Yellowstone National Park is the oldest national park. For those quick with logic, that means that Yellowstone is our first national park. The park is huge, and a map doesn’t truly convey how much geography is really encompassed. Housed in three states (Wyoming, Idaho and Montana), first-time visitors to Yellowstone often attempt to “see the whole park” in a few days.
For any family, that’s a recipe for disaster. There is no way to move quickly in the park. Roads are two lanes in many places, the maximum speed limit is about 45 mph, and the traffic can be bumper-to-bumper in peak seasons. Plus, it’s one of the joys of Yellowstone to pull over to the side of the road for a wildlife spotting and photo shoot. But, when most families search “Yellowstone” for the first time online, the vast offering of options is almost impossible to organize into an itinerary.
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To help, we asked George Wendt, the founder and president of O.A.R.S. (Outdoor Adventure River Specialists), an outfitter that specializes in river adventures and runs a family-friendly kayaking trip on Yellowstone Lake, to give us his advice on a family itinerary when visiting the park. “The first thing that many people don’t realize,” explains Wendt, “is that to get to the park is a trip itself.” If you’re staying in Jackson, expect about a two-hour trip to the entrance of Yellowstone, with a trip first through Grand Teton National Park. So, plan accordingly and remember the speed limits and watch for wildlife. Nothing ruins a vacation faster than hitting an elk or buffalo.
Wendt suggests stopping at the visitor’s center in Moose, WY for tips, and you can buy a tag for your boat here if you brought your own boat to the park. Kids have an especially fun time with the Junior Ranger program in Yellowstone, but many other national parks have Junior Ranger programs,including Grand Teton National Park. Rather than rush through the area to get to Yellowstone, enjoy the journey and help the kids learn more about the whole region.
Once you get to Yellowstone itself, don’t just drive through trying to see everything. Get out, take some interpretive walks or family hikes. O.A.R.S. has an easy, family-friendly paddle on Yellowstone Lake that’s suitable for kids seven and up, as well as a two-day trip in Grand Teton National Park that is recommended for kids ages four and up. The two-day trip lets you spend the night out under the stars and really do some quality time in the park. Either way, you avoid the cycle of just rushing from attraction to attraction and never really seeing the parks.
After your time in Jackson and the Tetons, head to the north part of the park for an experience that is a lot more road less traveled and has a much less-dense tourist population. Wendt loves Canyon Village, with it’s majestic falls and less-populated attractions. “I always feel like this area has more of a true wild west feeling,” says Wendt. “The area around Canyon Village gives you a much better idea of what this region was really like.” He also recommends spending a night in Cooke City, Montana, where you can find many family-friendly hikes and lesser-known attractions.
Of course, no visit to Yellowstone is complete without a visit to Old Faithful. The Old Faithful Lodge has a wonderful balcony where you can watch the erruption, fill out your Junior Ranger paperwork and enjoy an ice cream cone. The self-guided tour of the lodge is family-friendly — pick and choose how fast to keep moving or just take a couple of highlights if the kids are restless.
Your itinerary will vary depending on where you enter and leave the park, but Wendt stresses that seeing less is more in Yellowstone. “You’re giving your kids memories they’ll have their whole lives,” he says. “Let those memories be of spending time outdoors, not of the inside of the min-van.” Minimize the driving and maximize activities and interactive experiences, even if it’s simple things like the Junior Ranger program or just walking a short trail and the whole family will enjoy Yellowstone a lot more.