What Kids Love Best About Yellowstone National Park

My little family has always loved the outdoors but our trip to Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park was by far the most spectacular and exciting. My nearly  7-year-old daughter and nearly 5-year-old son found these five things the best of the best in YNP-GTNP:

1. Animal Spotting. All kids love animals and most love seeing them in zoos, but nothing compares to seeing them in the wild. Within minutes of leaving Jackson Hole airport and taking to the highway, we spotted antelope grazing alongside the road. A little herd was just galloping along. Not long after crossing into YNP did we get stuck in our first of many animal traffic jams: a herd of bison had decided to meander in the middle of the road. People were hanging out of their cars (We even popped out the sun roof of the loaner Buick Enclave we were driving!) and snapping shots. I was glad I had forked over the big bucks for iPods for my kids because their biggest thrill was taking their own pics and videos of the animals through the car windows. We also got to see a grizzly bear, moose, an otter, and even a sly little gray fox. Bald eagles flew over head and very crafty ravens followed us for any dropped snacks. Almost as exciting as seeing animals in person was spotting their footprints and scat along the trails. We read some kid-friendly animal track and scat books before we left and the Junior Ranger pamphlet also has a handy cheat sheet.  My daughter spotted what we’re convinced were elk, coyote, bear, and wolf tracks. If you can also get your hands on some binoculars, do, preferably one for each kid so there’s no fighting. We also relied on the kindness of strangers who let the kids peer through their super powerful ‘scopes to see wildlife from afar, notably a grizzly feeding on a bison.

2. It Stinks! Literally Yellowstone stinks — as my son says: “The earth is farting!” The smell of sulfur wafts through most of the YNP, especially in geyser country near Mammoth, Norris, and Old Faithful. At first the kids were put off by it, but the smell became something they loved to hate. (See them holding their noses in the pic.) The gurgling, spitting, and yes, farting, earth was so incredible and unlike anything they’d ever seen before that the smell just made it all the more intense and exciting.

3. The Awesome Echo. The landscape of YNS and GTNP is filled with steep mountains, canyons and wide plains which offers amazing sound effects. Wind can whistle through the trees so loud that it sounds like a waterfall is around the corner even when it isn’t (even though there are tons of amazing waterfalls) and the potential for echo is unlike any I’ve heard. The kids loved shouting out “Echo! Echo!” to hear their voices ring back at them after bouncing  off the canyon — our hike along the Yellowstone River had a spectacular echo. (And the kids’ shouting had the added benefit of scaring away the bears.)

4. The Freebies. We were in YNP and GTNP after the summer rush in September (a beautiful and less crowded time to go) so we there weren’t a lot of other kids around. But the Junior Ranger Program and the Yellowstone Xanterra kids program were still active. Both organizations give kids booklets to fill out and color during their trip. They ask which animals they’ve spotted, what sites they’ve seen, teach and test them on nature trivia and even provide little incentives. (The books come in handy when mom and dad need a break.)  Xanterra’s yellow booklets (handed out at the hotel dining rooms) send kids on a scavenger hunt where they get stickers at the biggest attractions. Once their sticker page is full they get a free gift. (The Junior Ranger program is similar but we didn’t manage to meet all its requirements.) My kids were delighted with their gift– adorable fuzzy stuffed black and grizzly bears that they carried around with them the rest of the trip like pets.

5. The Majestic Landscape. We hike a lot in the northeast where we live, but at 4 and 6 years old my kids start whining after 3 miles on any trail. We started our week on the above mentioned 5 mile (completely flat) hike along the Yellowstone Canyon and the kids never asked when we’d reach the end. And when we announced the next day we were going on another hike, and another, there were cheers rather than groans. That’s because around every corner of every trail there was something new to see — the dramatic canyon view (and smell) of Calcite Springs below in the case of Yellowstone Canyon. And waterfall after waterfall — Mystic Falls Trail and Fairy Falls Trail in YNP were especially popular and dramatic.  The spurting, farting, gurgling geysers and colorful funky hot springs amazed them over and over (Fairy Falls also offers an awesome view of the colorful Grand Prismatic Spring). Perhaps most popular were the gurgling mudpots, maybe because they were so dangerous it was too exciting to be bored – just off the path is boiling earth !!! (Artist Paint Pots trail is a fascinating one for kids and it’s short too). And on our very last day, in GTNP, we walked along the Hermitage Trail (starts at Colter Bay Marina) with the Tetons towering above us. It was a sunny day and after four and a half hours of hiking my son finally said, “Are we almost done yet?” And by then we were. We were all sad to go.

Read my other post about what parents need to know before going to Yellowstone and share your own travel tips.

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