In 1872 Yellowstone National Park became the first national park in the world. Until then, the idea of preserving a parcel of land from development for future generations was foreign. In an area larger than Rhode Island, it’s home to the world’s largest concentration of geysers, like its Old Faithful geyser. It’s home to the largest log cabin hotel in the world–Old Faithful Inn. It’s an iconic American destination attracting visitors from around the world. So irreplaceable, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here’s a guide to Yellowstone National Park with kids, or without.
Top Sites in Yellowstone National Park with Kids
- Old Faithful Geyser
- Old Faithful Inn
- Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
- Lake Yellowstone
- Lamar or Hayden Valley for animals
- Mammoth Hot Springs
Old Faithful Inn
Old Faithful Inn flung open its doors on June 1, 1904. Built of local forest products, a young architect Robert Reamer dreamed up the idea of bringing the forest indoors. In the process Reamer developed a new architectural style–Park Architecture and Old Faithful Inn is a now symbol of Yellowstone.
Personally, it’s one of my favorite hotel stays of my career. It’s a whimsical space and I enjoyed spending the evening listening to the live music that fills the cavernous lobby, seven-stories tall.
If not staying in the Old Faithful Inn, walk through or better yet take a free tour. The second floor offers a coffee and cocktail bar. Grab a drink and head to the outside balcony to enjoy Old Faithful Geyser erupt.
What to do around Old Faithful
- See Old Faithful Geyser erupt
- Walk through Old Faithful Inn
- Hike to the Morning Glory Pool, a 2.8-mile roundtrip path
- Walk through Old Faithful Visitor Education Center
Old Faithful Geyser
Hike through the Upper Geyser Basin to see the world’s largest concentration of geysers. Yellowstone’s hydrothermal features demonstrate its volcanic energy with three powerful eruptions over the last two million years.
Since the magna is so close to the surface, see the water bubbles and boils away in the Upper Geyser Basin. Geysers are the star of the geothermal show when they blow mist and steam over a hundred feet into the air.
Old Faithful Geyser erupts on average every 90 minutes, though the range can be 50 to 127 minutes. With an eruption lasting for a little over a minute to over 5 minutes, each eruption spews at least 3,700 gallons of water over a hundred feet into the air.
Though Old Faithful isn’t the only show. Check out other interesting geothermal features in the Upper Geyser Basin.
- Hot Springs—Pools of hot water in an array of colors
- Mudpots—Hot sulfuric acid breaks down the rock into a smelly clay that bubbles on the surface.
- Fumaroles—A steam vent without a lot water
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
Arizona isn’t the only national park with a Grand Canyon. Yellowstone has one too and it’s more than 1,000 feet deep. And the Arizona Grand Canyon doesn’t feature a pair of waterfalls.
The overall length of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is over 20 miles and the width from one rim to another is over 4,000 feet across.
Hiking at Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon
Brink of Lower Falls Trail—A steep trail that drops 600 feet for a view of the Lower Falls.
Red Rock and Lookout Points—See the canyon from paved overlooks next to the parking lot.
Grand View—See the roar of the Lower Falls.
Inspiration Point—Climb down 50 steps to views of the Lower Falls.
Brink of Upper Falls—Walk down the steps to see water barrel over the Upper Falls.
Artist Point—The most photographed spot in Yellowstone.
Uncle Tom’s Trail—Down 300 steps to see the Lower Falls. Strenuous
Upper Falls Viewpoint—See two different viewpoints of the Upper Falls. Easy
South Rim Trail—Hike 1.75 trail to see Uncle Tom’s Point and Artist Point. Partially paved.
Visit the largest high-elevation lake in North America. With fishing or scenic boat cruises, spend some time near or on the water. Walk through the grand, historic Lake Yellowstone Hotel, that opened in 1891. It’s the oldest hotel in the National Park Service.
Family Fun in the Lake Area
- Take a free historic tour of Lake Yellowstone Hotel.
- Climb in one of Yellowstone’s historic yellow buses for a scenic tour.
- Take a scenic boat cruise on the Lake Queen to see Stevenson Island and a shipwreck.
Mammoth Hot Springs
See the most protected travertine-depositing hot springs in the world at Mammoth. With a series of boardwalks and overlooks, visitors can climb throughout the different levels of the terraced limestone.
Water from runoff seeps into the fractures in the ground to be heated by a volcanic heat source. Then bubbles up to the surface with mineral-rich water. Over time the minerals deposit and make travertine, a form of limestone.
With lower elevations and year-round access, Mammoth Hot Springs area remains open year-round.
What to See in Mammoth Hot Springs
As the headquarters of the park, this area offers more than the hot springs. In Yellowstone National Park’s early years, U.S. Army patrolled to secure the park from poachers and rogue campgrounds. The assignment lasted 32 years and the U.S. Army constructed Fort Yellowstone.
- Tour the Albright Visitor Center
- Walk through Historic Fort Yellowstone
- See Liberty Cap
- Walk by Palette Spring
- See Opal Terrace
- Walk along the boardwalks of Main Terrace
- Climb the stairs to explore the Lower Terraces
- Drive the loop of the Upper Terraces
- Walk through the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel’s Map Room
- Gaze on the grazing elk that munch grass in front of the hotel and visitor center.
Where to Find Animals in Yellowstone National Park
While some visitors enjoy the geothermal features, others want to see animals. Yellowstone National Park offers some of the best animal viewing in the US.
I recommend along the river in Hayden Valley or Lamar Valley. Dawn and dusk are the best times to spot animals since animals are the most active. Check in with a Park Ranger who know where animals frequent or take a guided tour.
- Grizzly Bear
- Black Bear
- Bighorn Sheep
- Mule Deer
History of Yellowstone National Park
On March 1, 1872, Yellowstone National Park became the first national park in the world. An idea that’s flourished across the world.
Though Yellowstone’s significance began long before. Approximately two million years ago, a super volcano erupted in Yellowstone forming a caldera, or basin. Find it in center of Yellowstone National Park measuring 45 miles across, now home to the largest concentration of geysers in the world.
The railroad arrived to the northern edge of the park in 1883. Then the first roads started to bisect the park allowing visitors more access to the geothermal features and the animals. More people meant more building with Lake Yellowstone Hotel and Old Faithful Inn a few of the surviving early lodges.
It was on the western frontier so the U.S. Army built a fort to keep the law and chase away the poachers.
Kids at Yellowstone
The Junior Ranger Program is the go-to program for families to learn more about a National Park Service site. It’s free and takes about two hours to complete. My kids love the badges that the Rangers present them after completing their booklet.
Kids love Yellowstone and kids love animals. So buy a Junior Ranger booklet at the nearest bookstore. In Yellowstone, the Junior Ranger booklets are $3 but kids who complete their booklets get a patch.
Yellowstone National Park divides Junior Ranger booklet into three age categories, with age-appropriate activities. Kids 4 to 7, 8 to 12 and 13 and older each complete as many activities as their age.
Old Faithful Visitor Education Center also offers a Young Scientist Patch Program. Buy the $5 booklet at the visitor center’s gift store. The visitor center also checks out a pack of equipment needed to conduct experiments. Best suited for students spending a couple of days in the Old Faithful Area to finish the program.
Try to turn in your Junior Ranger booklet at Yellowstone’s National Park Junior Ranger Station, located near the Madison entrance on the west side of the park.
Bear Safety in Yellowstone
Yellowstone National Park features two types of bears: black bears and Grizzly bears. Knowing the difference is important since each species uses different behavior.
Park Rangers offer some guidelines to reduce bear encounters:
- Hike in groups of 4 or more.
- Make noise while hiking by wearing bear bells and talking.
- Carry bear spray. Keep it accessible when hiking and know how to use it.
- Keep campsites clean.
Bear spray is advised and can be rented in the park. Visit a visitor center or ranger station for more information.
To find out more information, attend a ranger program to learn more about bears in Yellowstone National Park. I did and it’s a great way to learn more about bears. My boys loved the bear programs and I felt more confident afterwards.
Where’s Yellowstone National Park
It’s 320 miles northeast of Salt Lake City. Unless you arrange a tour you will need a car to explore.
Two major airports serve Yellowstone National Park. I’ve flown into both and I prefer Bozeman for convenience, schedule and lower fares.
- Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN)—Bozeman, Montana, offers everything you need to outfit your family for a national park adventure, from food to equipment.
- Jackson Hole Airport (JAC)—The busiest airport in Wyoming is a regional airport. Jackson is a quaint town with an Old West flavor.
Yellowstone National Park offers cafes, general stores and restaurants. Though be prepared to picnic for lunch and grab some snacks and sandwich ingredients in Bozeman or Jackson.
Getting Around Yellowstone
Yellowstone National Park is open 365-days a year and 24-hours a day. Use an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80) or purchase a 7-day pass for $30 per vehicle.
Yellowstone National Park offers five entrances.
- South Entrance—The busiest entrance and gateway to Grand Teton National Park and Jackson, Wyoming.
- West Entrance—For families that are trying to add to their state count. Enter or exit through the west entrance to add Idaho.
- North Entrance—Closest entrance for Bozeman, Montana
- Northeast Entrance—Scenic highway to Billings, Montana
- East Entrance—Scenic highway to Cody, Wyoming
Seasonal closures affect Yellowstone National Park. July and August are the only months that all roads and facilities are open.
Know Before You Go
- Check in at the Ranger Station to see the approximate geyser eruption times for Old Faithful, Castle and Grand geysers.
- Stay on the paths and boardwalks in Yellowstone’s geothermal areas. Kids might be sensitive to the sulfuric acid smell.
- When animal spotting bring binoculars and a chair to get comfortable.
- The Junior Ranger Booklet includes animal spotting activities.
- Parking can be an issue at popular destinations during the middle of the day.
- Watch your children at all times, kids can climb over barricades.
- Wild animals are unpredictable, give them space and don’t feed them.
- Bring food and refillable water bottles for your visit. Food service can be limited.
- Know your personal limits and the limits of your equipment.
- Drones are not permitted at any NPS location.