How to Plan the Ultimate Yellowstone Family Vacation

How to Plan the Ultimate Yellowstone Family Vacation

July 05, 2019

Is a family trip to the world’s first national park on your list of must-do summer activities? If you ask us here at the Gardiner Visitor Center, it should be! With spouting geysers, thundering herds of bison, and over 1,000 miles of hiking trails, there’s something everyone in the family can get excited about in Yellowstone National Park. While packing up the family and heading for the great outdoors can be a little daunting, arming yourselves with these handy tips will ensure a family vacation everyone will be talking about for years to come.

bison in Lamar Valley

Before You Go

Plan Your Lodging Ahead of Time

If you’re planning on visiting Yellowstone between June and September (peak season) you’ll want to make your reservations well in advance. That means booking your lodging at least six months ahead of time if you can, especially if you want to stay inside park boundaries. If you plan on camping, you can make reservations in advance for any campground operated by Yellowstone National Park Lodges. The seven campgrounds operated by the National Park Service are first come, first served, and often fill by late morning.

Old Faithful Inn

Pack for a Range of Weather Conditions

When it comes to packing, keep in mind that weather in Yellowstone and elsewhere in the intermountain west can be unpredictable. In the summer, expect daytime temperatures around 70oF (25oC) and significantly cooler nights—temperatures may drop below freezing at higher elevations. Afternoon thunderstorms are common. Check out this handy packing list from our friends at Yellowstone National Park Lodges for tips on what to bring to make sure you’re comfortable during your stay.

Book Your Activities in Advance

There are plenty of guided activities that are perfect for families in Yellowstone National Park, including wildlife watching safaris, horseback riding excursions, or guided hikes. Many guides here in Gardiner allow you to book in advance online. Click here to start exploring an array of guided activities.

junior ranger being sworn in

When You Arrive

After you’ve checked into your accommodations and are ready for your first day in the park, be sure to stop by the nearest park Visitor Information Center and pick up a Junior Ranger booklet for your kids! This self-guided program is designed for visitors ages 4 and up and is the perfect way to introduce children—and the young at heart—to the wonders of the park. A spiffy Junior Ranger patch is awarded to anyone who completes the requirements. You might also want to ask for a schedule of ranger-led programs, which can focus on anything from wildlife to waterfall hikes to drawing workshops.

Albright Visitor Center

Choose Your Adventures

Now that you’re oriented to the park, it’s time to choose your adventure! Here are just a few ideas depending on the ages and interests of your family members:

If Your Kids Want to See Geysers

With more than 10,000 thermal features in Yellowstone National Park, your choices are endless! Kids especially love the bizarre sights and sounds at Mud Volcano near Hayden Valley. With thermal features bearing names like “Black Dragon Cauldron” and “Dragon’s Mouth Spring”—which sounds like the growling and roaring of a dragon as gasses and steam are released—your kid’s imaginations are sure to run wild at this geothermal attraction. Other favorites include Norris Geyser Basin between Mammoth and Madison, where Steamboat Geyser—the world’s tallest geyser—has been making more regular eruptions. Finally, it’s worth the short (but steep) hike to Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook on the Fairy Falls Trail near Midway Geyser Basin, where your family can fully appreciate the sheer size and rainbow of colors that make up the largest hot springs in North America.

Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook

If Your Kids Want to See Wolves and Bears

They’re in luck! Yellowstone is home to one of the largest concentrations of large carnivores in the lower 48 states. Be sure to rise early and take a drive through the Northern Range and the Lamar Valley in the northeast section of the park. Keep an eye out for clumsy black bear cubs near Tower Junction and grizzlies in the meadows of Lamar Valley. Continue over Dunraven Pass and on to Hayden Valley for more chances of glimpsing the park’s charismatic carnivores. For best results, hire an experienced wildlife guide who will do the planning, driving, and spotting for you.

Grizzly Bear Crossing

If Your Kids Want to Hit the Trail

For kid-friendly hikes in Yellowstone, check out the Beaver Ponds Loop near Mammoth, lovely Trout Lake in the park’s forested northeast corner, or Fairy Falls near Midway Geyser Basin. For the older and bolder, more challenging hikes include Mount Washburn atop Dunraven Pass and Bunsen Peak near Mammoth Hot Springs. No matter where you choose to hike, be sure to brush up on your bear safety tips and rent or purchase bear spray before you hit the trail.

Family atop Bunsen Peak

If Your Kids (Or the Adults!) Need a Break

Yellowstone is a huge park and the days can get long! When you and your family need a little downtime, we recommend enjoying some relaxing scenic drives at places like Firehole Canyon Drive. Located just after the Madison Junction, Firehole Canyon is a beautiful drive along the Firehole River. A waterfall and popular swim hole are just some of the stops before this side trip meets back up with the Grand Loop Road.

If you need some time out of the car, stop by a Visitor Information Center—our favorites include the Albright Visitor Center in Mammoth Hot Springs and the Canyon Visitor Education Center in Canyon Village—and spend some time learning about fascinating natural wonders in the park through interactive displays. Finally, it never hurts to stop by one of the many soda fountains at the park villages and grab some ice cream!

Firehole Canyon in Fall

Other Handy Tips

1. Tap into technology: No matter what route you go with, you’re going to end up spending quite a bit of time in the car as you drive from attraction to attraction. Keep the kids entertained in the car with a self-guided tour called Gaper Guides, which can be picked up at the Yellowstone Perk in Gardiner, Montana. The National Park Service has also created several educational apps you can download before you head into the park.

2. Play some roadtrip games. In addition to Junior Ranger Booklets, you can also engage the kids with car games like Yellowstone Wildlife Bingo or take turns reading some Yellowstone Trivia.

3. Yellowstone can be dangerous. Wildlife encounters; geysers and hot springs; and cold, fast-moving water pose risks to Yellowstone visitors. Learn how to protect yourself and the park before you visit.

4. Pack plenty of layers and snacks! The distance between park villages—and amenities like restaurants and shops—can be few and far between. It’s a good idea to come prepared with snacks, water, and extra layers like raincoats and fleeces or sweatshirts.

5. Cell phone service will be limited. Grab a park map from the visitor center when you arrive and be prepared to do some navigating without the help of your GPS app. Most visitor centers—including the Gardiner Visitor Information Center at the park’s North Entrance—have free wifi if you need to connect.

6. Download our offical guide. Looking for more trip-planning inspiration? Download our official visitor's guide.

 Leaving Yellowstone sign

 Grand Prismatic Spring photo courtesy of the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce. All others courtesy of the Yellowstone National Park Service.


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