One of the National Parks that was first on my list to visit was Yellowstone National Park. It is the Grand-daddy of the National Parks System and has so many ecosystems that there is something for everyone! This National Park has been a leader in conservation for a number of years and is such an amazing place when it comes to wildlife. We saw all sorts of amazing things from great big elk and bison to the tiniest chipmunks! We combined this trip with a stint through Grand Teton National Park as well. You can see the whole itinerary here.
We stayed at several Campgrounds while we were there although if you are not a camper you can make reservations at the lodges in the park. My favorite campground though was Madison Campground. It is right near the west entrance of the Park and despite the size of the campground (i.e. huge!!) it was really comfortable and I felt really safe (that could also be due in large part to the boy scout troop camped next to us!). There wasn’t as much privacy as other campgrounds, but the location was so great that when you departed the campground for the day you could get away from most people. From there we moved on to Canyon Campground which was beautiful but a little buggy at the time. We explored the area as much as possible before moving on to Bay Bridge Campground. This was a really nice, rustic campground very near the lake with access to water on the river. There is a hike out to Natural Bridge that we didn’t do and I wish we had! We got a spot up in the trees there (somehow we lucked out there as the meadow is really exposed), which gave us more privacy and put us up where the camp hosts stay, so it was pretty quiet in regards to traffic. From there we moved on to Grant Village Campground. This is a really big campground with it’s own village: store, restaurants, and a gas station. I wouldn’t normally love a place like this, but we had been on the road for more than a week and were needing a laundry facility and fuel. Luckily the campground is set away from the “village” part, so you do still feel like you are out in nature. This campground puts you right at the southern edge of the park, so if you are planning to continue on to Grand Teton, this is a great place to drop anchor for a bit.
Activities and Hikes
For a map to follow along with, click here. The park makes a figure 8 and is often to referred to by the main camping areas. I am not including driving times, because they really vary on population of the park at the time and what hour you are on the road.
Northwest Area : Mammoth Hot Springs
I learned about Mammoth Hot Springs through lots of photographs and research. We decided to start one of our days there and headed straight for the the Upper Terrace Drive to walk the boardwalks. Many of the boardwalks are flat, but you will encounter a good deal of steps, and what goes down, must come up! The place is big and hot and amazing! That said, getting there earlier in the day is better while the air is cooler. Of all of the terraces, the Minerva Terrace (pictured above) was my favorite with loads of colors and the strange shapes. You feel like you are in a different world! Watching the water drip and thinking about how it is giving more shape to the terrace is incredible. It wouldn’t be the same place now as it was when I was there – it is constantly changing! There is a nice area to have a picnic lunch across the road and ice cream can be found just down the street at the general store. From here you can either head south toward Norris or east toward Tower-Roosevelt.
Northeast Area: Tower-Roosevelt
We high-tailed it for the day, going northeast to Roosevelt Lodge. This is a really neat lodge, with rocking chairs waiting for you to relax on the front porch and it is positioned next to a small general store. It is a great area for hiking too. President Teddy Roosevelt helped establish Yellowstone as a National Park and this is the area where he liked to camp best. We grabbed a quick ice cream from the general store to keep us going and had a nice hike up to Lost Creek Falls which was about 3/4 of a mile round trip. This hike is part of the Lost Creek Trail system in the area. Since we still had some “walk” in our legs we decided to continue on and did the 2-mile round trip hike to Lost Lake. The trek up was a bit of an incline, but we found it manageable
with our 5 year old, and he only complained the entire time. It was great and gorgeous and kind of serene (due to the whine we brought along! Ha!). Having worked up a sweat and appetite, we had the best dinner in Yellowstone at the Roosevelt Lodge. On our way back to camp we made a stop at the Tower Falls view point. This is a really lovely, big waterfall standing at 132 ft. The Tower Creek goes over this ledge and a little further down joins with the famous Yellowstone River.
Central Area: Gibbon Meadows, Norris, Madison, & Canyon
Near the Madison Campground you will find Gibbon Meadows. We made a quick stop here because we saw a bunch of people all lined up on the bank of the creek, which usually means one thing at Yellowstone – WILDLIFE! This stop gave us the opportunity to have a nice long look at 3 massive 12-point Elk Bucks with full velvet. Just gorgeous. They were across the creek from us, have a graze on the new grasses. They were so graceful. It was a lovely experience.
We did around a 2 mile walk at Norris Geyser Basin which was amazing. The colors of the pools and the geothermal activity in the area was some of the best we have seen. Afterward we stopped in at the Museum of the National Park Ranger. This is a small but fun museum that explains how the Park Ranger came to be. The program actually started in Yellowstone and I would argue this has been one of our greatest exports abroad. National Parks in other countries use the same system that was developed here. After our explore around the Ranger Museum, we assessed our legs and did a super short walk at Artist Paint Pots just to finish us off.
The Canyon Visitor’s Center is a beautiful, newer building with a great display on the park. We had a good wander around that before hitting the road south. This drive was likely one of my favorites on the trip. The landscape is so beautiful and ever changing. The first stretch was the South Rim Drive out to Artist Point. From here you can take in the lower falls (pictured left) of the Yellowstone River and appreciate the Yellowstone Grand Canyon. We found the waterfall impressive and the canyon is breath-taking. You can checked out the upper falls (pictured right) by backtracking on your drive and following the signs. These are very short, paved paths that get you to amazing view points. The Yellowstone River is an incredible river. It is roughly 671 miles long, and there is not a single dam on it making it the longest undammed river in America. Pretty cool!
As we continued our drive through Hayden Valley we came across some really interesting sights. We stopped in to have a look at Sulfur Calderon and checked out Mud Volcano. I think Mud Volcano was our favorite for a couple of reasons. One, we were able to watch a Bison roll around in the mud, which we figured must be their version of a spa! The Second thing we thought was so cool was Dragons Mouth Spring. It was a cave with steam coming out of it, but using your imagination it really did look like a dragon could be in there! The walk through the Mud Pots was really interesting and the majority of the paths were either a nice crushed gravel or boardwalk. There is that awesome sulfur smell here, which is fun too especially in teaching your kids what natural gas smells like! We enjoyed a nice picnic lunch in the parking lot and there were restrooms here since we were out for the day. This site is often lumped in with Fishing Bridge and the locations around there, so we will move straight on to that!
Southeastern Area: Fishing Bridge, Bay Bridge, Grant Village
After checking into our campground at Bay Bridge we headed up to Fishing Bridge for ice cream and to see their fantastic visitor’s center. It is right on the shores of Yellowstone Lake and it really didn’t seem possible that the scenery could be any more beautiful. The visitors center here was fantastic too, with amazing displays of various wildlife and the rangers were some of the friendliest in the park. Plus the building itself was a marvel. The stone and the logs were so rustic and amazing. There is a path right out the door that will take you to Yellowstone Lake, the largest high elevation lake in the Continental US! I also just read that due to the annual output, the lake’s water is fully replaced every 8-10 years. So awesome!
Grant Village Campground is a really it’s own village. This is also on the lake which can be accessed from both the campground and the visitor’s center. The visitor’s center was great and we sat in on a ranger talk one afternoon. The Ranger brought out several antlers, bones and skulls, which was really cool to look at. We also had several questions to ask about the wolves, because one of the nights we were there I heard the wolves howling around 3:00am. It was super cool, but also eery! The ranger gave us lots of information. We checked out the Lakehouse Restaurant in the Village for dinner one night and it was OK, but not my favorite meal of the trip. There is also a grocery store here and while supplies are limited they have the basics to get you by. There is also a huge souvenir store and they have ice cream too!
Southwest Area: Old Faithful
And finally to one of the most visited parts of Yellowstone National Park, the most famous geyser, Old Faithful. From Madison Campground getting to Old Faithful and the area that surrounds it is relatively easy, but depending on traffic can take a long time. We set out early in the morning to avoid some traffic and drove straight there. We did take notes about things we wanted to see on our return though. They have an amazing visitor’s center there and we were able to do not only the Jr. Ranger Program, but also the Young Scientist Program! This was something we had never come across at the other parks. Despite my son being on the younger side at the time, he was able to learn about various things within the park and then about things like recycling and geothermic principals! When we had finished there we sat in on a Ranger Talk about animals in the park before heading to the Old Faithful site. We plopped down on a bench with our packed lunch and watched Old Faithful go off 3 times. Crowds get big, but clear out quickly after each eruption, so getting a seat is relatively easy depending on your timing. Each eruption lasts around 2 minutes. The one thing I regret not doing while we were there was checking out the Old Faithful Lodge. I took pictures of the outside but didn’t go in. I suppose you have to save some thing for the next trip though, right?! As we left the Old Faithful parking lot we caught a glimpse of our first bison. This seemed like a big deal at the time. Little did we know how many we would see later on! On the way back to the campground we made good on our list and stopped at Biscuit Basin where we saw the gorgeous Sapphire Pool (pictured left) and headed over to Paint Pots to have a look at those.
There are a few things we didn’t get around to doing, but Yellowstone has a great list here of things for kids to any time of year while visiting the park! One of the things on the list in the link that I wish we had done is going swimming at Firehole and will make sure to do that next time. Finally, one more thing we will make sure to do is take more hikes and get away from the crowds. Hindsight, I wish I had done that more, but as it was our first time at the park seeing the major attractions was our priority. Next time, we will see a different attractions a little further away from people.