I think Yellowstone National Park is one of the most popular national parks, certainly one of the busiest, and I was worried that we’d be disappointed in “the real thing” after having had it hyped up by so many people. My fears were unfounded! We absolutely loved this park, both my kids had the best time and could not stop talking about how much fun they had. With that being said, it almost feels like a Walt Disney World level of planning is required! I have several friends & family who have expressed interest in going, so I thought I’d make one, mega long, post that has:
- our 5 day Yellowstone itinerary (we visited the Badlands before and Grand Tetons after, still working on those blog posts!)
- General tips for planning a Yellowstone trip & what I wish I would’ve known ahead of time
- Packing tips
This post focuses on this specific trip we took, but be sure to read about the more general top 10 mistakes to avoid when planning a national park trip, too!
If you’re planning a trip to Yellowstone, you’ll want to check out these other posts too!
- 7 steps to plan a family vacation
- National park books for kids
- Top ten Yellowstone hikes for families
We drove from the east coast, turning this into a road trip from Badlands National Park to Yellowstone National Park to Grand Tetons National Park and then down to Denver!
We visited the first week of June; in 2019 that meant we had three seasons in one week, saw loads of wildflowers, narrowly missed being trapped in the park by a snowstorm on our way out, and several trails were still closed. Junior Ranger programs were just starting towards the tail end of our visit.
I was so pleasantly surprised by 95% of the adults in the park, who were welcoming and kind to our kids. Here is Shauna Baron, a seasonal naturalist guide with Yellowstone Insight. She was there with another couple but took a few minutes to let our kids look through the scope at a moose. It was unexpected and super, super kind. Highly recommend checking out their family friendly Yellowstone tours if you’re in the market!
Pin this post about important tips for visiting Yellowstone with kids with this link or collage photo:
Important tips for visiting Yellowstone with kids:
Tips for planning lodging & dining
- Lodging is VERY crowded. You can stay either in the park or outside. Outside the park is cheaper, but you will spend a minimum of 1 hour driving back into the sites, and hit more traffic. Inside the park books A YEAR in advance. Cancellations do occur but you have to just call/check the website daily, so plan ahead!
- Even going in the first week of June, before it’s busy enough to even open all the lodges, dinner options without reservations were limited. I wish I’d realize they were as busy as lodging and made at least one “nice” dinner plan.
- Without cell service or wifi, there is no way to read menus, you have to walk in and check each one so plan ahead if you have picky eaters.
- None of the 4 in park hotels we stayed in had in room fridges, so we were unable to store fresh produce, dairy, etc. overnight.
- We ate at several of the ‘cafeteria’ style options and I’m not sharing notes on any specifics because honestly they were what you’d expect. Medicore food with high prices; you’re paying for convenience!
- Stay at least 100 yards away from bears and wolves and at least 25 yards away from all other wild animals! This is extremely important. Kids have been injured as well as adults, by bison, elk, bears, etc. It’s not worth the picture. Be safe. Cell service is extremely limited. Download maps, audiobooks, etc. ahead of time and have a paper map.
- If you plan on going on any trail, you need bear spray! Watch a video of how to use it, have it open and accessible. You spray it AT a bear, not on yourself as a deterrent.
- Gas stations are limited and drives can be slow! Be sure to keep your gas tank full.
- Have spare clothes, water, and snacks in your car. Traffic jams are unpredictable and frequent, as is the weather! We almost got snowed in.
Tips for planning your itinerary
- The Gypsy app (which gives you an audio tour around the park) comes highly, highly recommended BUT you need to download it before you get to the park. I didn’t realize the advertised wifi would be too slow to download it, and bought it but didn’t get a chance to use it.
- There is a fantastic community on Facebook that shares photos, tips, and helps answer questions, go check it out!
- Lots of trails are closed due to bear activity and/or snow until mid-June or later
- Wildlife is busiest at dawn or dusk! Plan accordingly if that is your main goal – but we saw our most exciting wildlife just driving around during the day.
- Wifi is slow as all get out, do not believe the park map that says certain locations have decent speeds! The only place that wasn’t at the speed of a turtle was the visitor’s center up in the Mammoth Springs area.
- Swimming in Yellowstone Lake is not recommended, the water is usually 41 degrees Farenheit. You cannot swim in hot springs. There are only two locations where swimming is recommended,they are busy and subject to closure depending on water levels, see more here. They were both closed when we visited in early June.
- They have a fantastic Junior Ranger program, the booklet costs $3 and can be bought at any visitor center. This must be completed while you’re in the park, and turned in for the badge/kids to be “sworn in”.
- They also have a young scientist badge/booklet program for older kids, it was fantastic and cost $5 – 10+ kids program at canyon Visitor Center or 5+ kids program at Old Faithful Visitor Center.
- There are guided tour options endorsed by the park service; be sure to check age minimums.
- The park is busiest from 10 AM – 6 PM! Parking is competitive, to say the least, so we got up as early as possible.
- It makes a huge difference what time of day you go to see the overlook for the Grand Prismatic Spring; plan to go in the afternoon! There is a visual in this post to see the difference.
Tips for when you’re there
- Rangers run regular programming for kids; check the paper map when you arrive to see what’s available and where.
- Ask rangers about trail/road closures for the next day, things change quickly!
- If people are pulled over on the side of the road? PULL OVER and ask what they see! I am pretty reserved so this was painful but totally worth it. A crowd usually means cool wildlife, but you have to be patient and/or use binoculars to spot it!
- Keep your hands out of springs. PLEASE. Don’t stick a finger in, drop trash, etc. The damage can be permanent!
- Be cautious when pointing out wildlife! Make sure your kids will actually be able to see it. If it’s very hard to spot, you will end up with crying kids who didn’t see it in time/who want you to turn around even though it is already gone (ask me how I know!).
- Take your hats off or be sure you have a chin strap near the thermal features! We counted 5 different hats that had flown off and not been retrieved yet.
The absolute Yellowstone with kids “must-do”s in my opinion?
- Old Faithful geyser & visitor’s center
- Mammoth Hot Springs
- Lamar valley
- Grand Prismatic Overlook (it makes a huge difference what time of day you go, see a visual in this post to see what I mean!)
- The junior ranger program
- Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (and Yellowstone Falls in it!)
Our Yellowstone National Park itinerary with kids:
We drove through the east entrance from Cody, WY! We didn’t spend much time in Cody, eager to get into the park. As you’ll see, we moved every few days for lodging because I waited too long to book. For future visits, I think I’d split the trip half and half, in the Northern Roosevelt cabins and then maybe in Southern Grant Village.
- Drove through Hayden Valley
- Mud volcano area
- Storm point Trail
- Slept: Lake Lodge cabins. These were tiny but clean, private bathroom, peaceful and very close to the beautiful lake.
Hayden Valley was beautiful! As I said above, pull over if you see people pulled over and ask what they spotted. With our first wildlife cruise, we didn’t spot anything besides bison, which thrilled the kids.
Our first interaction with the sulphur smell, but wow these were fun! I hadn’t read much about this area and I’m not sure why because my kids really enjoyed it and so did I. The names involving blood & dragons certainly helped.
Storm Point Trail
This trail was a third choice as we scrambled to deal with construction, but it’s a beautiful one! Very flat, very easy, with breathtaking views of snowy mountains and the lake. You go through forest, open areas, and even some sand beach. I included it on my top ten Yellowstone hikes for families list, where you can find more details!
- Drove through Lamar Valley
- Tower falls
- Walked through the artist paint pots
- Visited Old Faithful, did the young scientist program, walked the upper geyser basin
- Walked the grand prismatic boardwalk
- Slept: Old Faithful Lodge. This was very expensive and nothing special, you’re paying for location.
Often called the “serengeti” of North America, Lamar Valley was definitely prettier than Hayden Valley! We still didn’t see any bears/wolves here, but the views were beautiful and my kids never got tired of bison.
This was more because we were headed by, it’s a short jaunt from a parking space. We see a lot of waterfalls at home in North Carolina so probably could’ve skipped this, but it was a nice chance to stretch legs.
Artist Paint Pots
These were so cool!! Lots of different colors and a short hike around a boardwalk made for a great afternoon.
Old Faithful, Old Faithful Visitor Center, & Junior Scientist Program
Probably the most famous Yellowstone landmark, Old Faithful Geyser! Also the most crowded place we visited. We watched it go off once from the traditional viewing area, shown on the left, and then again on the other side/on the trail, shown on the right. I highly recommend walking around, because there were far fewer people!
I keep looking at maps to try and find the name for this area but it is basically behind Old Faithful, along a board walk. We looped up to see Doublet Pool, Anenmone Geyser, and more (see here for details).
This is also where we did that Junior Scientist program, which took at least 2.5 hours to complete. It had a fun backpack of supplies to check out, and was really well done, working with the kids through the scientific process.
Old Faithful Inn
An iconic building in the national park system, we enjoyed walking around. The ambiance was hard to describe, but with a piano playing and people chatting it felt like a different time. You don’t have to stay here to visit!
Grand Prismatic Boardwalk
I was so. excited. to see the grand prismatic spring! There are two ways to see it – one is on the boardwalk where you are next to it and the other is up above on a short overlook trail. I didn’t realize that the overlook trail was separate (it’s relatively new so a lot of books/blog posts don’t mention it) so this boardwalk was a big disappointment because you can’t see it that well! I did enjoy driving by, because the colors almost seemed to come up with the steam, but you didn’t get the same effect up close.
- Hiked grand prismatic overlook to fairy falls to imperial geyser
- Grizzly & wolf discovery center
- Slept: Mammoth Springs cabins – our favorite lodging! They didn’t have private bathrooms but other than that, they were big, clean, and comfy.
Fairy falls + imperial geyser + grand prismatic spring overlook hike
This was absolutely my favorite hike of the trip. As I said above, the overlook trail is pretty new and a lot of older books & blog posts don’t mention it, so I spelled out all the details for the entire hike in this separate post. Coming up to Imperial Geyser almost by ourselves felt extra special, like we’d really earned it.
My biggest tip about the grand prismatic spring overlook trail? Save it for the way back! The photo above shows the difference from early morning to afternoon! My kids & husband didn’t make it up for the way back, second time around, but I was glad I went up for a second peek because it was so much prettier.
Grizzly & wolf discovery center
This is outside the park and a private organization runs it, housing bears & wolves who were relocated or couldn’t survive in the wild. If you haven’t seen bears in the park or haven’t seen them elsewhere, this is a safe bet! It was our only chance to see wolves, and my kids really enjoyed the short movie about wolves and their importance in the Yellowstone ecosystem as well. They also participated in the “Keeper Kids” program (read more about it on their website); basically they took the bears out, let kids go in and hide food, let the bear back in so they could hunt for it! There was more education involved than I realized and they both enjoyed it.
- Artist point – Yellowstone falls
- Roosevelt Cookout dinner
- Slept: Mammoth Springs cabins
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone + Yellowstone Falls (Artist Point)
The options for seeing this area are overwhelming! We wanted to do the Uncle Tom’s trail that takes a bunch of stairs down closer to the falls but it was closed. After a rough morning for un-Yellowstone related reasons, we just got out and saw the Artist Point view, shown above. This isn’t even a hike really, just a short walk, and definitely doesn’t take a whole day. Wondering what we did in between this and the Roosevelt Cookout? We stupidly tried to convince our kids to take a nap, 0 stars, do not recommend.
The Roosevelt Cookout is a popular special event run by the park, and we were glad we went! You can ride horses or a wagon down to the cookout area, where food is served and cowboy music is played. It was very family friendly and the views were beautiful.
- Mammoth Springs
- Yellowstone wildlife olympics
- Slept: Canyon lodge. This was the fanciest, newest lodging and we had zero complaints past the price tag!
We needed to go to a ranger program to finish out their booklets, so the morning was spent doing these fun “wildlife olympics” where they learned an animal fact like how long a moose could hold its breath or how far something could jump, and then tried it out themselves. They really liked it!
Last but not least, we walked the Mammoth Springs boardwalk trail. This seems to be a less popular area and I don’t know why, I loved all the colors and formations. This was a short hike; we also spotted the only snake of the trip alongside one of the hot springs.
The last day of the trip was sadly spent negotiating a house emergency, and then narrowly avoiding a snow storm that shut down the roads, while we drove down to Grand Tetons!
Packing for Yellowstone with kids:
Lots of these are basic national park packing ideas, but just in case you haven’t thought of some of these! Keep in mind that you’re pretty far from any type of gas station/convenience store while you’re in most of the park, especially after hours.
- Clothes that layer well & dry quickly – there are some laundry facilities so I also packed fewer outfits & laundry soap. We truly wore things for all 4 seasons while we were there for 5 days, the weather changed rapidly.
- Comfortable shoes. I don’t think hiking shoes are necessary for any of the boardwalks for sure, and even our longer fairy falls hike would’ve been fine in tennis shoes, although we used our hiking pair.
- Sunscreen – our favorite
- Bug spray, mosquitoes are everywhere! – our favorite
- Sun hat – our favorite, we’ve been using them for years
- Some form of entertainment in the car; it can get exhausting just looking for wildlife hours on end! Audiobooks are fantastic as are scratch art books and sticker books
- Binoculars (these are similar to what we use)
- Snacks, of course
- This isn’t an essential but someone suggested I bring a temperature gun and it was fun to experiment with! Before we left, we used it to test the tap water when it was cold/room temperature/hot so they had a frame of reference once we arrived and tested the hot springs.
What I’d love to do next time we visit:
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- See Morning Glory Pool
- Hike Uncle Tom’s Trail
- Try to visit during winter and see some wolves
- Stay in the Roosevelt cabins
- Drive in through the North entrance on Beartooth highway, which is supposed to be beautiful
- Take the fossil forest hike & see the petrified tree
Things we didn’t do but considered: