Post Summary: 10 fun, adventurous, and parent-approved things to do in Yellowstone with kids.
Planning a Yellowstone family vacation and wondering about the best things to do in Yellowstone with kids? Where do we even begin? Exploding geysers, roaming bison, and massive waterfalls are just a small sampling of what makes Yellowstone a fabulous choice for family travelers.
I have to say, planning a Yellowstone itinerary with kids can be a daunting task. The park is HUGE. If you smooshed Delaware and Rhode Island together and sprinkled a little bit of New Jersey, you would be pretty close to the size of Yellowstone National Park. You could spend a week in the park (like we did) and still leave feeling like there’s so much you didn’t get to see.
To save you a planning headache from trying to figure out the best Yellowstone kids activities, we’ve compiled a complete list of our choice for ten fun and adventurous things to do when visiting Yellowstone with kids. We’ve also included a short guide and tips to help you plan your family trip to Yellowstone.
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Traveling to Yellowstone with Kids Guide
Here’s a short and sweet guide to help you with your Yellowstone family vacation planning. If you want an in-depth article about preparing for Yellowstone make sure to check out our post on how to plan a trip to Yellowstone.
Scroll on down to the list below if you want to get right to our recommendations of fun things for kids to do in Yellowstone.
When to go to Yellowstone with Kids
July and August are the high season in Yellowstone. Barring any unforeseen closings, the entire park will be accessible. Even with the crowds, it’s largely considered the best time to visit. If you’re hoping to avoid the crowds, the best time would be late Spring and Early Fall, after Labor Day weekend. However, visiting the park at those times could mean road closures, park closures, and the possibility of rain and snow. It’s a high elevation, so even in the height of summer, the temperature can drop to below freezing at night.
Best Place to Stay in Yellowstone with Kids
Yellowstone is massive. So, while it’s more expensive, you’ll greatly reduce driving time by staying in the park. While we opted to camp in the park, Canyon Lodge is often recommended for its central location. Most lodging in the park is going to be overpriced for what you get. It’s unfortunate but true. Lodging can book out a year in advance, so BOOK EARLY. If you don’t manage to get a reservation in the park, you can wait till the last minute to try to snag a cancellation spot. It’s not impossible, but you will have to be vigilant about checking every day.
If prices are simply too much, I would check here for VRBO’s in West Yellowstone near the West Yellowstone entrance or VRBO’s in Gardiner near the North entrance. This gorgeous five bedroom home is perfect for a large family traveling together. There’s also this 2 bedroom home for smaller families and this chic 3 bedroom home with a fun loft for kids. We always prefer a peer to peer home rental than a hotel since it’s a better value considering you have a kitchen and more space.
Download the Yellowstone National Park App
Wifi in the park is nonexistent. Ignore anything that tells you otherwise. Even if you can find a tiny patch somewhere, it’s not something to rely on. Do yourself a favor and download the Yellowstone National Park app so you can use their maps offline. It can help you find trailheads, parking locations, picnic areas, and up-to-date information on road closures. The app also has a wealth of information like geyser prediction times and interesting facts about the park.
Plan for the Unexpected
Yellowstone is wild. It’s not a visit to Disneyland. Road closures and delays are very common. In the span of our visit, there was a natural fire (very common, it’s how the forests stay healthy) and an overturned fuel truck that caused closures for days. Not to mention bison traffic jams and routine road maintenence that the park does every year. I say this not to turn you off but to prepare you so you can adjust your expectations.
Books About Yellowstone
The best way to prep a young child for their big summer trip to Yellowstone? Books about Yellowstone! We love using books to get our son excited about our trips. He loves it too and it helps to build excitement for our adventure together.
For school-aged kids who can read and write, we love the book What I saw in Yellowstone: A Kids Guide to the National Park. Filled with fun facts and bright pictures, the book is an interactive journal to record what they saw and what they learned. It’s gold for parents with curious kids who love to learn.
For pre-school to kindergarten-aged kids, Buddy Bison’s Yellowstone Adventure is a cute, colorful book that introduces the park to kids through the adventures of two siblings, their park ranger aunt, and naturally, a toy bison come to life.
This is a map of all the activities mentioned below. This is mostly to give you a frame of reference to help prepare you for visiting Yellowstone Park. We strongly suggest you get a paper map once you are in the park as well as download the Yellowstone National Park App for when you need directions in the park. This map HERE is a great simple map that outlines the park and gives general driving times.
Best Things to do in Yellowstone With Kids
1. Wildlife Viewing
Top on the list for the best Yellowstone activities for kids is the outstanding wildlife viewing. This is no visit to the local zoo. Yellowstone offers the opportunity to see bison, black bears, grizzly bears, elk, wolves, moose, coyotes, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep in their natural habitat. Since you’re visiting the animals in their home, you’ll have to work a little harder to find them, but that’s part of the fun!
The best spots for seeing bison are going to be the Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley. That’s where you’re most likely to see a big herd of them grazing in the stunning prairie land. That being said, we often would see bison in random spots all over the park. The Hayden Valley tends to be more crowded, so if you’re looking for something quieter, I would suggest heading to the Lamar Valley. It’s a long drive to get there (that’s why fewer people go there), but the solitude can be nice for families not wanting to battle the crowds.
The Lamar Valley is also the premier destination in the United States for spotting wolves and bears. The best times to see most animals are in the spring when they’re out with their cubs and more likely to be hanging out in the valley. Late fall and winter are also good times to spot animals when they once again return to the valley. It’s not uncommon to spot them right from your car but to really optimize your chances, you’ll need to be there at dawn or dusk. Early morning outings might be hard for parents traveling to Yellowstone with young kids, so your best bet is to plan your itinerary around being there in the late afternoon.
Lastly, the animals are wild and unpredictable, so always adhere to Yellowstone’s rules to stay 25 yards away from all animals and 100 yards from wolves and bears. Most animal-related injuries in Yellowstone are from people not following simple guidelines to keep their distance.
BEFORE YOU GO:
Make sure to get some binoculars for yourself and your kids! Not only is it helpful, but it’s also fun, and kids love exploring with them. We like THESE for toddlers and THESE for older kids.
2. Geyser Watching: Upper Geyser Basin + Old Faithful
No Yellowstone with kids itinerary is complete without some time spent exploring the geysers of Yellowstone. A geyser is the rarest geothermal feature in Yellowstone. Not only that, Yellowstone is the best place in the world to see geysers. A geyser in the simplest terms is when a hot spring has a constriction in its plumbing causing a build-up of pressure and heat, which then causes an eruption at the surface. In other words, exploding water!
With 500 geysers in Yellowstone, it can be overwhelming to decide which ones to visit. Your best bet is to download the official Yellowstone app which will let you know which geysers are predicted to erupt while you are there. You can also ask at a visitor center or check the Yellowstone page for prediction times. Don’t want to test it out? Old Faithful.
Old Faithful is the most reliable geyser and erupts “faithfully” every 92 minutes, give or take. On a good day, it can shoot as high as 135 feet in the air. Because of its’ reliability, Old Faithful geyser attracts a lot of people. In truth, Old Faithful can feel like a theme park experience. It’s best to expect crowds OR get there early in the day (like 7-9 am) or late in the afternoon when crowds will have slightly diminished.
It’s a good idea to make a 1/2 day of it and explore the Upper Geyser Basin Trail. Located in the same area as Old Faithful, the four-mile trail includes beautiful hot springs like the Morning Glory Pool, fumaroles, and additional geysers like Riverside Geyser and Castle Geyser. The trail is easy, flat, and good for strollers. Although, if traveling with a toddler you’ll have to be cautious since the boardwalks can be narrow and do not have guard rails. Bring a high-quality toddler carrier if your toddler is like ours and will run off the side boardwalks. We recommend this trail if you want to get away from crowds since most people stick to Old Faithful.
A good tip is to stay at the Old Faithful Lodge or Old Faithful Inn for one night. It’s pricy which is why I only suggest one day, but you’ll be able to see Old Faithful go off several times at your leisure.
3. Grand Prismatic Spring
Grand Prismatic hot spring, located at Midway Geyser Basin, is one of Yellowstone’s most visited sights. It’s absolutely worth it to make your way through the crowds to see this gorgeous natural wonder. It’s the 3rd largest hot spring in the world and 10 stories deep. The spectrum of colors is a sight to behold, and your kids will love gazing at nature’s artwork. There are two ways to visit Grand Prismatic:
1. You can view it at the same level and walk the boardwalks built alongside the spring. This is best for people who have limited mobility and for those who also want to explore other geological sights that are located at Midway Geyser Basin. It’s a simple walk to the boardwalks, and they are big enough to accommodate strollers. Toddlers (and adults) have been seriously injured or died on the boardwalks from falling into the hot springs. Use caution when visiting Grand Prismatic with toddlers and using the boardwalk trail.
2. (RECOMMENDED) The second option is to view Grand Prismatic from above. Accessed from the Fairy Falls Trail Parking Lot, this short (1.2 miles) but moderately difficult uphill hike will take you to a viewing platform that will give you the BEST view of the hot spring. It’s often touted as the better option, simply because Grand Prismatic’s size and colors are best viewed from a distance. If you’re traveling with kids who are up for a longer hike, you can add an additional stop and include the hike to Fairy Falls (an awesome waterfall!) making the entire hike 5.4 miles roundtrip.
Grand Prismatic is popular and the parking lots will often fill up by 9-10:00 in the morning. While we typically suggest getting to places early, Grand Prismatic is best viewed mid day when the sun is in the optimal spot to maximize the colors. Also, visiting in the morning means cooler temperatures, which will mean more steam, making the hot spring more challenging to view.
4. Geothermal Exploration
One of the best things about going to Yellowstone with kids is it’s an opportunity for them to learn about science in a stimulating and interactive way. Yellowstone is broiling over with unique geothermal activity. Did you know Yellowstone is located on top of a super volcano?
Who needs a textbook when you have the real thing right in front of you! For us, we had no idea half the time what we were looking at, so we had a fun time learning together about the unique features of Yellowstone.
Download the Yellowstone App (how many times can I say that?), and you’ll learn about what a fumarole is vs. a mud pot. They’ll give you interesting facts on wolves and coyotes. You’ll learn why the hot springs have radiant colors and why geysers explode. Just download the app.
Other than the already mentioned Old Faithful, Upper Geyser Basin, and Grand Prismatic, here are some fascinating places to explore together:
Mammoth Hot Springs: Unlike the other geothermal features of the park, Mammoth Hot Springs is a travertine landscape that looks like another planet. The dynamic colors and land formations are sure to excite any budding scientist you have in the family. To be honest, we could have skipped seeing Mammoth Springs. That being said, other people have said it was their favorite thing, so…to each their own. Look at the pictures and decide for yourself. I will say, the area that Mammoth Hot Springs is located in is quite charming. With a post office and employee housing, it almost feels like a little town. You can also stop for ice cream and look at the elk that tend to hang out by the visitor center.
West Thumb Geyser Basin: Another hydrothermal area of geysers, and hot springs that stands out amongst the hundreds for its location along Yellowstone Lake. It’s pretty fascinating to see bubbling geysers in the lake.
Artist Paint Pots: Artists Paint Pots is another boarded walking path that will take you to springs, geysers, and pastel-colored mud pots. A great addition if you have extra time.
Mud Volcano: How can a place with features named Sizzling Basin, Churning Caldron, Black Dragon’s Cauldron, and Dragon’s Mouth Spring not be interesting to kids? Less visited than other areas of the park, Mud Volcano is less spectacular looking and smellier (you know, because of the sulfur) but could be of interest to kids who like looking at churning, boiling mud. Kids might also love listening to the hissing and belching that Dragon’s Mouth produces.
5. Yellowstone Hikes For Kids
Yellowstone is famous for being an American family bucket list destination. Being popular means the park attracts over a million people a year. Do you want to know the #1 way to get away from the crowds? Hiking Yellowstone with kids! It’s that easy. Most people tour the park in their car with short stops to see the highlights. We visited in the height of the season (August), and we never had problems with crowds once we were on the hiking trails. There are plenty of short, family-friendly hikes you can take.
Here are some of the best hikes in Yellowstone for kids:
Mystic Falls: Old Faithful area, 2.0 miles roundtrip, moderately strenuous
Lone Star Geyser: Old Faithful area, 4.8 miles roundtrip, easy
Elephant Back Mountain: Fishing Bridge/Lake Village area, 3.5 miles roundtrip, moderately strenuous
Storm Point (OUR FAVORITE): Fishing Bridge/Lake Village area, 2.3 miles round trip, easy
Yellowstone Lake Overlook: Grant Village/West Thumb area, 1.5 miles, moderately strenuous
Clear Lake/Ribbon Lake Loop: Canyon area, 3-6 miles roundtrip, easy
Wraith Falls: Mammoth Hot Springs area, .6 mile roundtrip, easy
Lost Lake Loop: Tower-Roosevelt area, 2.8 miles roundtrip, moderate
Trout Lake: Lamar Valley area, 1.2 miles roundtrip, moderate
Harlequin Lake: Madison area, 1 mile roundtrip, easy
Tip: When you arrive, ask for the print-up of day hikes in Yellowstone. Hotels, campgrounds, and visitor centers will have them. It’s an excellent guide that gives specific details of the day hikes in the area and all of Yellowstone. Ask for the general Yellowstone one and the one specific to the area you are visiting.
BEFORE YOU GO:
You MUST have bear spray with you. All of Yellowstone is bear territory. The likelihood of a bear attack is very unlikely. Make sure to make noise while you’re on the trail (not hard with kids) and have your bear spray accessible and ready. Also, make sure you know how to use it. You can buy bear spray HERE.
6. Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
When planning out a Yellowstone for kids itinerary, you’ll definitely want to carve out some time to see the awe-inspiring beauty of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. With two large waterfalls and a colorful canyon, kids will delight in the epic grandeur of the place.
The canyon is accessed through two roads, the North Drive and the South Rim Drive. If you have time, do both as they both offer great experiences.
South Rim Drive: An out and back drive that offers stunning views of the waterfall and canyon. The main family-friendly highlights that you can explore are:
1. Artist Point: A beautiful outlook considered one of the best spots to photograph the Lower Falls. Artist point doesn’t require a hike and is a short walk from the parking lot. If conditions are right (sunny day, early in the morning), you can often see a rainbow glistening over the Lower Falls.
2. Point Sublime Trail: A stunning hike accessed from Artist Point takes you along the rim of the canyon and into a lodge pole pine forest. The trail is best for older kids. Steep drop offs, crumbling rocks, and no guard rails make it a scary place for toddlers. If you do want to hike it with a young child, I highly suggest bringing a hiking carrier.
3. Uncle Tom’s Trail: This short .6 mile trail (really a staircase down) leads you to a lower viewing point of the Lower Falls. It’s a great hike for agile school-aged kids who can keep up with the 328 steps it takes to get to the lookout.
4. Upper Falls Lookout: Located in the same area as the trailhead for Uncle Tom’s Trail is a viewing point for the Upper Falls. A great choice if you’re visiting Yellowstone with toddlers or babies since you can access it from the parking lot, and it doesn’t require any hiking.
North Rim Drive: A one-way drive that offers different views and hikes of the canyon. The main family-friendly highlights that you can explore are:
1. Brink of the Lower Falls Trail: This trail leads you right to the mouth of the falls. It’s AMAZING and incredible to be so close to the waterfall as it gushes over the edge. However, the trail to get there is not easy. The trail is only .7 miles, but it is a steep descent with switchbacks the entire way down. The climb back up was definitely challenging, but overall, well worth the aching legs.
2. Brink of the Upper Falls: If your kids aren’t up for the previous hike, you can also choose to view the falls from this lookout. While it’s not as grand as the Lower Falls trail, it’s a beautiful view and a simple walk to get there.
3. Inspiration Point: This is the last overlook as you drive on the North Rim. The lookout point is a short walk from the parking lot and offers a great long view of the canyon.
Tip: I know traveling with kids can make getting places early almost impossible. But if you can, I would suggest going on the waterfall viewing point hikes as early in the morning as you can. Aim to start hiking at 8:00 A.M. You’ll be rewarded with a parking spot and crowd-free views of the waterfalls.
7. Water Play: Boiling River + Firehole River
Arguably one of the best Yellowstone activities for kids has to be finding a spot to swim. The only question is…what kind of swimming do your kids like? Cool or hot?
While swimming is allowed everywhere in the park (unless a sign specifically states no entrance is allowed) it is generally not recommended due to the river currents and the extreme water temperatures, both hot and cold. There are two exceptions to that statement, the Boiling River and the Firehole Swim Area.
The Firehole River swimming area is located on Firehole Canyon Drive and is a lush, serene swimming hole. There is no parking, so you’ll have to get lucky and find a spot along the road. It’s a popular area so you’ll want to arrive early (9am) to get a good spot. Contrary to what the name suggets, it is not a hot spring.
Unlike Firehole River, the Boiling River IS a hot spring. It’s not deep enough to swim, and the park doesn’t recommend full submersion, but you can wade and soak in the warm water. The Boiling River is located north of Mammoth Hot Springs and on the way to the North Entrance of the park. Its further location makes it a quieter choice than the Firehole River swimming hole. You’ll want to test out the water before your kids go in as different parts of the river have different temperatures.
Tip: These two swimming areas close down at different parts of the year due to strong currents. Make sure to consult the Yellowstone app or check on the Yellowstone website to see if they’re open.
BEFORE YOU GO:
Bring swimming shoes for the river. The rocky bottom can make it uncomfortable for little one’s feet. We love our Native Jefferson shoes and use them for everything.
8. Yellowstone Lake
Yellowstone Lake is the largest high elevation lake in the US. If you’re staying in the Southern part of the park, the lake looms over and offers a dramatic backdrop at every curve.
In all our research for our trip, we noticed that not much love is given to this beautiful lake. I get that Yellowstone’s main highlights are unique, but if you have extra time while you are visiting, we think a few hours playing and taking in Yellowstone Lake is a nice reprieve from the crowds.
The water is snow runoff, so it’s COLD. Due to the cold water, swimming is “not advised” by Yellowstone. In other words, swim at your own risk. We visited in late August, and I couldn’t help but take a dip in the gorgeous waters. I fully submerged, and yes…it’s frigid. We did see many kids swimming/playing at the shoreline, so if your kid doesn’t mind cold water, they might enjoy some light swimming. But honestly, even if they don’t go in the water, splashing around, collecting rocks (then returning them), and building sandcastles is pretty much a kid’s dream, right?
Kayaking is a great way to spend a day on the lake, but with no rental options within the park, you’ll have to bring your own or find a company in one of the cities outside of the entrances to the park. You can also opt to rent a boat at Bridge Bay Marina. All rentals are first come/first served.
For us, we chose to keep it simple and look out at the water while our kid played for hours in the sand. The lake is huge, so there are countless spots to pull over and find a place to pull out some camping chairs and relax for the day.
Here are some nice places that have sandy beach areas to check out:
Sand Point: Bridge Bay Area. Picnic tables are offered around the parking area, and a 1/4 mile trail through pine trees will take you to a sandy obsidian beach. Popular for fishing as well. No services or trash cans at the beach. We loved it here! A quiet off the beaten path destination.
Pelican Creek Nature Trail: Fishing Bridge Area. This .6 mile trail will lead you through the forest to the lake, where there’s a lovely beach area to wade in the water. This area is a prime place for grizzly bears in the spring and early summer, so check with the rangers about bear activity in the area.
Storm Point Trail: Fishing Bridge Area. This lovely 2.3-mile hike will take you out to Yellowstone Lake with several different spots to stop and spread a blanket out on some sand. We spotted many marmots along the water, so your kids can have fun trying to find what are essentially large ground squirrels.
BEFORE YOU GO:
Bring a lightweight picnic blanket. We like an easy, foldable blanket like THIS ONE that won’t collect sand.
9. Camping in Yellowstone with Kids
For a truly adventurous Yellowstone trip with kids, camping is our first choice! Camping is certainly not everyone’s preferred vacation style, but there’s no better way to be one with Yellowstone’s wild nature than to sleep under the stars. We camped in Yellowstone for a week, and it was EPIC. There was no shortage of excitement with thunderous lightning storms at night to bull elks sleeping outside our tent. We loved it. Surely if we can survive camping with a three-year-old, so can you. Yes, it’s rustic and, admittedly, a lot of work, but the memories are truly priceless.
For us, the best place to camp in Yellowstone with kids are the campgrounds that take reservations. I think for parents traveling with kids, the less work, the better. No one wants to arrive at a campground at 7 am to “maybe” secure a spot. We stayed at Madison and Bridge Bay Campground and were happy at both places. If you want a more central campground with full-service amenities, I would recommend Canyon Campground. You can find more info on campgrounds in Yellowstone HERE.
Tip: When booking your site, request an outer loop site. They’re quieter and more private.
Need tips and guidance on how to camp with a toddler? Check out our complete guide to camping with a toddler.
10. Junior Ranger Program + Tours
Almost every National Park in the US has a junior ranger program for kids. It usually entails a series of tasks you have to accomplish to earn your badge. They’re educational, fun, and a great way to outsource teaching them about the park! For Yellowstone National Park, there’s the junior Ranger program offered to kids 4 and under and the Young Scientists program for kids 5 and older. You can learn more about both programs HERE.
In addition to fun junior ranger programs, you can opt to do guided tours and adventure activities offered through the park hotels. While we didn’t do any, some fun options for Yellowstone activities for kids are:
Bonus: Don’t Forget To Chill
As a bonus, don’t forget to take some time with your kids to chill out and enjoy the magical and sublime scenery of Yellowstone. With so much driving and sightseeing, you can forget that sometimes nature is best enjoyed over a picnic and drinks. We loved our time in Yellowstone, but some of our favorite memories are finding a pull out along the road and sitting by a stream to waste away a few hours. Get yourself some lightweight camping chairs like THESE, a beverage of your choice…and take in the view.
As a fellow parent, I’ll put some money down that you could use a few hours to chill.
I hope this helps you to plan your amazing trip to Yellowstone with kids! Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below.
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