When planning a family trip to Yellowstone National Park it is important to think like a child. Kids love things that are brightly colored and bold. They are attracted to things that are really big and really small. They take pleasure in things that leap and bound. They enjoy things that spout, sputter and stink. And they like to be the protagonist in all things they do.
Our list of top 10 things to do in Yellowstone with kids takes into account all of the above plus one. Kids don't like to do any one thing for great lengths of time. With that in mind we've mixed the activities so that you can work your way from one to ten without once hearing, 'Mom, I'm bored!'
1. Old Faithful & Upper Geyser Basin
Upper Geyser Basin is the best place in Yellowstone to see geysers erupt. It is home to Old Faithful, the best-known Yellowstone geyser, as well as five out of six predicted geysers in the park. What's more, Upper Geyser Basin boasts the highest concentration of geysers in the world. There are more than 150 of these hydrothermal features in just one square mile!
2. Watch Wildlife
Yellowstone may not be home to nomadic elephant herds or bushy-maned lions yet the wildlife at this U.S. National Park is no less exciting. Watch bison bulls shake the earth as they collide in battle. Observe gray wolves stalk their prey by wit and cunning. View grizzlies feasting on the labors of another species. Yellowstone is inhabited by all the same large mammals as at the end of the Pleistocene era. Black bear, coyote, red fox, mountain lion, moose, elk, pronghorn, mule deer, bighorn sheep, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, river otter and trumpeter swans are just a few of the animals and birds spotted here.
3. Mud Pots
There are three places in Yellowstone to see mud in action - Fountain Paint Pots, Artists' Paint Pots, and Mud Volcano. The mud pots at Fountain Paint Pots are Yellowstone's most easily reached pools of hot bubbling mud. The mud pots at Artists Paint Pots are the most fun to watch. And while Mud Volcano no longer erupts this hydrothermal area is the most eerily intriguing spot in Yellowstone National Park. Visit one but think twice before touring all three.
4. Ranger Adventure Hikes
The Ranger Adventure Hikes offered by the park rangers at Yellowstone are a great way to engage the kids and get beyond the boardwalk. One hike takes intrepid walkers to tranquil beaver ponds that hold the promise of sighting wildlife. While none of the hikes are specifically geared to families, kids are welcome on all excursions. Of note, these hikes aren't strolls. The shortest is 4 hours long.
5. Norris Geyser Basin
Norris Geyser Basin may not boast Old Faithful yet it is one of the best places in Yellowstone National Park to see hydrothermal features. Here are six reasons why. 1. Situated at the intersection of Hebgen Lake Fault, Norris-Mammoth Corridor and Yellowstone Caldera, Norris Basin is the hottest and most dynamic thermal area in Yellowstone. 2. The water chemistry at Norris is more diverse than elsewhere and includes acidic geysers, a rare phenomenon. 3. The colors created by thermophiles and minerals are a true rainbow of red, brown, yellow and green. 4. Silicon salts deposited over a multitude of millennium, 115 to be precise, have bleached the basin ash-white. 5. Steamboat Geyser, the tallest, active geyser in the world, erupts regularly to 40 ft (12m) in between its unpredictable spouts 300 ft (91m) high. 6. The wooden boardwalks at Norris Geyser Basin have none of the crowds found at Old Faithful.
6. Boiling River
Boiling River is an off-map must. This five-star hot tub, one of only two safe (and legal) soaks in Yellowstone, offers a fun break from family touring. Amble the paved ½-mile trail. Watch birds, bison and elk. Soak in a natural spa, a mix of hot (hot spring stream) and cold (Gardner River).
7. Mammoth Hot Springs
The white mountain of travertine is the main attraction at the Mammoth Hot Springs. This fast-changing hydrothermal area, one of the few active travertine terraces in the world, is thousands of years in the making. Marvel at the ornate step-like formation known as Minerva Terrace. Learn about thermophiles - heat-loving organisms that color hot spring pools orange, brown, yellow and green - at Canary Spring. Calculate the length of time it will take Opal Terrace to encroach on the nearby historic house. (Hint: Opal Terrace deposits 1 foot or 0.3 m of travertine a year.)
8. Horseback Rides & Old West Cookouts
Xanterra, the lead concessionaire at Yellowstone, offers a variety of Old West experiences within America's first national park. Take a horseback ride through sagebrush flats. Enjoy a stagecoach adventure on a horse-drawn, covered wagon. Take one or the other to an Old West Cookout and feast on a chuckwagon dinner. And if you are looking for something a bit more bold sign-up for a backcountry horseback ride with a permitted stock outfitter such as Yellowstone Wilderness Outfitters.
9. Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is one of the most picturesque points in Yellowstone National Park. And while it is much smaller than the Grand Canyon in Arizona, storied falls and colorful walls make this big ditch simply spectacular. For adults. For this much-photographed feature to be a top ten for children requires a bit of work on the part of mom and dad. Put on your animation cap and paint, color or draw with the children. A picture of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is great addition to any family travel scrapbook.
10. Junior Ranger Program
The junior ranger program at Yellowstone National Park cements the experience in a way no attraction or activity can. Pick up a Junior Ranger Booklet from any of the ranger stations in Yellowstone and watch as your children aged 5 - 12 engage in an exploration through art, history, nature and science. Pin (or stitch) the acquired badge or patch to your child's jacket or hat. Kids love to show off their achievements.