it also greatly increases your chances of seeing wildlife in the park. Because you never know when you’ll come across wildlife, the rangers recommend that you hike in groups of three or more, make noise, and carry bear spray for safety purposes.
Don’t Approach the Wildlife – It is important to remember that all of the animals in park are truly wild animals and not domesticated in any way. So many of the people that visit the park think that somehow it is some sort of giant petting zoo where the animals are used to interacting with people, but that is pure foolishness. Almost every year at least one visitor is killed by one of the many bison in the park because they think that they are docile like a cow. Even worse, we have actually seen people approaching a baby bear in a dried creek bed near the road. Fortunately, a ranger showed up to move them away because where there is a baby animal, there is a protective parent nearby that won’t hesitate to attack you to protect their child. The safest place for your children to see animals in the wild is always from a safe distance.
Provide an Incentive for Spotting Wildlife – There are many opportunities for seeing animals in the wild, but they often blend right into their environment. The only way to be sure to see them is to always be observant and scan the trees around you whether in the car or on a trail. Obviously, the attention span for children can be limited at times, so we have found that providing an incentive to spotting an animal is a great way to keep them focused. We used to provide a ranking the animals where they received a greater treat for something more illusive like a bear, wolf, or moose where they received something smaller if they were the first to spot an elk, bald eagle, or deer.
Be Sure to Be in the Park at Dawn or Dusk – If you’re going to Yellowstone, it is likely that you’re hoping for the opportunity to see some of the wildlife that is abundant in the park. Although the bison and elk are easy to see in the park, especially in summer, other animals can be harder to find. It is well worth getting up early or staying late in the park because the wildlife is more active during those times. We’ve been fortunate to see bears, both black and grizzly, moose, wolves, elk, bison, bald eagles, coyotes, beavers, and many others during our various visits.
Go Horseback Riding in Yellowstone – For a truly memorable experience, make arrangements for a private or group horseback ride in the park. It is a wonderful way to see the park in a different way and will have the kids feeling like they are cowboys and cowgirls. Not only can you go horseback riding in Yellowstone, but you can also go riding in the Grand Teton National Park, which is near the south entrance to the park.
Plan for Full Days – Yellowstone is a large park and you will spend a lot of time traveling through the park, not all of it filled with fascinating sights. Be sure to have snacks, water, and other items to help keep the children entertained during your time in the park. Make sure that you know when and where restrooms as there can be large spans of time between opportunities to stop. Also, be sure to be sure to have something to capture any trash that you create so that you can dispose of it properly at a visitor center, ranger station, or parking area. Never leave food scraps out for animals to find and certainly don’t litter in the park so that is as pristine for other visitors as it was for your visit.
Regardless of these tips, be sure to enjoy your time in Yellowstone National Park. There are certainly few places on earth with as much natural beauty and diversity of wildlife in a protected area. Seeing sights like Old Faithful or the Grand Prismatic Spring will be something that your children will remember for all of their lives. A visit to Yellowstone should be a memory that the entire family will recount with each throughout their lives.
We have been fortunate to have been able to visit Yellowstone National Park over a dozen times in the past fifteen years and through those visits we’ve definitely learned some lessons. It seems that most visitors to the park drive the various roads that traverse the park, stopping at each of the various landmarks as well as stopping whenever they run across a large number of vehicles pulled off on the side of the road, the sure sign of a wildlife spotting. Especially during the summer, there can be hundreds of people crammed around the walkways to get a glimpse at Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs, the Grand Prismatic Spring, or the Paint Pots. If you want to make the most of your visit to Yellowstone, here are a few things that we recommend.
Hike one of the many trails that are in the park. When hiking, the park recommends that you go in groups of three or more, make noise, and carry bear spray, but we’ve found that just the two of us is fine. It never ceases to amaze us at how many people cram into the walkways and viewing stations, but as soon as we step onto a trail, we’re virtually alone in the park. Some of the most beautiful sites in Yellowstone can only be seen by hiking to them and it also greatly increases your chances of seeing wildlife in the park. Some of the trails can be strenuous, so be sure to know your limits and always hydrate appropriately.
Talk to a ranger at one of the visitor centers or ranger stations located throughout the park. The rangers will be able to tell where certain wildlife is more likely to be seen, which trails are the best to hike and which ones should be avoided or are closed, as well as just provide great information on the park itself. The rangers are there to assist people and are always extremely friendly and proud of the park that they serve. Don’t be afraid to ask them questions, whether it is about where to go and what to see or questions about the various animals, plants, or geological wonders that abound throughout the park.
Visit the park during the off-season. Having been to Yellowstone in all four seasons, we enjoy going almost anytime other than summer. Fall is probably our favorite season as the Aspens have turned to a spectacular gold and the animals are all very active as they prepare themselves for the upcoming winter. During winter, though, you are more likely to see wolves or some of the more reclusive animals, but be prepared for snow and check for road closures as not all roads are open during the winter. Spring is also a wonderful time to visit the park as the wildflowers start to bloom and you will likely see some newly born wildlife with their parents.
Go on a ranger led hike. It is worthwhile checking on the availability of the ranger led activities in advance as some of them book out weeks in advance. Ranger led hikes allow limited numbers of participants, so you really get a one on one experience and learn things about the park that you never would otherwise. The rangers all have vast knowledge about the history of Yellowstone as well as everything to do within the park and they are enthusiastic to share that knowledge with you.
Don’t approach any of the wildlife. It amazes us every year to hear about people approaching wildlife in the park and then being seriously injured or killed. None of the animals are tame, they are all wild animals and this isn’t a petting zoo. The elk and bison may seem docile, but any animal that is startled or protecting its young can be unpredictable and aggressive. We all want that amazing photo to share with our friends, but it isn’t worth risking injury or death for it and having a telephoto lens is a much safer way to get that special shot.
Take your time in the park and give yourself several days to see everything. There is too much to see in Yellowstone to try and cram it in to a single day or even a couple of days. Despite all of the times that we’ve been to the park, we’re still finding new places to hike and new beautiful sites to see. Especially if you visit the park during the summer, expect plenty of traffic on the roads and around all of the major attractions. Don’t be one of those people who stop at one of the various geological wonders like Old Faithful or the Grand Prismatic Spring, take a couple of quick pictures, and jump back in the car. Take time to look around, read what information is available about what you’re viewing, and look for ways to view it that are different. Perhaps you’ll capture a picture that is truly different than what most park visitors see.
Don’t over plan, see the main attractions, but give yourself time to explore. There is so much to do and see in the park that you could put yourself on a tight schedule and try to see it all, but then you’d miss out on some great opportunities. Give yourself a chance to take a boat out onto Yellowstone Lake or go horseback riding in the park or Grand Tetons. Have dinner on a covered wagon excursion or pack a picnic lunch to eat on a long hike. The best memories are usually those that were made because of a spontaneous decision, so let yourself find one of those memories in Yellowstone.
Visit the park near dawn or dusk. If you’re going to Yellowstone, it is likely that you’re hoping for the opportunity to see some of the wildlife that is abundant in the park. Although the bison and elk are easy to see in the park, especially in summer, other animals can be harder to find. It is well worth getting up early or staying late in the park because the wildlife is more active during those times. We’ve been fortunate to see bears, both black and grizzly, moose, wolves, elk, bison, bald eagles, coyotes, beavers, and many others during our various visits.
If you have younger children, have them do the Junior Ranger program. We’ve had the kids participate in the Junior Ranger program at several national parks and earn the Junior Ranger badge at each of them. The Junior Ranger program is a great way to entertain the kids, while also helping them learn about the park and the animals that reside there. They are given a booklet with several pages to complete (simple games like word find or match this animal to its environment, etc.) and when completed and returned to the ranger station, they are awarded their very own ranger badge.
Be very observant and always scan all around you whether you’re driving through the park or hiking. You’ll likely run across a large group of vehicles pulled over on the side of the road with people out with their cameras taking pictures of some sort of wildlife. If you want to be the first vehicle to stop for that wildlife encounter, pay close attention to your surroundings at all times. You’d be surprised at how often you may run across something very interesting just by having everyone in the car, obviously not the driver, looking through the trees for anything that might be an animal. It is even more important to be observant when you’re hiking because you don’t want to surprise an animal while on a trail. Always look as far ahead as possible as well as scanning in all directions, just to be sure that you see any animals before they see you.
Yellowstone National Park has such an amazing variety of scenery and wildlife that it is not surprising why people travel from around the world to visit. We have been fortunate enough to go to Yellowstone over a dozen times over the years and every visit has been as unique as the wildlife that we have seen. There have been times when trying to see the park has been a frustrating experience as the cars and RV’s turn the few roads that traverse the park into virtual parking lots. Joining the crowds at Old Faithful and the Grand Prismatic Lake can make it feel more like you are waiting in line at an amusement park rather than enjoying the beauty of one the most spectacular places on earth. Unless you enjoy people watching, there a few tips that should help you have a more enjoyable experience.
Get Off of the Roads – If you want to have a truly memorable experience, talk to the rangers and get a map of the various hiking trails that can be found throughout the park. The rangers will also be able to provide guidance as to which trails should be avoided due to bears or other predators that might be active in the area. Although everyone wants to see wild animals in their natural environment, having a close encounter with a grizzly bear is something that you definitely want to avoid. There are trails to suit almost anyone’s hiking capabilities from the very youngest to the older among us. There are even trails around some of the major attractions that will allow you to see them from angles that other tourists don’t get to see and the lack of crowds will make the experience even better. It is always amazing to us how just jumping onto the trail can transform the park from masses of people into a world of serene isolation.
Go into the Park Early or Late in the Day – Many of the typical tourists that visit the park start their days around 8:00 am and leave the park in time to catch dinner outside of the park. Not only will getting up before dawn and heading into the park or staying until the sun is setting has the dual benefit of avoiding some of the crowds, but also increases the chances of seeing wildlife as the animals are more active as the sun rises and sets. Also, the earlier that you can get to some of the more popular spots, the fewer people you will have to share the experience with. After all, Old Faithful erupts approximately every hour and a half regardless of the time of day.
Enter from the North Entrance – Obviously this depends upon where you might decide to stay, but the northern entrance from Montana is usually a little less busy than the West Yellowstone entrance or the southern entrance near Jackson Hole. Both of those entrances are in Wyoming and the southern entrance is probably the busiest. We love combining the Grand Tetons, Jackson Hole, and Yellowstone into a single visit, but perhaps not during the height of the tourist season, which leads directly to the next piece of advice.
Go During the Off-Season – Although the only real off-season is winter, the earlier in spring or the later in autumn you are willing to go, the fewer people will be there along side of you. Personally, our favorite time to visit the park is during fall when the leaves are changing and the animals are actively preparing for winter. You need to be extra cautious when hiking in early spring or fall as the animals can be aggressive as they defend their feeding grounds at the end of the year or their newborns early in the year. As we mentioned before, always check with the rangers, regardless of the time of year, before hiking in the park. Don’t confuse the park with a zoo, these are wild animals who just happen to live in an area that is protected.
Going to Yellowstone National Park should be on everyone’s list to visit at least once in their lives. You will need several days or preferably a week in order to see as much of the park as possible, so bring your camera, binoculars, and your patience. Hopefully these tips will help make your visit a little better, but just realize that their are a lot of other people who want to see a place with such natural beauty. You will never have the park to yourself, but there are ways to make the most of your experience.