A Prescription for Planning Yellowstone

Nothing brings three back-seat boys to attention quite like this…

A drive through America’s first – and arguably best – national park was at the top of our bucket list of family vacations. But like all major trips, planning Yellowstone ain’t easy.

I’m a doctor and a scientist. That means no amount of online research, book reading or talking to other travelers is quite enough for such an important destination. I mean, what if we miss something really, really good???

The week we spent in the area took about a month’s worth of planning – some of it more than a year in advance. The payoff? An active, geologically-amazing, nature-filled expedition through Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons and Jackson Hole for my husband, three sons and I.

prismatic pool

Looking back on the trip, I’ve got three prescriptions for families planning a Yellowstone vacation:

1. Ailment: Yellowstone is big. Get acquainted with the park’s “figure eight” layout: Old Faithful is on the southwest loop; the Lamar Valley is in on the northeast loop. But mileage estimates are misleading. When you factor in wildlife on the road, tourist traffic and countless stops to take in the sights, driving the park’s Grand Loop can take an entire day.
Remedy: Don’t over-plan or you will spend the entire time in the car. While it is possible to drive through the park and see its highlights in a day, it is far better to spend as many nights as your schedule allows. You will not regret it! Also, it will be tempting to stay outside the park – at a big ranch house in Montana or a cool condo in Jackson – but staying in the park enables you to see many more animals and unique natural sights with a whole lot less driving.

old faithful crowd22. Ailment: Yellowstone is popular. When you travel to one of the most unique and amazing places on the planet, there are also many other people who want to go. The National Park Service estimates almost 2 million travelers visit Yellowstone during the short summer season.
Remedy: Book now! Reservations for the lodges, tours and restaurants begin approximately one year in advance – or more. Many reservations can be cancelled on short notice but if you wait until you arrive to try and book, you may be very disappointed. If you’re staying in the park, reserve a dinner table at the lodge when you reserve your room. Very often these are the only nearby places to eat and waiting 1-2 hours for a table with tired kids is never appetizing.

3. Ailment: Yellowstone is crowded. Those 2 million tourists want to see many of the same things you do. So, no, you will not be alone watching Old Faithful erupt. And, yes, if you see a bear near the road, there will be other cars stopped as well.Remedy: Get out of the car. Surprisingly, it isn’t that difficult to lose the crowds: Experts estimate 90 percent of visitors never leave their cars. Just park and walk a short distance on one of the thousands of trails; you’ll have the place to yourself. And don’t think that if you’ve seen one geyser or one herd of bison, you’ve seen them all. Getting beyond the crowds and sights of the Old Faithful area to the other sections of the park is worth it – even the kids thought so.

After Yellowstone is planned, you’ll be positioned to spend the rest of your vacation days in any number of amazing “nearby” national wonders: Glacier National Park, Mt. Rushmore and countless Old West-like towns are within a day’s drive. We decided to head south to hike in the Grand Tetons, splash around Jenny Lake, and raft the Snake River. (Get the full details on our 8-day itinerary.) It was a climactic finish to a summer vacation already packed with natural drama.

rafting snake river


The ROAM Report : Yellowstone & Grand Tetons

Travelers : The Phillips Family (mom, dad and 3 sons aged 13, 9 and 7 years)

Date : July 2013

Itinerary : One week; Read the detailed day-by-day itinerary here.

Budget : Lodging was reasonable in Yellowstone National Park ($100-150 per room). Food ran $5-$10 for breakfast, $10-$20 for lunch and $20-$40 for dinner, per person. Tours cost $25-$75 per person.

The Good Stuff 

Something for Everyone – Views. Geology. Animals. Hikes. Rivers. Mountains. Birds. Action. History. Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons truly delivered something for everyone in the family.

grand tetons

Geological Wonderland – The kids became very interested in the science behind the geysers and other geothermal features. The main visitor center at Old Faithful does a thorough introduction to natural features of the area.

hot spring

The Not So Good 

Yellowstone Food – Expect to pay greatly and eat poorly at the park concessions. You won’t be disappointed.

Cranky Guests – All types of tourists stay at the same Yellowstone lodging so if your kids talk loudly in the hotel halls on the way to dinner, a senior who went to bed at 7pm might reprimand them.

Good to Know

Book Now –  It is never too early. Get those rooms, tables and tours today! Most reservations can be cancelled if necessary, without penalty.

Carry that Repellent – Even mid-day hikes will find swarms of mosquitos. Be ready.

Just Rent a Car – Don’t worry about a 4WD vehicle unless you’re heading way backcountry.

Stay in Park – Though booking a cabin on the edge of the park was tempting, we appreciated the ability to stay nearer to the sights.

Play Tour Guide – I kept my guidebooks up front, bookmarked with interesting stories for the kids as they drove.

Don’t Be Expecting a Call – Cell reception is poor to non-existent in some areas, especially Old Faithful – so don’t plan on getting any work done.

Unplugging is a Must – There is little technology to be had in Yellowstone – poor cell reception, no TVs for big games, slow internet – but it gives you the chance to unplug and connect with each other. Bring card games, dice, books and other activities to make it fun to hang out in the lodge together.

Ranger Programs – Check the visitor centers for educational sessions designed specifically for kids. Rangers are stationed at many of the main sightseeing areas as well, and offer interactive opportunities for all visitors.

Invest in Gear – Bring good binoculars or a telescope if you are really into spotting fauna. Consider investing in good binoculars for each child if you can afford it and your kids aren’t great at sharing.

No 4th Fun – We spent July 4th at Yellowstone and were surprised to find no celebrations at all aside from setting out American flags. The Cody Stampede or events in Jackson Hole would have been more festive.

Good for Next Time 

Wolf Time – We never saw a wolf. Hire specialty guides if you’re looking for something in particular. Check the Yellowstone Association for some wildlife tours.

Add a Rest Day – If time permits, take a day off from driving and sightseeing and stay an extra night in Jackson Hole to explore downtown, swim or kayak in the Tetons or spend a day fishing.

Good Resources 

Good Memories 

Megafauna Galore – A bear was just strolling across the meadow, stopping here and there to eat flowers… We saw one eagle’s nest and another one tracked us as we hiked… A bison swam over, got out of the river and shook itself off right next to our car…
bear meadow

“Dad Almost Died!” – One rapid dumped dad into the Snake River. He didn’t really almost die, but the way the kids retell the story he may has well have. The rafting trip has become family lore: We hear the kids telling and retelling the story all the time.

Scat-terrific! – Few things are more exciting to young boys than poop so bear poop is about as good as it gets!


No family fails to be impressed by a trip to Yellowstone – but some families fail to plan. Take time well in advance of a summer departure to match your itinerary to your family’s interests, get those reservations, duck-and-weave to avoid the throngs, and get ready to bask in the natural glow of America’s first National Park.

boys river play2

MORE: Read Bethany’s detailed itinerary for this trip: A Big Week in Yellowstone & Grand Tetons


by Bethany Phillips,  March 2015

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Keywords: family vacation, family travel, travel with kids, yellowstone, yellowstone summer vacation, family vacation to yellowstone, summer vacation in yellowstone


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