National Parks Plus Kids, Week Five: On to Yellowstone!

Isabelle and Lucas watch Old Faithful erupt for the first time.

Isabelle and Lucas watch Old Faithful erupt for the first time. Photo courtesy of the Obey family.

The world’s first national park is, not surprisingly, a fascinating, magical wonderland. Take your kids! There’s nothing quite like watching your children thrill at their first Old Faithful eruption, or feeling your souls jump in unison at the primordial howls of wolves in the Lamar Valley. Yellowstone offers so many surprises. It is a place for sharing time and for solitude. And, believe it or not, it’s possible to find your own small corner in paradise even when the “buffalo jams” on Yellowstone’s roads are in peak season.

We entered through the famous Roosevelt Arch by Gardiner, Montana, and Mammoth Hot Springs provided quick evidence that we had entered a different realm. The Norris Geyser basin confirmed the difference, with its mess of color, mineralized trees, frothy cauldrons of super-heated water and steam, and a nose-curdling aroma like cracked, old Easter eggs. Steamboat Geyser quickly became Lucas’s benchmark for geyser comparisons. Steamboat is the world’s tallest active geyser and it demands your attention by continually threatening to erupt (though it seldom does).

If we had only experienced the Upper Geyser Basin, the kids would have been satisfied. Both loved every minute there. Their glee at seeing Old Faithful for the first time is indelibly etched in my memory. Beehive Geyser, a turn of the head away from Old Faithful, became Lucas’s favorite. We had the good fortune to see Beehive’s jet-stream twice—first, shortly after our arrival at Old Faithful and once again when we were joined the next morning by the kids’ friends, Matthew and Samantha.

Our two families spent the entire morning traveling the Upper Geyser Basin from Old Faithful to Morning Glory Pool with a Young Scientist backpack supplied by the Park Service at the visitor education center desk during one of our multiple visits there. Its contents included an infrared thermometer for determining water, steam, and ground temperatures from a distance; a stopwatch for timing geyser eruptions; and a microbe wheel that was easy enough for the youngest of the kids to use to guess the temperature. We missed those fun tools when we visited the colorful Grand Prismatic, the Fountain Paint Pots, and the Artist Paint Pots, all of which were a hit.

The only disappointment at Old Faithful was unavailability of age-appropriate “Young Scientist” booklets for the kids to earn a Yellowstone Young Scientist patch along with their Junior Ranger patches.  At peak season, we were told none would be available for another two weeks!

The wildlife, however, did not disappoint. The kids wanted to get up early enough our first morning in the park for a chance to see wolves. That meant reaching the Lamar Valley by sunrise. Our early morning was rewarded with coyote and pronghorn sightings and rambunctious bison of all ages, running, jousting, and, in Isabelle’s words, just standing there looking fat. About 75 minutes after sunrise, shortly after turning the car around, doubting wolves were on the program, we suddenly found our giddy selves standing with other lucky wolf-seekers, gazing at four howling, yipping wolves, winners of Yellowstone’s early-bird lottery. Isabelle, who had recently purchased her own wolf puppet, Logan Lightning Bolt, could not find the words to describe how thrilled she was to see the real thing.

A short time later, having returned to Canyon for breakfast and a trip down and back up the 328 steps to the view of Lower Yellowstone Falls from Uncle Tom’s Trail, we were ready for much more of the world’s first national park.

Tips

  • Encourage your kids to do the Junior Ranger program and check out a free Young Scientist Kit at the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center.
  • Allot plenty of time for the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center. It is fantastic and the exhibits are designed with kids in mind. The visitor center at Canyon also had fascinating and engaging exhibits. We spent at least an hour in each.
  • Hike the geyser basins early to avoid the heat of the day. Bring an infrared thermometer from the Young Scientist Kit, or bring your own if you want it available at other places in the park. It can keep your kids occupied for hours as they test the temperature of hot springs and geysers.
  • If you’re serious about trying to see wolves, stay at Roosevelt or Canyon the night before and be at the road through the Lamar Valley at sunrise. There are no guarantees, but the payoff is high.
  • Make dinner reservations at the Old Faithful Inn well in advance, lest you be denied or offered a less-than-ideal dinner time.
  • Whether you stay there or not, explore the Old Faithful Inn. If you have the time, watch Old Faithful erupt from the front deck. We read, journaled, and wrote postcards during a relaxed wait for our final show.
  • Although you can drive the Grand Loop in a day if you’re pressed for time, try and break it up and spend time in each area.
  • At Mammoth Hot Springs, you can maximize your chances of a good experience with younger children by bypassing the lower parking lot by the terrace in favor of the lot at the top, which is further down the road as you leave Mammoth.
  • If you have an RV, be prepared for parking challenges at peak times.

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About the Author

Craig Obey is senior vice president of government affairs at NPCA.