Day by Day in Yellowstone
For the last year, we have been trying to get our kids excited about visiting Yellowstone National Park. With the prospect of sleeping outside, seeing wildlife, and taking very few showers it was not a hard sell. By winter of 2019, the kids were pretty excited and even on board for their “training” regimen which included walking 1-2 miles a couple times a week. Then spring 2020 hit, and our trip was in jeopardy. Luckily, when you spend most of your time outside hiking and camping, it qualifies as “socially distant” and in August 2020 we boarded our plane to Yellowstone National Park.
We began our trip outside of Bozeman by picking up the coolest rental truck. Hatch Outdoors has a small fleet of Jeeps and Toyota Tacomas that they have added camper tops and then pop up tents to the back. Inside the camper top, Hatch stocks a zip on shelter, campsite cooking set, table, chairs, and everything we needed for camping inside the park. The kids favorite part was their “fort” on top of the camper. This pop up tent was so easy to use, our 6 year old could set it up.
From Montana, we ventured down into the northern entrance of the park to view the thermal features up close. Our first two stops included Mammoth Hot Springs and a short hike to Wraith Falls, then we continued south to set up our campsite (which took a total of ten minutes). After our nightly family reading of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, we asked the kids what their favorite part of the day was. Julie liked seeing the ground squirrels on our hike and Paul liked the bathroom humor the sulfur smell provided.
Canyon Campground was our base for the first part of the trip so we could venture about an hour away in any direction and still have a convenient resting place. The next day we drove to the remote northeastern part of the park to explore the Lamar Valley. While fishing alongside bear tracks that littered the bank, we came across a half eaten buffalo carcass which the kids decided was their second favorite part of the day. After only one fish was caught in the heart of bear country, we decided it was time for lunch and then we could try and tempt the fish in Soda Butte Creek to bite. We drove to a pullout where over 1,000 buffalo were grazing, pulled out the sun shade on the truck, and ate lunch as the buffalo grazed.
After we had our fill of buffalo and food, we drove to Soda Butte Creek and sure enough, we hit an afternoon stonefly hatch that had the cutthroat rising. After catching some fish each we headed back to camp to discuss the next day’s itinerary. Around the fire that night, the kids decided the dead buffalo was second only to watching the grazing buffalo over lunch.
Monday morning, we headed south through the buffalo packed Hayden Valley to do some hiking. After looking at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, we talked the kids into a short hike past breathtaking views to a nearby pond to look for moose. After we logged 10,000 steps before lunch and no moose sightings, we continued driving south towards Yellowstone Lake. I’m not sure what we were thinking at this point, but decided the kids had way too much energy and talked them into a second hike around part of Yellowstone Lake.
On the way to a fishing spot, the kids spotted several marmot, which look like a cross between hamsters and groundhogs. These critters made the hike worth the miles and were talked about the rest of the trip.
Tuesday, we checked out of Canyon campground and headed back towards the lake to sign up for a guided fishing trip. Unfortunately, the boats were booked for the day but we were able to sign up for the first trip Friday morning. Since everyone’s feet were still recovering from our 20,000 steps the day before, we decided to sightsee from the truck. We continued around Yellowstone Lake, into geyser country. Usually this is the most crowded part of the park, but with fewer tourists this year due to COVID, it was still pleasant.
We toured the West Thumb Geyser Basin, then continued past Old Faithful (which was still packed) and toured Biscuit Basin. This boardwalk hike was the kids’ first experience with small geysers spouting water, which they loved. Late afternoon, we continued north to the Lower Geyser Basin to see more boiling water being launched in the air, which never got old.
Old Faithful Snow Lodge, which is across the street from Old Faithful and the Old Faithful Inn, was our residence for the night. After much needed showers and some dinner, we walked right up to see Old Faithful erupting as the sun was sinking over the surrounding mountains. We felt recharged and continued to tour the geyser basin boardwalk around Old Faithful before hitting the sack.
After leaving Snow Lodge Wednesday morning, we decided to check out some of the geysers in the Upper Geyser Basin. Following a recommendation from a fellow tourist, we stopped and waited 40 or so minutes for Castle Geyser to erupt and it was well worth it. This geyser erupted for at least 20 minutes, and then followed up with steam spouting from the top in bursts that sounded like a steam engine locomotive. This was the kids’ favorite part of the day and their favorite geyser. After this, we traveled north on Grand Loop Rd to Madison campground for the night. Madison campground may have been our least favorite. We chose it for the good fishing nearby. However, with summer temperatures, the fish that did bite were not worth how close our campsite was to our neighbors.
Thursday was our last full day and night in the park. After deliberating on plans for most of the morning, we decided to camp in Grant Village that night so we could be close to our meetup spot for our guided fishing in Lake Yellowstone. Before we began our drive south, we decided to take the kids into West Yellowstone to check out the Wolf and Bear Discovery Center and see some wildlife up close. The center takes in bears and wolves that were orphaned or were a “nuisance” in the wild. The kids loved watching the bears find food hidden in their enclosure and watching the wolves nap. After a quick bite to eat in town, we headed back towards lake country to set up for our last night of camping.
Friday morning we were up at first light to pack up camp and drive 45 minutes to Fishing Bridge for our guided fishing trip. The fishing guide started the trip by telling us how the fish had stopped biting the week before and how frustrating fishing was at the moment. After two hours of trolling on down riggers, we had one lake trout and one large cutthroat under our belts. With everyone drained and ready for another shower, we drove to the Gibbon River on our way out of the park to tempt some smaller fish to bite and have a picnic. The kids continued to live up to their trail names of wet foot and soggy bottom. Julie stepped in a mudhole well above her knee and then sat in a puddle, and Paul stepped in the stream with one shoe and threw his other shoe in the river to chase downstream.
After looking back on a vacation that took over a year to plan, I’m not sure I would change anything. We let the kids dictate how much to hike and when to rest and throw rocks in the stream, which seemed to work out well. They loved seeing the diverse wildlife from buffalo and bears to ground squirrels and marmot. The views in the park are breathtaking and diverse as well. I highly recommend this family vacation for any kids that can hike over two miles in one stretch. We are now hatching plans for a return trip.