10 Cool Things For Kids in Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone is the crown jewel of our National Park System. It was the first of its kind, and remains the most unique and diverse wilderness experience that you will find in this country.

It’s also an extremely cool place for kids.

But with almost 3500 square miles of lakes, geysers, canyons, and hot springs, there’s too much to see in one short stay. So, after four visits to Yellowstone, and consultation with my own children, I have compiled the following list of park sights and activities that will make your family trip an especially memorable one.

Ten Cool Things For Kids (and Grown-Ups) in Yellowstone National Park:

1. Dragon’s Mouth Spring

Dragon's Mouth Spring

How can you resist telling your kids that a dragon lives in a cave near a mud volcano? It doesn’t take much imagination to think that this cavern, with its growls and thumps, and spitting steam, might just hold a real dragon.

2. Fishing Cone

Yellowstone Fishing Cone

It’s probably just a tall tale, but the story goes that the early trappers and explorers would catch fish in Yellowstone Lake, swing them directly into the Fishing Cone geyser just off shore, and have a meal of boiled fish in just minutes. “Hook and cook,” they called it. Like the dragon cave, another cool sight that will fire up the imagination.

3. Old Faithful Inn

Old Faithful Inn lobby as seen from Bat's Alley; Jim Peaco; October 2003

What kid won’t love the largest log hotel in the world? Just walk inside the 100-year-old Inn’s lobby, with its four stories of lodgepole pine balconies and 500-ton stone fireplace, and your kids might just want to sit for awhile. Preferably in one of the many handmade wood rocking chairs. Better yet, stay in one of the Inn’s rooms. Prices are reasonable, and the food in the dining room is first-class.

4. Fountain Paint Pots

fountain_paint_pots_in_yellowstone-750px

This is what I remember best from my own childhood memories of Yellowstone. The short half-mile trail is the perfect primer for the various thermal features you’ll see throughout the park. It’s a little bit of everything, with numerous geysers, bubbling mud pots, hot springs, and steaming fumaroles. With all that activity in a small space, it’s kind of watching a three-ring circus.

5. Dangerous Animals
Buffalo Warning
Your kids might not be impressed by the thousands of bison that roam all over the park until they see the signs warning that these animals weigh up to 2000 pounds, run over 30mph, and think nothing of skewering a camera-toting tourist on the end of its horns. They can be extremely dangerous. Same goes for the grizzly bears, wolves, moose, elk, and badgers. But worry mostly about the bison (sometimes called buffalo), because they will be all around you.

6. Junior Ranger Program

The Junior Ranger program at Yellowstone is one of the coolest of all the National Parks. It gets the kids involved in all sorts of activities involving wildlife, ecology, geology, hiking, and education. If they complete the program, kids get an official Junior Ranger patch. Best of all, they learn something while having fun.

7. Stagecoach Rides

Yellowstone Stagecoach

From Roosevelt Lodge in the northern part of Yellowstone, you can take a trip to the past with a rattling, bumpy ride on an old west stagecoach, just as visitors did back at the turn of the century. The ride lasts an hour and is quite reasonably priced at $8 for kids, $10 for adults. A nice way to soak up the scenery.

8. Upper Geyser Basin

Visitors watching Riverside Geyser; J Schmidt; 1977

You want geysers? This is where you’ll have your fill of them, as the basin contains over 150 geysers. That’s the highest concentration of geysers in the world. Walking through this alien landscape makes you feel like the Earth’s crust could burst open in a cataclysmic hydrothermal explosion at any moment, totally ruining your dinner reservations at the nearby Old Faithful Inn Dining Room later that night. But seriously, this is the best place for you and your kids to see geysers going off right and left. Many of them, such as Castle Geyser, Grand Geyser, and Riverside Geyser are highly predictable, so you can figure when and where you need to be for the show.

9. Grand Prismatic Spring

800px-grand_prismatic_spring_and_midway_geyser_basin_from_above

Not everything in Yellowstone bubbles, growls, and erupts. Grand Prismatic Spring is simply a gigantic pool of steaming water. In fact, it’s the largest hot springs in the United States. You have to see it for the beautiful colors, from deep blue to orange to green to red, produced by different species of bacteria living in the water. It makes for an interesting biology lesson for everyone.

10. Old Faithful

Crowd watching Old Faithful erupt;Ed Austin/Herb Jones;1987

You knew this would be on the list. How could it not be? It’s the most popular feature in Yellowstone, and is the park’s defining symbol. The area around Old Faithful is crowded, commercial, and noisy, but it’s still very cool. The geyser usually erupts on a predictable schedule, roughly every 90 minutes. Up to 8,000 gallons of scalding hot water shoots upwards of 185 feet while busloads of tourists “ooh” and “ahh.” On our last visit to the park, my kids and I made a game of running to watch Old Faithful go off. Staying in the nearby Inn made that easy for us, and we ended up viewing eight eruptions during our weekend at Yellowstone.

Photos courtesy of the National Park Service

Sleeping in the Trees

Treehouse

I had a treehouse when I was a kid. And I’m pretty sure I slept in it once or twice.

As a grown-up, the idea of sleeping in the trees, on the bare wood floor of a drafty, spider-infested, rickety old treehouse, doesn’t sound so appealing.

Ah, but what if you could find some relative luxury up in those trees?

That’s what you’ll get at the Out ‘n’ About Treehouse Treesort, in Takilma, Oregon. Continue reading

Food, Glorious Food

Early on in our trip planning, it was suggested by some that the Boy Scouts would seek out any American fast food they could find in London.

The food situation was one of my biggest fears, right after one of the kids getting run over by a black cab.

You take a group of teens thousands of miles across the ocean to a foreign land, and then spend your breakfast, lunch, and dinner at Subway, McDonald’s, and Pizza Hut.

No thanks, I can eat that back home.

I told them how it was going to be. We would seek out British food at British restaurants and at least try to sample the traditional dishes of the country, whether they liked it or not.

Why travel if you refuse to try something new? Continue reading

Where’s the Fun in Fundraising?

I need $20,000.

Who doesn’t?

I’ve been trying to raise it as part of a fundraising campaign for the past 10 months. This is something I have no experience with, so it’s been interesting, to say the least.

Sometime about a year ago, I was attending my son’s Scout meeting when the parents began to talk about the need for some sort of high adventure trip for the older boys.

For some reason, people looked at me. Why, I don’t know. I’m not an outdoorsy person, and I’ve never been on a “high adventure.”

This is what I told them. And then I hesitantly followed with the word, “However…”

Because, in fact, I had been on an adventure of sorts, and very recently. As some readers may recall, back in the summer of 2010 I set out for a very long walk across England. It was a charity walk, raising money for the Joseph Salmon Trust. Good fun for a good cause.

I hadn’t really thought of it as being something a bunch of Boy Scouts from Idaho would do. But once I started talking about it, I could see a bunch of parents becoming very interested. Once the boys heard about it, well, that was it. There was no way I was going to get out of walking that wall again.

Which is funny, because at first I wasn’t too keen on several aspects of a return trip to Hadrian’s Wall country. The biggest was the cost. But the thought was that by setting a date for two years in the future, there would be plenty of time for all participants to raise the money through Boy Scout fundraisers.

The other thing I wasn’t looking forward to was getting back in shape for an 84-mile walk. But it’s good for me. Having a goal gets me to the gym.

However, I quickly learned that the only thing I really had to fear was the fundraising. As I said, I’ve never done this before.

And it’s hard. Annoyingly, unpleasantly, frustratingly hard.

We’ve sold popcorn, honey, and BBQ dry rub. We’ve had car washes and pancake breakfasts. There have been yard clean-ups and chili feeds. And all of that just in the first year.

I’ve learned a few things about fundraising. First, working for the money is so much easier than trying to sell stuff for the money. I’d much rather haul dirt in a wheelbarrow than stand in front of a store pleading with people to buy a bag of caramel popcorn.

Second, I’ve learned that you can easily get burned out on fundraising. Two years of doing it is a year too much.

But we’ll keep marching on. Because the boys are more than eager to make the trip, to visit the birthplace of Scouting, and to walk the path of the ancient Roman Centurions.

When I do stop and ask myself why there’s no “fun” in fundraising, I think about these boys who are looking forward to the adventure. It’s one that most of them would not have a chance to do otherwise.

Some of these kids have never even been out of the state of Idaho before, let alone on the other side of the world. It will be a life-changing trip for them. I try to remember that when I’m arranging yet another table sale or calling around to see who needs their yard weeded.

By the way, anyone want to buy some lovely creamed honey or tasty BBQ dry rub? Need some dirt moved? How about a nice plate of all-you-can-eat pancakes and sausage?

Hey, I’m trying.

A Grizzly Discovery

Storm Point Trail, Yellowstone

We’re back from a family vacation in Yellowstone National Park!

In the week leading up to our trip I’d grown nervous about the weather forecast, which had called for rain and thunderstorms. But the skies stayed mostly sunny while we were there.

And by “mostly sunny,” I mean that we’re all now sporting hot red sunburns on various parts of our bodies because we weren’t quite prepared for that big bright thing in the sky that has been hidden away for most of winter and spring.

The first sunburn of the year always signals the beginning of summer, so that’s one positive about it.

Yellowstone River

Our time in Yellowstone was great fun. The kids had been there before, but it was nine years ago and they don’t remember it. They’ll have a hard time forgetting this visit, as we explored almost every inch of the place from morning to night.

My son had a goal to spot every mammal known in the park. He almost did it too, getting up close and personal with a wolf, fox, marmot, pronghorn, and black bear, as well as the ever-present bison and elk.

We hiked miles and miles throughout the park, including the quite lovely 5.2-mile Fairy Falls Trail. If you visit Yellowstone, I highly recommend getting off the beaten path and away from the hordes of tourists.

Another cool trail, and a much shorter one, is the 2.3-mile Storm Point Trail, which leads you through open meadows to the shore of Lake Yellowstone, and then back through dense forest.

The area is a great place to find Yellowstone’s vaunted wildlife, especially Ursus arctos horribilis, more commonly known as the grizzly bear.

We didn’t really want to make a grizzly discovery on our hike, but the recently posted sign at the trailhead informed us that there was a good chance we would.

We went down the trail anyway. Bear spray in hand. Imagination on overload. It’s amazing how closely a shadowy, swaying fir tree can resemble an attacking mama grizzly! Multiply that tree by a thousand along the trail, and you can guess how much fun I had on the hike. I’m still shocked that I didn’t spray myself in the face at some point.

In the end, you have to realize that the danger from animals at Yellowstone is very small. There have been 5 or 6 bear fatalities in the park over the last decade. Out of 30 million visitors!

You should be more worried about getting smacked in the head by a German tourist with a 600mm lens trying to snap a photo of a chipmunk.

Actually, what I really should have been concerned about carrying around with me was not bear spray, but sun screen. Those burns will kill me before a grizzly does.

Norris Geyser Basin, Yellowstone