Our children were 5 and 6 when we went to Yellowstone. It’s the first national park that we visited as a family. We find this felicitous. Yellowstone is not only the United States’ first national park, it is the world’s.
When you’re a full-time working parent, time is so precious. Slow travel or any travel for that matter for the sole purpose of family vacation can be difficult.
A slogan for Visit Idaho (Yellowstone National Park is in the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho) has been in my mind: Childhood is short. Summer is shorter.
My husband and I have demanding jobs. We’re also cognizant that the time we can spend with our children while they are children, is fleeting. Spending time together as a family has become top priority.
So we allotted 4 days to enjoy Yellowstone together. We went on the week of Fourth of July, shutting off computers and work cellphones. We celebrated with no fireworks, mesmerized instead by Old Faithful and the bison.
Sharing here experiences our family enjoyed the most:
“Geysers, hot springs, mud pots and f-things!”
The f-things are fumaroles, steam vents. Our five year old found the word fumarole formidable at first. He was trying to enumerate four of the five hydrothermal features of Yellowstone. The fifth are travertine terraces.
Powered by a supervolcano, Yellowstone has the highest concentration of active geysers in the world.
We spent a day at Midway, Lower and Upper Geyser Basins. Flowing through the geyser basins is the Firehole River, where the hydrothermal features empty hot water.
Old Faithful Geyser
Named so by the members of the Washburn Expedition of 1870, Old Faithful was described as having erupted nine times at regular intervals during the expedition’s stay. These days, Old Faithful Geyser erupts 1.6-5.1 minutes at average frequency of 90 minutes.
Old Faithful Geyser is in the Upper Geyser Basin, which also features the Morning Glory Pool, Castle and Grotto Geysers.
The viewing area around Old Faithful can be crowded. Walking further from Old Faithful, the crowd thins out.
Grand Prismatic Spring
Grand Prismatic Spring is located at the Midway Geyser Basin.
We took the advice to see Grand Prismatic Spring first before Old Faithful; that turned out to be very good advice!
Grand Prismatic Spring is beautiful. Thermophiles, bacteria that love heat, make up the gorgeous colors of Grand Prismatic Spring.
Fountain Paint Pots
Fountain Paint Pots are at the Lower Geyser Basin. Watching and listening to the mud bubbles —plop, plop— brought out some serious giggles.
*Norris Geyser Basin has Steamboat Geyser, the current tallest active geyser in the world. We went there on the way to Mammoth Hot Springs. We also stopped by West Thumb Geyser on the way to Yellowstone Lake.
A memorable sensory experience for children: “Mom, there’s a funny, funny smell! Like rotten eggs.”
Mmm…scent of sulfur.
Mammoth Hot Springs
We enjoyed a gorgeous late summer afternoon exploring the Upper and Lower Terraces, taking in the other-worldly travertine terraces and springs and learning more about thermophilic bacteria.
We took pleasure in the company of elks but made sure we’re enjoying them from a distance; this is their home and we’re guests.
How to reward ourselves after our hike? Ice cream at the Mammoth General Store.
How do you tell a 5 and 6 year old to be still?
We handed ours binoculars at Lamar Valley and told them to train it on the pronghorns in the distance; there was silence then a duet of “Wow!”
Aside from elk, bison and pronghorns, we saw a Mama black bear and her cub.
Where to enjoy wildlife?
- Lamar Valley is called the Serengeti of America. The drive is delightful and rewarded by a rich wildlife experience.
- Hayden Valley is a wonderful place to birdwatch. We discovered there that we may have a budding ornithologist.
- Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center at West Yellowstone. Wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone in 1995 and 1996 to help increase the biodiversity of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. At Yellowstone, we heard a wolf cry but did not get to see it. After we exited Yellowstone NP, we stopped by the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center is not a part of the National Park but located near the West Yellowstone entrance. A stop there satisfied our daughter’s curiosity on wolves.
Taking a break from the midday heat and exploring geothermals, we also took the opportunity to check out Old Faithful Inn.
Rustic in design, the Old Faithful Inn gave us a neat place to view Old Faithful erupting while eating and rehydrating.
Revived, we explored architect Robert Reamer’s log and stone masterpiece that inspired the National Park Rustic style, more fondly called “parkitecture”.
After entering the eye-catching historic red doors of the inn, we reached the lobby and looked up. First, at the imposing fireplace made of rhyolite, the rock produced by Yellowstone’s volcanic eruption and its clock.
Then way up, up, 76 1/2 feet up and going to the ceiling, is the Crow’s Nest. From the inscription at the gate of the base of the stairs that lead up to it (closed after the 1959 earthquake made the support structure for Crow’s Nest unsafe for the number of visitors that come to Old Faithful Inn), it is thought to be the realization of architect Robert Reamer’s childhood fantasy.
Junior Ranger/Young Scientist Programs
Learning in National Parks is fun. Learning Science is especially fun.
We borrowed the Young Scientist bag at the Old Faithful Visitor Center for 4 hours. Ah, to be a field scientist! After completing their investigation and answering questions in the Young Scientist booklet, our children earned badges similar to the one stitched on the bag.
Rising up to the challenge of becoming Junior Rangers, they attended Junior Ranger programs and learned about geothermals, extremophilic bacteria, wildlife and history. After completing their Junior Ranger book ($3 fee at the Visitor Centers), they were sworn in as Junior Rangers of Yellowstone National Park.
The badges have been great souvenirs. For our duo, their Yellowstone badges became the seed of what is turning out to be a prized collection.
Learning Some History
Bear with me here. One of the adults in our family is a history buff who reminds us that knowing history deepens our appreciation of place.
- How did Yellowstone get it’s name? Minnetaree Native Americans lived In this area and they called the major river flowing through it Mi tse a-da-zi. This became translated to French by French Canadian trappers to Roche Jaune. This then became translated to English, Yellow Stone.
- Colter’s Hell. Private John Colter was a member of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery. When the expedition was making its way back to St. Louis, Missouri (1806), he asked to leave the Corps of Discovery to return West with two fur-trappers. He became one of the first mountain men. He told tales of an extraordinary place he came upon where steam and hot water spewed from the ground (1806-1807). He had an unbelieving audience. They jokingly referred to the area he described Colter’s Hell.
- Folsom-Cook-Peterson (1869) and Washburn-Langford-Doane (1870) Expeditions confirmed the mountain men’s tales as true.
- Hayden Survey of 1871. Geologist (and physician) Ferdinand V Hayden led this survey, which included artist Thomas Moran and photographer William Henry Jackson. Their findings, especially the paintings and photographs presented to Congress led to Yellowstone being established as the first National Park (1872).
- The US Army came to the park’s protection in 1886 and 1918. Fort Yellowstone at the Mammoth Hot Springs Historic District echoes of those times.
- President Thomas Roosevelt, conservationist and wilderness warrior, visited Yellowstone for a little over two weeks in 1903. He dedicated the arch inscribed with the words “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people” at the North Entrance of the park from Gardiner, Montana. Out of time, we didn’t get there, but did enjoy a meal at the Roosevelt Lodge near Tower Falls.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
A memory for a parent to keep forever:
Our two children were complaining about having to wake up early on our morning to see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
“What sort of vacation is this?”
“Do all other parents bring their children to the middle of nowhere to walk to see the sun rise?!?”
Grumpiness met us even with the offer of breakfast. And they’re not yet teenagers.
We had on this gorgeous morning, the Brink of the Upper Falls Trail seemingly to ourselves. Then we found out we’re not quite alone. There were birds and small mammals on the trail. There were flowers that the kids became curious about.
We reached the viewpoint. Thundering waterfalls! The kids were quiet. Their awe was palpable.
We took pictures of our family bathed by the soft morning sunshine at the upper part of the falls.
On the way back, we met people on their way to experience the beauty we just saw. My kids were no longer hiking. They were sauntering.
They were greeting everyone, “Good morning! Good morning!”
They were still sauntering as we took a different view of the canyon and the falls at Artist Point.
There I realized our family has gone through an American rite of passage.
We have fallen in love with a National Park.
Visiting Yellowstone filled us with awesome experiences, lessons and great family memories. It was hard to leave and return to the usual.
Yes, we will be back.
Thanks for visiting our blog!