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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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