After returning from my family’s s’mores-filled camping adventure in Yellowstone National Park, I’m pleased to say it exceeded my expectations. I knew Yellowstone would impress me, but it really blew me away. Around every corner in the park, there was something new to admire: Erupting geysers! Cascading waterfalls! Bubbling mudpots! And lots and lots of buffalo. In fact, we were regularly stuck in traffic jams as the bison made their way down the two-lane road, or tried to cross the road to hang out with their friends in vast meadows.
While we also spotted a moose (a female cow, so no huge antlers), plenty of pronghorn and a few coyotes, we didn’t see any bears or wolves…but not for lack of trying. As we made our way around the expansive park from sight to sight — from the Mammoth Hot Springs to the awe-inspiring falls of Yellowstone Canyon to the rolling hills of Lamar Valley — we had our binoculars poised.
By the time we left, we’d checked off everything we’d jotted down on our pre-trip planning list, except for the hike to the Petrified Tree (eh, you’ve seen one fossilized trunk, you’ve seen them all). Here are my highlights:
We road-tripped from Colorado with our pop-up camper in tow and spent four nights at this centrally located campground, with laundry and showers. Amenities in Canyon Village also include a decently stocked grocery store, gift shop, sports store, ice cream stand and the Canyon Visitor Education Center, with helpful rangers who answered my many questions.
Junior Ranger Program
My 11-year-old completed this very thorough activity booklet, which required going on a hike in the park and attending a ranger program. In fact, earning a Junior Ranger status at Yellowstone was one of the most stringent I’d encountered at any national park (and I think my daughter now has a dozen Junior Ranger patches).
Natural Bridge Hike
This wasn’t on the agenda, but when we found ourselves with a couple of hours to kill before dinnertime, we decided to embark on this 2.5-mile, generally flat, round-trip hike to a stone arch. Sure, the “natural bridge” wasn’t nearly as impressive as arches I’ve seen at Lake Powell and Arches National Park, but we certainly enjoyed a bit of solitude away from the touristy boardwalks.
Fairy Falls Hike
For our last hike in Yellowstone Park, we went on a doozy: 5 miles roundtrip to Fairy Falls, an impressive cascade falling from a cliff nearly 200 feet high. On the way, we scrambled up a side hill to catch a glimpse of the beautiful turquoise Grand Prismatic Spring that emits steam in a rainbow of colors.
Lower Falls in Yellowstone Canyon
By descending the zig-zagging Brink of the Lower Falls Trail, we came incredibly close to the top of this 308-foot waterfall that is twice the height of Niagara Falls. The thundering water reminded us of the incredible power of Mother Nature.
Over the course of our four-night stay, I’d say we hiked or walked more than 15 miles – along the crowded boardwalks at busy sights like Old Faithful and Fountain Paint Pots (where we heard a multitude of languages among the throngs of international tourists) and the quiet dirt trails that snaked through towering lodgepole-pine forest. Sure, the kids complained a bit (usually masked as questions from my 9-year-old, “How much farther?” and “Are we almost there?”). But I’d like to think that when our children are grown, they’ll look back on our vacation at Yellowstone with fondness, and they’ll be inspired to bring their own kids to see the natural wonders in this impressive national park.
More From Family Vacation Critic:
A Beginner’s Guide to Family Camping
10 Best National Parks for Families
10 Great Hikes for Families in National Parks
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