Unforgettable Yellowstone family vacation

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

Here we are, sitting cross-legged on a bluff overlooking the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The bluff slopes down to the canyon rim, where, hundreds of feet below, the Yellowstone River churns, blurred by mist.

We have watercolors, paper, and brushes, which we daub into small cups. I'm hoping to capture the grandeur of the view but worry that combined artistic fervor and clumsiness will send me rolling down the slope over the edge of the canyon.

My wife and 8-year-old son sit uphill, painting, unaware of the danger. My wife contemplates a picturesquely twisted pine. My son gazes out at the canyon with a look of grave concentration.

He asks me, "Do you think Tony Hawk could skateboard down this?"

He lifts his brush, ready to add a skateboarding Tony to his landscape. Then he reconsiders.

"There are a lot of obstacles," he says. "It would be pretty hard."

A delusion of parenthood is that you can instill your own passions in your offspring. In fact, it's often a doomed battle, but you keep trying. We had been spending too much time in crowded, confined, urban places. I wanted us to see something big.

I mapped a summer vacation. I drew a 600-mile route centered around Yellowstone National Park. Two big states ― Wyoming and Montana ― with big mountains, big rivers, big geysers, big skies. My son watched, then went back to his Japanese cartoon show, where spiky-haired kids threatened to destroy one another's life force.

Well, never mind. Soon enough we are driving a big car down a big highway in Montana, headed for two weeks of vacation, starting at Mountain Sky Guest Ranch in Emigrant, Montana.

Many people believe they aren't "guest ranch" people in the same way they insist they aren't "dance the Electric Slide at weddings" people. That is true of my wife, whose previous horse encounters have been limited to riding ponies around in circles at children's birthday parties. She sits in the front seat, glancing nervously at Mountain Sky's welcome letter: "Micki, our head wrangler, will spend some time with each of you to talk about your riding ability and past encounters."

She throws the letter down on the car seat. "I don't want to talk with Micki about my past riding experiences."

Then we arrive. The best way to describe Mountain Sky is that it is how God would design a guest ranch if he had the money. High up in the Gallatin Range, warmly elegant cabins and a sprawling log lodge are set among regal pines. The guests are sophisticated, accomplished lawyers and doctors and investment bankers who have been riding for years, who live to ride.

Oh, and us.

The get-acquainted meeting is like the first day at summer camp. How long, I wonder, will it take before everyone realizes we are dorks?

But we have a wonderful time. We love everything: the riding, the food, the kids' programs, the other guests. The great thing about a guest ranch is that all the hard choices are made for you, leaving you all the easy, fun decisions. Yoga or fly-fishing lesson? Afternoon ride or nap?

As for the riding instruction, from wranglers Micki Cleary and Mark Rose, it is phenomenal. We are matched to three fine horses, Connie, Miss Ellie, and Amigo, who are gentle with us beginners but who can be encouraged to trot stirringly up mountain meadows. By the second day, my wife is spurring Connie expertly across fast-flowing streams and my son, on Amigo, is trotting along, cackling, "This is fun! Isn't this fun? Did you ever think it would be this fun?"

On our last morning, we ride along Big Creek and can see, to the west, Windy Pass high in the Gallatins. If there is a nicer place to be on a summer morning we cannot, at that moment, imagine what it could be.

 

Wyoming and Montana are famous for their outsize landscapes. But we find ourselves falling just as hard for the towns: the tidy homes beneath the cottonwood trees, the views of peaks or plains at the end of every street, the sense of civic order imposed on the beautiful wild. After Mountain Sky we dawdle across the map. In Bozeman we admire dinosaurs at the Museum of the Rockies and stroll down Main Street, savoring the lazy appeal of a university town on summer break. In Red Lodge we stay at the Pollard Hotel and eat the best rhubarb pie of our lives at the Red Lodge Cafe, Lounge & Casino.

In a barrage of thunder and hailstones, we drive up and over the Beartooth Range to Cody, Wyoming. The town draws its name from its founder, Wild West impresario Buffalo Bill Cody, and retains his swaggering charm. At the Irma Hotel, we sit on the porch, escaping the hailstorm and watching motorcycles parade in for the August rally in Sturgis, South Dakota.

We go down the street to Cody's cultural claim to fame, the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. I love everything: the Plains Indian tepees, the Charlie Russell paintings, the dioramas of Rocky Mountain wildlife. My son loves the guns: Remingtons, Winchesters, shotguns, Gatling guns. After 20 minutes my wife has her fill of firearms and goes off on what she calls "the chick tour" of the museum: Native American clothing and Mrs. Cody's dresses. I ask my son if he wants to see the 1,200 additional guns downstairs. He does.

Afterward, we somehow find ourselves at a roadside store that features only antlers: antler lamps, antler chairs, antler mantelpieces. Next door is a fireworks store and I stumble in, dazed by the rockets and Roman candles. "We don't have anything like these in California," I tell the clerk.

"That's what all the Californians tell us," she says.

That evening we go to the Cody Nite Rodeo, which has been running every summer night for 68 years. Another storm. Lightning spikes the western horizon, and when through the crackling loudspeaker the announcer shouts, "Welcome to the rodeo capital of the world," each word is broken by thunder: Ro―BOOM―de―BOOM-Ohhh.

Bronco riding, calf roping, bull riding, barrel racing, the rising wind blowing cowboy hats off the riders, fat raindrops plunking in the dust. The air crackles, the loudspeakers play "Free Ride," you smell ozone, and bands of small children chase a woolly herd of lambs across the grounds, hoping to catch the lamb that wears a yellow ribbon so they can win an ice cream cone.

And at that point we give in. This could be ours, we think. We could leave our city life and move to Cody. Our son could chase lambs for yellow ribbons, then compete in calf roping. Our new house would be decorated all in antlers. We could ride motorcycles through hailstorms and set off fireworks. That's what a good vacation does. It explodes your usual idea of yourself, takes your regular life and tosses a bolt of lightning at it, making it new.

 

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.