Who doesn’t remember their first family trip to Yellowstone National Park? The taste of burnt campfire hot dogs, the scent of lodgepole pine in the air, your first glimpse of a wolf in the wild – these are memories that you and your kids will remember together for years.
Visiting the world’s oldest national park is an American rite of passage, and as close to a pilgrimage as most families get in this modern, secular world. Most importantly, you’ll be introducing your kids to the wonder of the natural world, planting seeds that will bear fruit for years to come.
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Is Yellowstone National Park good for kids?
Does Yogi Bear poop in the woods? Of course! Yellowstone is perhaps the ultimate family destination. With its farting mud pots, exploding geysers, impossibly cute baby bison and actual fossilized trees, Yellowstone could have been built for kids. Even teenagers have been known to be impressed, especially by the whitewater rafting, zip-lining and horseback riding on offer at the edges of the park.
There’s good news for practical-minded adults too: Children under 12 stay for free in park accommodation, and all restaurants offer kids’ menus. Moreover, campground fees are per site, not per person, so you can stuff up to six people into one pitch.
Even better, fourth graders can get a free “Interagency Pass” that gives free national-park entrance to everyone in their vehicle. All the adults have to pay for is the ice cream.
A baby backpack will be useful for getting off-trail at Yellowstone © rafalkrakow / Getty Images
The park is generally very kid-friendly, but there are a couple of things to bear in mind. Strollers are perfect for the boardwalks that access the park’s biggest sights, but a baby backpack will be useful for getting off-trail. Other useful things to bring are child-sized backpacks, sunblock and DEET-free bug spray, as well as a plenty of snacks and car activities for the long drives.
Best things to do in Yellowstone National Park with kids
The park does a great job keeping kids inspired and educated in the park. Kids ages four to 12 can pick up a Junior Ranger Program booklet ($3) and complete a series of park activities (attending a ranger talk, hiking a trail etc) to pick up their very own ranger badge.
The similar Young Scientist Program investigates the park with a scientific twist. Visitor centers at Canyon (for kids ages 10-plus) and Old Faithful (ages 5 to 9) are the places to pick up an activity book ($5) and toolkit.
For something more serious, Expedition Yellowstone is a four- or five-day residential course on park ecology for fourth- to eighth-grade students and their teachers.
Most visitor centers and campgrounds in Yellowstone offer family-oriented ranger activities throughout the day and evening ranger campfire talks, though these have been curtailed in recent years by both Covid and budget constraints, so check with the centers to see what’s available on the day.
Lone Star Geyser by bike
Most of Yellowstone’s thermal features are accessible straight from the parking lot, but a couple of remoter options offer a fine opportunity for a family adventure by bike. Lone Star Geyser is a 2.4-mile ride down a paved but traffic-less road and erupts every three hours or so, making for a potentially thrilling destination.
Another option is to bike the mile or so on a designated path to Morning Glory Pool in Upper Geyser Basin. Adult and kids’ bikes are available to rent from the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, if you don’t have your own.
Moseying on horseback through the classic Western sagebrush country of Tower-Roosevelt junction is one of the family highlights of the northern park. For the full Western experience, you can add on a chuckwagon cookout of steak, beans and the kind of cowboy coffee you have to filter through your teeth. Be sure to book both the ride and dinner several months in advance.
For a more ambitious horseback experience, several outfitters outside the park offer multi-day horse and even llama expeditions through the park.
The world’s most famous geyser is always a hit with kids © redhumv / Getty Images
The world’s most famous geyser is always a hit with kids, exploding up to 180ft into the air every 90 minutes or so. Get an estimated eruption time from the visitor center, snag a seat and bring a coloring book for the wait. Keep an eye on kids in all of Yellowstone’s geyser basins, as there are no rails on the boardwalks.
While you’re here, the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center is worth a visit for its kid-friendly exhibits on the park’s geysers and the Yellowstone supervolcano.
Yellowstone has plenty of hikes perfectly suited to little legs. Easily followed trails to 79ft-tall Wraith Falls, scenic Trout Lake in the northeast corner of the park, Mystic Falls in Biscuit geyser basin or Storm Point on the shores of Yellowstone Lake are all between 1 mile and 2.5 miles return.
A few tips for hiking with kids: let your child set the pace, equip them with a backpack and camera, create a scavenger hunt along the trail and have an escape plan in case of meltdowns.
Pick up provisions or eat on-site at a Yellowstone General Store © melissamn / Shutterstock
Chow down at a Yellowstone general store
Most of the park’s branches of the Yellowstone General Store have a fun, counter-style place to grab lunch. The Canyon, Yellowstone Lake and Fishing Bridge branches offer 1930s-era soda fountains, while the historic Old Faithful Basin branch boasts a 1950s diner-style restaurant, all serving up nachos, waffles, chili dogs and root-beer floats. Ice cream is available at most branches.
Better still, assemble a sack lunch in the grocery section and picnic on the shores of Yellowstone Lake or at one of the park’s 50-odd picnic areas, all of which are equipped with picnic tables and some form of toilet.
Overnight in the backcountry
If you have older kids and some experience with wild camping, then consider spending an overnight in the Yellowstone backcountry. There’s nothing like camping in the wilderness, surrounded by the sounds of nature, where every snap of a twig sounds like it’s coming from an apex predator. And yes, there are grizzly bears in Yellowstone, so you’ll need to pack bear spray and know how to hang your food. You can only camp at designated sites, and you’ll need a reservation.
Several of the park’s backcountry sites make for a particularly good first family overnight. Sentinel Meadows (site OG1), off Fountain Freight Rd and surrounded by hot springs, and Indian Creek (site 1B1), near Indian Creek Campground, are both just 1 mile from a trailhead, offering an easy escape route. Bag site OA1 at Lone Star Geyser, and you’ll get your own private geyser show.
Mammoth junction is always a hit. Elk graze nonchalantly on the manicured lawns of old Yellowstone Fort, and the nearby multicolored travertine hot-spring terraces are some of the most beautiful thermal features in the park – explain to your kids that the mountain here is actually turning itself inside out! Plus there’s free Wi-Fi at the Albright Visitor Center and ice cream at the Yellowstone General Store. Like the park itself, it’s got all the bases covered.