This year we decided to go big and visit a National Park during our family vacation. The most obvious choice for us was YNP because of the diversity and numerous animals. YNP is one of the most fascinating places on earth and offers something different everyday.
We spent 7 days in the park and that allowed us to see a lot of the park but not rush through it. We traveled the last week and May / first week of June and had absolutely perfect weather. The temperatures ranged from 40 to 80 degrees but it never really felt cold. I tried to plan our days so we alternated long hikes and long drives.
The thing I love about Yellowstone is the moment you enter the park, you know you are somewhere special..
We stayed the first 3 nights at the Old Faithful Inn and started our first day at the Midway and Lower Geyser basin area. This is where the Grand Prismatic Spring is located. These areas will quickly get crowded, especially with tour buses, so plan to get there early. The hikes in this areas are all short (less than a mile) and on boardwalks. This is so obvious but make sure your kids know to stay on the boardwalks. Since we were staying a the Old Faithful Inn we saw Old Faithful erupt numerous times. The geyser erupts 60 – 90 minutes from the last eruption depending on how long the eruption lasts (so you can only predict the next eruption, not future ones). We also hiked up to Observation Point. This is a fairly quick hike to the top and the view is worth it We saw several marmots along the way.
The Old Faithful area is also a great place to pick up either the Young Scientist kit or Junior Ranger kit. These are a fantastic way to help your child engage and learn about the park, plus they get a really fun patch. We made the mistake of not getting a Young Scientists kit because we thought we could do that at Mammoth but OFI was the only place open in May that had the kits.
The second day we did our long hike. We choose to hike out to the Lone Star Geyser, about a 6 mile round trip hike over a mostly flat trail. The trail also serves as a bike trail but was covered in a couple of feet of snow, so no bikes. The Lone Star Geyser is now our favorite. It erupts about every 3 1/2 hours so we picked up a picnic lunch in a fun little reusable lunch bag from the restaurant before we left. About 2 miles to the geyser we encountered some other hikers that told us when the last eruption was so we knew how much time we had to hike the remaining mile. We saw very few people on the trail or at the geyser which makes this a fantastic place to get away from the crowds but still see some really cool sights.
Day 3 we headed up towards Mammoth, stopping along the way at the Norris Geyser area. This basin is the hottest thermal area. This is also where the Porcelain Basin is located and the acidic water creates a beautiful array of colors.
Next we drove north to the Mammoth area and toured the upper and lower terrace. To make it more fun, we brought along a infrared thermometer so our kids could measure the temperatures of the different thermal areas.
For the next 3 nights we stayed at the cabins at Mammoth. These were simple but nice enough. The best part was watching the elk and little ground squirrels from our porch. We were a bit cramped for a family of 4 so next time, I’d probably get two side by side cabins.
Day 4 we drove to Lamar Valley. This is the area to spot a variety of animals but you need to leave early. We stopped around Slough Creek and had just missed some wolf cubs playing outside their dens. There will be groups of people “animal watching” so if you aren’t sure where to go or look, just walk up and ask them. Several people shared their scopes with us and we were able to see a grizzly and 2 cubs high on the mountain ridge. We also hiked around Trout Lake. This is a beautiful short hike up to a crystal clear lake. The parking area is very small so you’ll need to get there early.
Day 5 we did our next long hike on the Beaver Pond loop. I recommend starting at the entry near the Lower Terrance. The trail immediately climbs up through the forest then opens into ridge top grassy knolls. We saw elk, black-tailed deer (or mule deer), a black bear with 2 cubs (one cinnamon colored) all from a nice safe distance. We did carry bear spray with us on all hikes but luckily never had any close encounters (we then mailed the spray to our home after the trip). This trail was our favorite, it was tough but offered the most diversity and we only saw about 4 other groups the entire time. Plan to take additional time and water because the trail does climb a bit and can get hot once you’re out in the grassy areas. This trail is a great way to get away from the crowds of people around Mammoth.
We also did a side trip into Montana via the Old Gardiner Road, which is a one-way dirt road from Mammoth to the North Entrance of the park (Gardiner MO). It’s a neat little road and worth doing once. The start was a little tricky for us to find, it is located behind the cabins and hotel. We did not need a 4WD but happened to be in a Jeep Cherokee. Once in Gardiner we took a horseback riding trip which was such a nice break from hiking and driving. We also ate dinner in Gardiner (the park food is OK at best).
Day 6 we headed south towards the Canyon area. Some of this area was not yet opened but we were able to see the Upper and Lower falls. We had initially wanted to hike up Mount Washburn but those trails were still under about 8 feet of snow. We did stop at the Sulfur Caldron and Mud Volcano. These sites are a must if you have kids. The smell is terrible and it’s so funny to watch their expressions when they first get a whiff of it, they’ll never forget it.
We spent our last couple of days in Jackson relaxing and eating. A few quick favorites for us in this area were; the Jackson Hole Rodeo, the Tram at the Tetons, and a 1/2 day hike to one of the lakes in the Tetons.
Overall this was one of our best family trips. Not only did we have a great time but our kids left with an appreciation of one of the most unusual places on Earth.