When you think of top historical destinations, you don’t typically think of America’s National Parks. However, the parks are wonderful places to combine history education with outdoor activities. They make perfect vacation destinations with kids and are a nostalgic road trip back in time!
The oldest and most historic national park is Yellowstone. Founded in 1872 during President Grant’s tenure, Yellowstone was the world’s first national park. When you visit the park, you become immensely grateful that leaders from history had the forethought to protect and preserve this amazing part of America.
Planning well in advance is essential to any Yellowstone trip, and I encourage you to plan at least 9 months before your trip, particularly if you want to stay in the park. For summer 2020 trips, start planning now!
To fully see most of the main attractions in Yellowstone, you will need to spend at least 2-3 days in the park. There is just so much to see and do that I encourage you to spend several nights in different parts of the park to cut down on the driving time between areas.
The hotels in Yellowstone, especially the most historic hotel, Old Faithful Inn, typically sell out months in advance. Access all of the hotels through Yellowstone’s accommodations company, Xanterra, here. Note that the park lodgings are not luxurious and do not have air-conditioning or TVs and have limited WiFi and cell service, which ends up being a good thing. One of our children’s favorite parts of the trip was simply playing card games on the hotel deck after dinner. Staying in these historic hotels is truly like stepping back into a time before technology.
Getting to Yellowstone is not easy. Yellowstone is located within 3 states, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, but the vast majority of the park is in Wyoming. The all-year gateway airports are Cody and Jackson, WY; Bozeman and Billings, MT, and Idaho Falls, ID. In the summer, the West Yellowstone, MT airport is also an option. Whichever airport you use, you will need to rent a car to tour Yellowstone. During our summer 2019 trip, we flew into Bozeman and made the 1.5 hour drive to Yellowstone’s North entrance.
Before our trip, a friend recommended the Gypsy Yellowstone app, and I was so glad we had downloaded it. This amazing app is coordinated with your GPS and will automatically play as you drive through Yellowstone. It provides the history and background of all of the features you will see, as well as giving helpful advice for potential sites to explore. I love its honesty of skipping attractions that are not worth the trouble!
There are 5 entrances to the park, and whichever way you enter, you will find the information below helpful. For history enthusiasts, I encourage you to use the North entrance.
As you enter through the atmospheric wild west town of Gardiner, you will see the historic Roosevelt arch that served as the entrance to the park for decades.
While it is now just a great spot for pictures, this arch was dedicated by Yellowstone’s biggest champion, President Theodore Roosevelt, in 1903. There is a pull-off that you can use to get a good picture and to ponder how courageous these pioneers were to venture into this wild new territory. Be sure to activate your Gypsy app as you drive through the entrance!
Mammoth Hot Springs
As you enter Yellowstone from the north, you will shortly be at one of the most historic parts of Yellowstone, Mammoth Hot Springs. It was one of the first tourist spots known in Yellowstone, and its therapeutic powers drew tourists as early as the beginning of the 19th century. This area was the site of the U.S. Army’s headquarters when it took over control of Yellowstone in 1886. As you enter the visitor area, you will see the beautiful remaining sandstone buildings from its time as Fort Yellowstone.
I recommend making this area your first stop in Yellowstone if you arrive from the north. Parking is abundant around the Visitor Center and stay on the lookout for wildlife! We saw a herd of elk just hanging out in the grass near the restaurant!
You will want to visit the Albright Visitor Center, housed in a stone building that once served as Fort Yellowstone officers’ quarters.
This building has several exhibits to see and is where you can purchase the Yellowstone Junior Ranger book.
The exhibits upstairs discuss the wildlife at Yellowstone. Make sure to learn about the bears that are displayed – this is as close to one as you want to be your whole trip! Pick up a wildlife identification game from the ranger for the rest of your trip.
The downstairs exhibits tell the history of humans at Yellowstone, from Native American times through today. My kids loved walking through the timeline and discussing the changes at Yellowstone through the years. This is a great place to learn more about the extinction of the wolf in Yellowstone and how that affected the rest of the animals. Ask a Park Ranger to tell you about the new herd of wolves reintroduced in the 1990s.
The Visitor Center is also where you can learn more about the guided tours of Historic Fort Yellowstone and creepy Kite Hill Cemetery. Many of the quaint historic buildings now house park staff so take some time to wander around (but always observe the private residence signs!).
The walk from the Visitor Center to the actual springs is a short 10-minute walk through the picturesque commercial center. Your kids will love getting a huge ice cream cone at the Mammoth Terrace Grill. Just be warned that the servings are gigantic and terribly messy!
Most of Yellowstone’s natural attractions have wooden, stroller-friendly boardwalks to keep you on a safe path. Be sure to have a talk with your kids ahead of time about the importance of staying on the boardwalk. Yellowstone is a wild, natural place, and the attractions can be harmful if you do not observe the rules.
Head to the Mammoth Springs boardwalk to observe the lower terrace area of the springs.
If you don’t mind a moderate climb, you can take the boardwalk and stairs to the upper terrace area.
These springs were depicted in many famous paintings by Thomas Moran in the 1870s, which were used to lobby Congress to create the national park.
As you leave the Mammoth Hot Springs area, you will come to a junction. The main road in Yellowstone is a figure 8 and all of the major attractions lie just off the main road (see this map for more details). However this road is quite long and it can take hours to drive from one end to the other, particularly in summer traffic. Depending on your lodging for the night and on current road conditions, you will need to research the best way to tackle this road.
During our summer 2019 trip, the road between Mammoth Hot Springs and the Norris Geyser Basin was under construction so we headed east from Mammoth Hot Springs through the Tower-Roosevelt area to get to our lodging at Canyon Village. Along the way, we saw Tower Falls and Dunraven Pass, which is the highest pass in Yellowstone. The Gypsy app does a great job explaining what you are seeing and the different pull outs along the way.
The Canyon Village area is a great place to stay while you are seeing the sites in northern Yellowstone. There are several lodging options, including our chosen hotel, the Canyon Lodge. This lodge is made up of several new buildings and the rooms are nice but a bit small. If you need more space, look at upgrading to a suite. The rooms have refrigerators and some have nice patios.
The Canyon Village area is a good home base to see one of the most well-known attractions in the park, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
We got up early to be one of the first visitors at the lookout points on the north rim of the Grand Canyon.
The drivable loop begins just south of Canyon Village and winds back north, ending at the village. The Lower Falls is the more impressive of the two waterfalls and is worth the short hike to see.
While these lookout points have paved trails, stairs, and handrails, please be sure to hold on to little ones’ hands tightly. The drop-offs are awe-inspiring and a little scary!
If your kids are interested in geology, don’t miss the excellent Canyon Visitor Education Center, located in the village. The village is also one of the most commercial areas of the park and is a great place to stock up on provisions.
As you head south from the Canyon Village area, you will drive through one of the most spectacular areas in the park, Hayden Valley. Bring your binoculars and roll down your windows to take in the amazing views of wildlife. This is your best place to spot bison, who typically take over the valley during August.
As you drive, be aware of the bison herds and yield the right-of-way to them! They don’t observe road rules! This drive was one of the most memorable things we did at Yellowstone!
The Lake Village area of Yellowstone centers around the massive Lake Yellowstone, one of the most historic areas of the park. Since the early 19th century, explorers and tourists have been coming here to see this landmark. While the lake may look placid and warm, it is not a place for novice boaters and the water is frigid. If you would like to explore the lake, I recommend taking one of the many boat cruises or chartered fishing tours through Xanterra.
We did a chartered fishing trip, and it was an experience that our kids will never forget!
The guide helped our boys catch 6 fish, 3 cutthroat trout and 3 lake trout.
You can keep the lake trout, and our guide cleaned the fish for us when we returned to the marina.
We took the cleaned fish to our hotel and they served it to us that evening!
Don’t miss seeing the picturesque Lake Hotel and its elegant dining room. A great souvenir spot is the Lake General Store, which has been selling trinkets since 1922!
Old Faithful Village
The best known area of the park is Old Faithful village. This area will be the most crowded part of your visit and is a must-see attraction. I was impressed with the child-friendly boardwalks, hotels, and restaurants in this area. I recommend staying at least one night in the village to be able to visit the geysers after the day-trippers have left. We stayed at the Old Faithful Inn, which dates to 1903.
I do not recommend staying the 1903 part of the hotel with its shared facilities but in the additions added in the 1920s. If you book far enough in advance, you can book a room with a view of Old Faithful!
This area has miles of stroller-friendly boardwalks that take you around the Upper Geyser Basin, beginning at Old Faithful.
This geyser walk will take a couple of hours to do and is highly recommended.
This trail will take you near the most well-known and active geysers and thermal pools in Yellowstone. However, note that there is only one restroom on this trail.
Our kids’ favorite was the Morning Glory Pool, which is at the end of the trail and seems bottomless.
Be sure to download the NPS geyser prediction app before your trip so you can know when to gather at the geysers! Nothing can prepare you to see the super heated water shooting like a water hose out of the ground. The geysers are very dangerous so be sure to hold your children’s hands and to stay on the boardwalks.
The Old Faithful Visitor Center is a must-see site. The new structure frames Old Faithful beautifully and houses a small educational museum and theater. This museum has a hands-on room specifically for younger kids and has several interactive exhibits to help children learn more about the geysers.
My kids loved exploring the exhibits and shopping in the fantastic gift shop.
If you continue driving north past the Old Faithful village area, you can visit the Midway Geyser Basin, with the Grand Prismatic Spring, and the Lower Geyser Basin. The Grand Prismatic Spring is unlike anything you have ever seen – a hot, boiling lake more than 370 feet across. The steam blowing off of this spring is quite warm and can interfere with your vision. I don’t recommend visiting this spring during windy conditions with children under 6 years old.
Kids will enjoy the walk around the Fountain Paint Pots and Clepsydra Geyser much more. The bubbling and gurgling paint pots are fun to see and kids will enjoy guessing which one is going to burst next.
Other areas of Yellowstone
Yellowstone is so massive that you cannot see it all in one trip. Here are some of the sites that we didn’t get a chance to explore.
- Norris Geyser Basin: There is a museum here with geological exhibits, the Museum of the National Park Ranger, and 2 miles of boardwalks to explore. Between Norris and Madison are the Artist Paint Pots, which kids always love to see.
- West Thumb Geyser Basin: Right on Lake Yellowstone, its thermal features are so close together that explorers could catch a fish and cook it without taking it off the hook!
- Grant Visitor Center: This museum has displays about the massive 1988 forest fire that ravaged Yellowstone. If your kids love the Disney movie “Planes: Fire and Rescue,” this would be a good stop.
- Lamar Valley: One of the best places to see wildlife, particularly wolves.
Yellowstone is an important place of historical and natural wonder. It’s a great place to be in nature while learning about our country’s history and is a great child-friendly vacation.
- Cost: $35/car (good for 7 days); free with Every Kid in a Park pass
- Recommended: all ages
- Tour: 2-3 days
- Gift shops located at each Visitor Center, hotel, and village. Each shop has different items so if you see something you want, buy it right then!
- Transportation: Yellowstone is best seen by car. Be sure to download the Gypsy app to make it an educational and more enjoyable drive. Xanterra does provide guided tours in antique touring buses.
- Dining options: Each village and hotel has several dining options. Make your reservations well in advance here. Each restaurant differs in its menus, using seasonal and local ingredients. This is the place to try a bison burger or elk ravioli! During our visit, we ate at the Canyon Lodge M66 Grill, Old Faithful Basin Store, Old Faithful Snow Lodge Obsidian Dining Room, and the Old Faithful Inn Dining Room. The Old Faithful Inn Dining Room cooked our fish from Lake Yellowstone and served it to us for dinner! I have heard that this old West cookout is wonderful.
- Nearby hotels: The Yellowstone hotel options are all accessed through the Xanterra website. If you don’t want to stay in the park, Jackson, WY is a 1-hour drive from the southern entrance and has many hotel options. Cody, WY is a 1-hour drive from the eastern entrance and also has many hotel options.
- For all activities at Yellowstone, book through Xanterra here.
- Nearby attractions: Grand Teton National Park, Jackson Hole, WY, Cody, WY (includes an old west town, Buffalo Bill Center of the West Museum and Heart Mountain), and Bozeman, MT (includes Museum of the Rockies)
Books to Read:
- Guidebooks for Parents:
- 14 and up:
- 10 and up:
- 6 and up:
Have you been to Yellowstone? What was your favorite attraction? Comment below!