Summer is around the corner, and families are wondering what to do about summer vacations — including to national parks. The coronavirus has put a halt on most families’ travel plans, although some national parks are reopening to visitors. Summer vacation is a typical time for many families to visit Yellowstone National Park with kids. And we have tips!
Yellowstone National Park reopened on Monday, May 18, after closing due to the coronavirus. The first phase of reopening Yellowstone will include having only the south and east entrances open, enabling visitors to access Grand Loop Road. Trails, restrooms, and gas stations will be open. Visitor centers, restaurants, ranger programs, lodges, and campgrounds will stay closed until later phases of reopening. Depending on your priorities for visiting Yellowstone, Phase I might be the best time or the worst time to go. Visiting now would be great if the potential for seeing more wildlife and having fewer crowds is what you’re after. However, if you want the whole Yellowstone experience with lodging or camping, programs, and tours — and, needless to say, if the virus is a concern to you — it’s better to wait. (Update: Thousands of people visited Yellowstone the first day. Vehicles lined up hours before the park opened.)
Why Yellowstone National Park with kids?
The idea of a must-do list of places you have to visit at least once in your lifetime is as tempting as it is limiting. (“Places to go before you die” seems too morbid.) Everyone is different and will enjoy different kinds of places, but there are truly some areas that are so magnificent and recommended so often that they end up on these kinds of lists. Yellowstone National Park is one of them, naturally. As the first national park in America, it’s got the heritage factor. It’s also geologically unique and full of an amazing variety of wildlife. All of these elements make Yellowstone a place everyone really should visit at least once … and that makes it crowded. It’s worth it, though.
We’ve been lucky enough to visit a couple times both with and without kids. (We know there are people who have been multiple times.) Taking the kids to Yellowstone was exciting because we could share our favorite things about the park and see their reaction to experiencing them for the first time.
The key to visiting Yellowstone and other big national parks is in the planning. Here are our best tips for a family trip to Yellowstone National Park with kids.
The Yellowstone whens and wheres
It’s important to think about the logistics of visiting such a big, popular park. The first is when you’ll go. Typically, July and August are busiest months, because snow has usually melted from all the roads by then, allowing visitors to see the whole park. That’s also when most kids are out of school for the summer. Some people prefer to go in September or October before it starts snowing again to avoid crowds. Also think about how many days you can spend in the park. We think you’ll need at least three days, although a week is definitely better.
Once you decide when you’ll go and how long you’ll stay, you should think about where you’re going to sleep. The best way to get the most out of your trip is to stay in one of the Yellowstone lodges or campgrounds, because you won’t waste time traveling to and from the park. If you have to stay outside of the park, we recommend West Yellowstone, Idaho (near the western entrance to the park), or Gardiner, Montana (near the northern entrance). Some people recommend Cody, Wyoming (near the eastern entrance).
We stayed in some small lodgings and also the Old Faithful Inn (different from Old Faithful Lodge), which we enjoyed. The inn sits in view of the Old Faithful geyser and has a restaurant and quick-service food options too. It’s a grand structure built in 1904, and it’s fun to wander around when you have some downtime. Even if you don’t stay here, it’s a part of Yellowstone history, so budget some time for a meal or at least a brief look around.
Because Yellowstone is so popular, you’ll need to make campground or lodging reservations as early as possible, even almost a year ahead. You may get lucky with last-minute reservations, but you might not get your first choice places to stay if you wait.
To get around Yellowstone, you’ll want to acquaint yourself with a map of the park and see where the top sights are in relation to where you’re staying, then plan out how you’ll get to those spots. You can also see the park on Yellowstone’s historic yellow bus tours in a vintage bus.
To get to Yellowstone, most people fly in to the Jackson Hole, Idaho Falls, Cody, or Bozeman airports.
Kid favorites in Yellowstone
Our kids were wowed by:
- Old Faithful geyser. A clock inside Old Faithful Inn tells you the estimate for the next eruption. Get a good spot close to the geyser in advance so you’ll have a good view before crowds come and potentially block your view.
- Hayden Valley. Just driving on the road, we saw so many bison here, and also elk and even a black bear!
- Artist Point. The short walk up was delightful, and the views of the “Grand Canyon of Yellowstone” and the Lower Falls were amazing.
The kids also liked seeing Tower Creek across from Tower General Store, walking around and playing at Pebble Creek, and the short hike to see Lewis Falls. They thought the Old Faithful Inn was an interesting place to stay even though we didn’t have wifi.
Aside from Old Faithful, they didn’t seem impressed by the hydrothermal features of the park, although they did like just walking around them to see what they could see.
Best places to see Yellowstone wildlife
Based on our experiences, the Hayden and Lamar Valleys are wonderful places to see wildlife in the park. That’s where we saw most of the bison and elk, a black bear, pronghorn antelope, and possibly even a wolf (very, very far away!). We also saw a coyote just outside Canyon Village, trotting down the road — so always be looking for animals as you travel through the park, because you don’t know when or where they will show up. (A bison wandered into the parking lot of the Old Faithful Inn one day.)
We have also seen several birds in various places around the park, including pine grosbeaks, trumpeter swans, white pelicans, loons, magpies, and red-winged blackbirds. We were sad to learn that some bird populations have been reduced because of a food web issue surrounding the appearance of lake trout.
Best ranger programs
The best program offered by national parks is the Junior Ranger program. Offered in several national parks, kids learn about the park and complete activities to show their understanding of park ecology or history. Then they can earn a Junior Ranger badge.
Although we listened to some ranger talks at Canyon Village (where the visitor center is like a museum), we didn’t seem to make it to the other Yellowstone ranger programs we were interested in on our trip, especially the night sky programs. We were just too tired!
(On a somewhat related note, one of the reasons we were so tired was in the summer it stayed deceptively light later in the evening than we are used to, so we always ended up eating dinner late and getting to bed late.)
Make sure to pick up a free park newspaper that details what’s going on.
Unfortunately, no ranger programs are scheduled the summer of 2020 because of the coronavirus.
Other Yellowstone Tips
Yellowstone and other national parks have to keep reminding people to maintain a safe distance from wildlife. Don’t get tossed by a bison! (Update: Two days after Yellowstone reopened, a woman got too close to a bison, which knocked her down.)
Plan when and where you might have meals, or pack food with you. Although we prefer exploring over eating, we often forgot about not having access to food anytime we felt like it. We actually lost a chance to eat dinner one night! Snacks saved us. Some of the quick-service places close early, and the sit-down restaurants that take reservations can fill up.
If you have a fourth-grader, take advantage of the Every Kid Outdoors program to get free entrance to federal lands.
If you’re even a little bit like us, visiting Yellowstone National Park with kids will give you a greater sense of nature’s wonder if you look at this amazing wilderness through your kids’ eyes. Do your planning, but be open to new experiences and enjoy this western gem.