Yellowstone National Park is all too often a bucket list destination! People have heard about, read about or seen in a nature documentary. It is often put on a bucket list for when the kids have flown the nest. I’m here to tell you that you shouldn’t do that, because Yellowstone with kids can be awesome. I haven’t visit anywhere you can experience raw nature of earth while combining it with wildlife in stunningly beautiful landscapes. Nowhere else can you see wildlife treading carefully and negotiating their way around hot springs and erupting geysers. Nowhere else do you stop your car along a river to let a herd of bison cross and do so willingly. Yellowstone is somewhere you simply have to visit to appreciate. And you need to visit Yellowstone park with your kids.
How much time you spend in Yellowstone Park very much depends on whether you want to visit Yellowstone itself, or incorporate it into a USA road trip. Why do one, when you can do both? And that’s exactly what my husband and I did last year with our then three-year-old son. We took on a two-week USA road trip visiting Yellowstone, parts of Montana and Portland. We spent three and a half days exploring all the wonders of Yellowstone and in this post, I’m going to tell you how you can see the best of Yellowstone with kids in three days. Note that this itinerary starts each day from the West Yellowstone Gate in Montana.
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A three day guide
Yellowstone National Park is most famous for one thing, its geysers, and the famous than Old Faithful. The Geyser Basin was the first area we headed to once we entered the park. Coming from West Yellowstone, you drove along the Madison River and turn right at Madison Junction to head South along Firehole River. The three geyser basins are located along this road within 17 miles of the junction. It is worth stopping along the river to stretch your legs and let the kids throw stones into the water, as the scenery is just stunning. There will be no stone throwing in the next places you stop.Although the Lower Geyser Basin is the first one you meet along this road, I would suggest getting into the park early and going to the Midway Geyser Basin first for two reasons.
Firstly, this is where the famous Grand Prismatic Hot Spring is located and secondly, it has a very small car park. We drove past this basin on our first afternoon in Yellowstone and there was no parking available in the car park. It was also so busy that cars were parked along either side of the road for a mile or two in both directions. This is understandable as it is one of the most popular things to see in Yellowstone.
YELLOWSTONE WITH KIDS
We arrived there before 9am the next morning and found plenty of parking. Exiting the car, the smell of sulphur hits you straight away and it’s a smell you’ll become accustomed to while visiting Yellowstone National Park. Our son was certainly not a fan saying, “yuck mummy I don’t like it”. As well as the Grand Prismatic Hot Spring, you can also see the Opal and Turquoise pools and the Excelsior Geyser whose run off flows into the Firehole River below. Your visit to the Midway Geyser Basin should last about an hour to an hour and a half.
Our son was fascinated by the boardwalk and the colours we could see at the edge of the Prismatic Spring. After visiting this area, I’d suggest doubling back a few miles and visiting the Lower Geyser Basin.Although this area also has a small car park we had no trouble finding a spot. At the Lower Geyser Basin, you’ll find a great mixture of thermal features including mud pots, fumaroles, springs and geysers spaced out across nearly 12 square miles. The Fountain Paint Pot is a beautiful pool with the most turquoise deep blue colour in its lower half and is one you should get your camera out for. The steam coming from some of the fumaroles caught our son’s attention when we told him it was from a dragon. From then on, steam meant dragons. And it meant he never got bored.
Yellowstone with Kids
There are several geysers located in this location with one at almost constant eruption, the Clepsydra Geyser. You also have a good chance of seeing the Jet Geyser erupting during your visit here. Your visit to this geyser basin will take between 30 and 60 minutes depending on little legs and whether a geyser starts erupting during your visit. And just be aware that you may get sprayed with water from the eruptions. While this is not harmful to us, you might want to ensure you clean any water and deposit on your camera lenses and glasses as they can leave deposits which are impossible to remove once dry. Our son just couldn’t understand why the water was shooting up into the sky and where it was coming from. But it didn’t stop him from stopping and staring at the geysers for what seemed like ages.
Next on your Yellowstone itinerary will be the Upper Geyser Basin where you will find Old Faithful. While there are no less than four other geysers in this basin, Old Faithful is the one everyone wants to see. And it will even amaze kids. It is the most predictable erupting geyser in Yellowstone, with its eruptions lasting between 1.5 and 5 minutes on a cycle of between 60 and 90 minutes. The time between eruptions depends in the length of the previous eruption.
Yellowstone with Kids
The car park at the Upper Geyser Basin is one of the largest in Yellowstone National Park, and although it will always be busy, we found a parking spot easily enough as someone was leaving. We had just missed one eruption as we were arriving, so elected to have lunch in the Old Faithful Lodge while we waited for the next eruption as I knew our son wasn’t going to sit on a bench for potentially 90 minutes.
There is also a Visitor’s Centre located in this area, and trails to walk which will lead you towards the other geysers if you need to kill some time. Your stay in this area will be anything from an hour to a couple of hours depending on whether you catch an eruption as soon as you arrive, and whether you want to visit some of the other geysers, walk a trail, and whether your husband wants to browse the gifts shops in the Old Faithful and Snow Lodge, like mine! And when Old Faithful finally erupted, it stopped our son dead in his tracks who became entranced for a few minutes at the erupting water.
Yellowstone with Kids
From Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin, and depending on the time of day, you could drive across the road to visit the Lone Star Geyser, or carry on towards the West Thumb Geyser Basin, just a few miles east of Old Faithful. We only briefly visited the West Thumb Geyser Basin, which lies on the edge of Yellowstone Lake. Note, that all of the Geyser Basins have wooden boardwalks which take you around the areas.
Many do not have rails or barriers, so keep a tight hold of young kids. We chose to use preschool reins with our son to ensure we had a hold of him at all times, but still allowing him a bit of freedom. You can cover some of the top 10 things to see in Yellowstone on day one and tick off the must-see geysers of Yellowstone before changing focus for day two.
Our son was never bored at any of the geyser basins, and in some cases, we piqued his imagination by making a game of things and telling him steam from the ground was a dragon’s breath coming from a cave.
Wildlife and Waterfalls
One thing we wanted to do while visiting Yellowstone National Park was to drive the Grand Loop. This is the road that loops around Yellowstone in a circle over 142 miles, hence its name. We chose to split it across two days and did the Lower Loop first. From the Madison Junction we followed it south past the Geyser Basins, past West Thumb and Lake Village, to Canyon Village. From here we Drove west towards Norris and completed our loop back at Madison Junction.
Once you leave the main geyser basins and drive past West Thumb, you will follow the road along the edge of the Yellowstone Lake, the largest body of water in Yellowstone. It’s worth taking a small detour at Lake Village to the Fishing Bridge. We stopped here for a short time to enjoy the view, walk along the river and to let our son throw stones into the water. Stones and rivers/lakes go hand in hand, don’t they! Afterwards, we had tea and cakes in the Lake Lodge before carrying on north towards Canyon Village.
Along the way there is another thermal area which is home to the Mud Volcano, the Dragon’s Cauldron, the Sour Lake and the Dragon’s Mouth Spring. For our son who loves dragons and going dragon hunting in castles, this area was probably his favourite thermal, springs area. Of all the geothermal areas we visited in Yellowstone, this one had the strongest “rotten egg” smell.
Yellowstone with Kids
We discovered halfway up the steep boardwalk that by going clockwise, instead of anticlockwise, there was a gentler upwards walk to discover this area. So, my advice to you, is go left from the car park, past the Mud Cauldron and Mud Geyser.
After leaving here you follow the Yellowstone river along the Hayden Valley, a stunning lowland area where you are sure to spot bison. If you see cars stopping ahead of you or pulling in, you can be sure it’s because of bison. We stopped a few times along the road to catch a glimpse of some small herds of bison. Our son was fascinated by them and bison became the new word of the day as we spotted more and more of them.
Your last stop along the lower half of the Grand Loop Drive will be Canyon Village. Why should you stop here? To show the kids two of Yellowstone’s amazing waterfalls. The Upper Falls is the first one you will meet, and it can be viewed from above at the Brink of the Upper Falls or from the view point. Unfortunately, at the time of our visit, the view point was closed for maintenance, so we could only view the Upper Falls from on top. That said, the rush of water and noise alone makes it worth seeing.
Yellowstone with Kids
Further along the road you will come across the lookout point for the Lower Falls. These, in my opinion, are the most spectacular waterfalls in Yellowstone and can be viewed from an upper and lower viewing point. The upper viewing point is probably the best one to visit with young kids, as while the walk down to the lower viewing point is fine, the trek back up the trail is tough, even for adults. That said, I saw and passed a few families with young kids on this trail. If you think your kids can handle it, or you are prepared to carry them back up a steep incline, then the lower view point is the best place to see the Lower Falls from.
This waterfall is spectacular, an amazing sight to see and is another one of the top ten things to see in Yellowstone with kids. Your final stop within the Canyon Village area will be to catch a glimpse of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, a deep raven in which snakes the Yellowstone River.
However, a word of warning. If you are asking someone to take a family photo of you with the canyon behind you, and you want the canyon in the background, tell them! We weren’t specific enough and, while we got a nice family photo, you cannot see the canyon as we’re hiding it. So, if you’re handing over your camera or phone, tell the person you want the canyon in the background as well. So, there’s day two of your three-day itinerary for Yellowstone, a day in which you can combine raw mother nature, with stunning landscapes and two of the best waterfalls in the park.
Fort Yellowstone and Dine with Cowboys
During the last day of our visit to Yellowstone National Park, we drove the upper half of the Grand Loop Drive. We drove from Madison Junction towards Norris and stopped to take in another of Yellowstone’s waterfalls, Gibbon Falls. Although the Lower Falls are spectacular, my favourite was Gibbon Falls. We were there shortly after 8am and had the place to ourselves. It was peaceful and very beautiful. Again, the car park here wasn’t very big but was empty early in the morning.
From Gibbon Falls you can head east towards Canyon Village before turning north to head towards Roosevelt Lodge. This route takes in some mountain drives and the views from the road are breath-taking. You can stop at Tower Falls, another waterfall, but we didn’t, choosing to carry on.
At Roosevelt Lodge, you can stop for tea/coffee and snacks which can be bought from the Yellowstone General stores. This is a good pit stop for a toilet break before driving out the Lamar Valley. My husband was hoping we might spot some wolves. The Lamar Valley is where the highest concentration of wolves can be found in Yellowstone National Park. However, we later learned you need to be in that area before dawn to have any hope of seeing or hearing them. That said, the Lamar Valley was where we saw the largest herb of bison of our visit. We even had to stop the car to allow about 30 bison to cross the road. Imagine a small boy’s delight at seeing them in front of the car!
Yellowstone with Kids
Yellowstone and Mammoth Hot Springs is home to Park Rangers and the Albright Visitor Centre. They are places worth popping into! It was there I learned more about the expeditions that discovered Yellowstone, and also about the decimation of the bison population within 10 years in the late 1880’s. It is also a great place for a picnic, with a grassy area outside the Visitor’s Centre where kids can run around and let off steam. Just be careful of some potholes hidden in the grass. I’ve been told there is a good place to get ice creams there too, although we never looked for it.
At Mammoth Hot Spring you can visit the spring terraces if you haven’t had enough of thermal features and you can even drive around the upper terraces if you’re feeling lazy. After about two hours at Fort Yellowstone, we headed back to Roosevelt Lodge for something special. This something special is something you simply must do if visiting Yellowstone. It was recommended to us during the planning of our visit and is one I’m so glad we opted to do. What is it I hear you say? The Old West Dinner Cookout. It is a dining experience with a difference. While it is slightly on the expensive side, it is worth every dollar.
Yellowstone with Kids
We met a group of real-life cowboys at Roosevelt Lodge. First we boarded wagons which took us out into the “old west” country. We saw site of the very first hotel in Yellowstone, although it is no longer standing. The cowboy dinner of steak with sides, while being entertained with music and stories around the campfire was so authentic. Not to mention enjoying a strong cowboy coffee, served by cowboy himself. We had the chance to meet the horses which pull the wagon. It is simply THE best way to end your visit to Yellowstone with kids. Our son thoroughly enjoyed this experience, as did we. The driver of our wagon was the main man. We were joined by a woman who told us stories of how she became a cowgirl. She was an inspirational woman I can tell you.
The Old West Dinner Cookout lasts approximately two to two and a half hours. It is something we will never forget about our time in the park. It is high on our top ten things to do in Yellowstone. After returning to Roosevelt, we headed back to Mammoth Hot Springs. To finish off our time in Yellowstone, we drove along the River Drive. It follows the Madison River towards the West Gate. We were treated to a stunning pink sky as sunset fell. It was the final goodbye to an awesome visit to one of the most amazing places on earth.
Yellowstone with Kids
To get to Yellowstone you can fly to a nearby airport or drive there. Visitors can opt for self guided or go with a tour. I highly recommend your own transport, especially if visiting Yellowstone with kids. The nearest airports to Yellowstone is Bozeman in Montana and Jackson Hole. There is also Yellowstone Regional Airport in Cody in Wyoming. To connect to these airports, you will most likely transfer in Salt Lake City. We flew into Portland, Oregon, before picking up a rental car and driving to Yellowstone. Within Yellowstone, you need your own transport as there are no public services such as buses.
Yellowstone with Kids
There are a few hotels, lodges and campsites in Yellowstone, depending on both your accommodation preference and budgets. Personally, we found the hotels and lodges outside our budget. Instead so chose to stay in an AirBnB outside Yellowstone. The area is called Island Park, Idaho and is a thirty minute drive from the West Yellowstone Gate.
All the lodges serve hot and cold food within Yellowstone park. However, I’ll be honest and say we weren’t impressed by the food. After our first day, we bought groceries in West Yellowstone and brought a picnic in with us each day. It meant we always had something to eat in the car and could choose where we wanted to stop. That said, we did enjoy tea and cakes in the Lake Lodge and snacks from the Store at Roosevelt Lodge. We enjoyed two meals in West Yellowstone itself. One of which was a great pizza place on the main street. And of course, I must mention the Old West Dinner Cookout again, an experience not to be missed.
Within Yellowstone we did not find any playgrounds for kids. That said, there are areas around Fort Yellowstone which are safe for kids to run around and play in. The area along the Yellowstone River at the Fishing Bridge is ideal for dipping your toes in the water. One of the best places for our son to enjoy some play time was in West Yellowstone. The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Centre located is just outside the park. It is home to a variety of bears and wolves, who for various reasons cannot be released into the wild. There are three wolf habitats and one for bears into which they rotate the bears. There are also some bird aviaries too.
The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Centre has an exhibition about the wildlife of the area and animal enclosures. There is an area where you can see the destruction bears cause to containers when they are looking for food. The centre also has a playground which our son thoroughly enjoyed. It’s a great place to let kids have some fun after a day driving around and exploring Yellowstone National Park. Plus, your ticket allows you re-entry on the day after your first visit. We took full advantage of it whilst my husband went to a local gun range.
Cath is an Irish expat who now lives in Portugal with her husband and son. A former scientist, shegave up working when they emigrated south from the UK. She is a family travel and lifestyle bloggerand hopes that, through her blog, they will inspire more families to travel, especially with thetoddlers in tow. As a family they love travelling and have started working their way through theirfamily travel bucket list. Cath writes about their family travels and experiences on her blog Passports and Adventures.