Yellowstone National Park guide

Waterfalls, bison, and geysers: plan the ultimate trip through Montana and Wyoming

Unforgettable Yellowstone family vacation

Waterfalls, bison, and geysers: an ultimate family trip through Montana and Wyoming

  • Nez Perce Creek cuts through the Yellowstone landscape near the Lower Geyser Basin.

    Nez Perce Creek

    Brown Cannon III

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From Cody, you climb into another world. Whether you take U.S. 20, which shoots straight west from the plains into the Rocky Mountains, or the more circuitous Chief Joseph Scenic Byway ― State 296 ― you watch the Rockies rise before you, beautiful, ?forbidding.

If there's one place I want my family to fall in love with, this is it: Yellowstone. But strangely, for all its obvious beauties, the park can be a hard place to appreciate. It's big, it's busy, you hurry to see Old Faithful Inn, then jump back in the car to make the next landmark on your list. After our first day, we find ourselves tired and tense.

Luckily, I had been smart enough to enlist expert help. On our second day, we join up with the Yellowstone Association Institute, which offers dozens of classes and courses in the park. We'd signed up for its Yellowstone for Families program: a three-day introduction to the park designed especially for kids.

"Sssss," I hiss at the institute classroom at Grant Village. To begin our first day, our instructor, Jen ― an engaging high school science teacher from Massachusetts ― gathers us in a circle to enact the formation of a geyser. Six adults and five children crouch, mimicking hot magma, the earth's crust, and the challenging role of superheated steam ― that was me!

We board a van to head out into the park. My son has a spotty record for appreciating natural history, being the only kid I know who was bored by March of the Penguins. But under Jen's guidance he turns into Mr. Earth Science, taking the temperatures of mud pots with a laser thermometer, mastering the distinctions between geysers and fumaroles. Our penultimate stop is the geyser of geysers, Old Faithful, which dutifully spouts so we can have our snapshot taken in front of it.

The next day: flora and fauna. We learn our pines and grizzlies and black bears, we play hangman using only words involving Yellowstone plants and animals. We count the number of times we crisscross the Continental Divide, which bisects the park: 10 at least. Toward dusk, when wildlife spotting is at its best, we get in the van and head toward Hayden Valley, where so many visitors have stopped by the side of the road to photograph passing bison that we feel like paparazzi pursuing starlets down Rodeo Drive.

Jen tells us to get back in the van and we drive a bit farther north. We are alone now, it is dusk, the last of the sun has turned the meadows golden and polished the lazy curve of the Yellowstone River silver-blue. We see more bison, some calves, born in May and still clad in their curly red infant coats. A herd of elk drifts across the bluff above the darkening river. A lone coyote lopes close to the water. We don't understand how the elk sense him, but they do. They edge away. The coyote climbs the bluff and watches. He lopes into the darkness. The first star comes out.

In this way, with geysers, laser thermometers, elk, and evening stars, what I want to happen does happen. My wife and son fall in love with Yellowstone.

Our last day is devoted to Yellowstone in art. Jen talks about the painters and photographers who have found inspiration here: figures such as Thomas Moran, who did the most famous paintings of Yellowstone but who finally confessed, "These beautiful tints were beyond the reach of human art."

We drive to the edge of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and park near Artist Point. It's crowded. Yellow-stone in midsummer draws visitors from around the world. But Jen leads us away from the mobs, down a side trail running along the canyon's edge.

As we walk, two of the boys debate which figure in Alien vs. Predator was scarier: Alien or Predator? My son is talking about Tony Hawk. But Jen hands us brushes and watercolors and paper, and we settle down to study the canyon with its golden walls.

These beautiful tints are beyond the reach of human art. Well, they are sure beyond my reach. But as we sit painting, watching the canyon's colors shift with the sun, I am content to paint even one one-thousandth of what I see. My wife completes her pine. My son draws an intricate canyon with, finally, a small skateboarder in one corner. Jen has everyone stand up and display his or her artistic efforts. We all agree that all our paintings are wonderful.

Tony Hawk and Thomas Moran, geysers and grizzlies and horses named Amigo. You'll never know who or what you'll carry around with you for the rest of your life. With kids, all you can do is show them the best of what you love. Places like, say, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. So that when their kids demand, Take us someplace beautiful, they can answer, I know just where to go.

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