Thursday, 14 August 2014

Yellowstone with Preschoolers

We recently did a ten day trip around Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks plus intervening cities with our three year old daughter and five year old son. I'm going to break this up into three posts, and this is the Yellowstone portion:

Jackson/Grand Tetons

We flew in through Jackson, Wyoming, and drove through Grand Tetons National Park to get to Yellowstone. Jackson is the only commercial US airport to be inside a national park and reportedly has one of the prettiest approaches to any airport in the world.

The view on our descent

Since we had made the decision to focus on Yellowstone and Montana, we didn't do either Grand Tetons or Jackson any justice. We did take the scenic Teton Park Rd which was only twenty minutes longer than the main one. It gave us lots of views of the mountains and lakes... but what really impressed me was the sheer range of wildflowers. I wish I'd known in advance so I could have got the kids to learn a few flowers and spot them.


Driving through Yellowstone, you will see many signs notifying you of the Continental Divide. This crooked boundary marks the point between water flowing to the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Pour water on one side of the line, it will run into streams heading for the Pacific; pour it on the other, and it will eventually make its way to the Atlantic. (We'll just ignore evaporation for the sake of the point.)

The road layout is a big loop with off shoot roads to the five gates, and one east-west road crossing the middle, between Norris and Canyon Village. Either of these are very central--the latter is perfect for access to the canyon, waterfalls and lakes, while Norris is ideal for geothermal features.

We were starting and finishing our holiday at Yellowstone, with a trip up to Glacier National Park in between. We had planned it at the last minute, so the only accommodation we could find for the first visit was in Gardiner, MT, just outside the north gate. On the way back, we stayed in Canyon Lodge for one night. Gardiner is a small, busy but tired feeling town, set in beautiful countryside and consisting mostly of restaurants, gift shops and white-water rafting companies. And, in evenings and early mornings, vagrant elk. I became very fond of it.

The online advice for a short visit to Yellowstone (you could easily spend a week and more there) had been to spend a day on geothermals, a day on waterfalls and a day on wildlife. We started with geothermals, since I figured that the children would have a higher tolerance for trekking around a geyser basin at the start of the trip--besides which, I had explained to my son that Yellowstone was a volcano and he was anxious to see proof of this claim.


NB One of the biggest cause of injuries in Yellowstone is people leaving the trails in geothermal areas and getting scalded. Make sure your children are aware that they must stay on the boardwalks, even if the ground looks perfectly safe nearby. We saw at least one family where the mother was having a terrible time keeping her excited children on the trail.

Most geothermal features and all the big geyser basins are on the west side of the park. We entered from the south so our first port of call was Old Faithful.

Old Faithful mid-eruption
Honestly, though there's a sense of obligation to see Old Faithful, it's not one I'd actually recommend if you feel you can give it a miss. Upper Geyser Basin is fascinating, but sprawling, and with small children you're limited in your explorations.

That said, Old Faithful is the easiest way to plan around seeing a geyser erupting. Check the time of the next eruption at the Visitor's Center on your arrival (signs should be easily visible--allow for a ten minute margin of error), and then do whatever you fancy until its time. Unless you're at the far end of the basin, it should be easy to get to a prime viewing spot. One recommendation was to sit in comfort on the upper deck of the Old Faithful Inn with a snack, but it was being painted while we were there.

Old Faithful Inn is worth a visit for interior decor and lunch. The short trail (there are longer ones) around the Upper Geyser Basin is a nice introduction to the various bubbling and steaming geothermals you can find in Yellowstone. However, in a park with so much mindblowing beauty, the only thing that could qualify as a 'must see' for me was the Visitor's Center, specifically the exhibits explaining the geysers and hot springs, complete with children's section. In the latter, we got our son to measure the 'heat' coming off the different colours of water in hot springs, discovering that the deepest blues are the hottest and the reds are the coolest. This was perfect information for our next destination: Grand Prismatic Spring at the Midway Geyser Basin.

The shores of Grand Prismatic
This is definitely a must-see. The colours are caused by microbe 'mats'--different microbes flourish at different temperatures. Reportedly you get the best effect in clear weather after days of sunshine. We were getting intermittent cloud cover that day, but we could see the lake long before we got to it because, as in the above picture, the steam was reflecting the colours. That instantly excited the children and they were eager to stop and see the spring.

The postcard pictures of Grand Prismatic are taken from above, and to get that view, you'll have to take the Fairy Falls trail. We took the blog's picture at Midway Geyser Basin, a very short loop with Grand Prismatic Spring at the far side. The crowds were a bit uncomfortable, as I was worried the children might slip off the boardwalk or inadvertently push somebody else off, but the walking itself was no issue. The other fascinating sight there is Excelsior Geyser, which blew itself out years ago leaving a vast steaming lake which pumps huge quantities of hot water into the Firehole River.

Hot water draining into the Firehole River; a swimming hole is some miles downstream.

You can go swimming in the Firehole River. If you take the one way (south only) Firehole Canyon Drive, just south of Madison, you'll go past Firehole Falls and then a swimming hole. We saw people swimming in the middle of the river and also sitting on various rocky outcroppings and it looked absolutely fantastic. There aren't many places you can legally swim in Yellowstone (I heard only two) and we stumbled across this by chance so we didn't have the time to do it, but it's certainly something I'd like to try if we ever go again. The climb down to the water and the river current would be something you'd have to take into account with younger children.

The Artist Paint Pots had been recommended for small children due to their colours.

The Artist Paint Pots Trail
Unfortunately, they were dried up when we were there! Bad luck on our part, but the trail itself was still rewarding--though there's a short forest hike to get to the geothermals. Trekking half a mile through trees did nothing to whet the children's appetites. Still the area itself was definitely impressive. While the paint pots were dried out, there was another mudpot just a few yards away which was hysterical to watch. On that day, the mud was very thick and producing these gloopy bubbles which burst and sent mud flying into the air with full sound effects.

Not wanting to burn out the children and losing time, we regretfully passed by Norris Geyser Basin, though I had heard good things about it. There's another museum there, and the park's tallest geyser, Steamboat Geyser.

We actually ran out of time altogether that day due to roadworks between Norris and Mammoth Hot Springs, but the following day, my husband and daughter returned to see Mammoth Hot Springs.

Mammoth Hot Springs
The limestone terraces are one of the most instantly recognisable landmarks in the park, and my husband apparently got my daughter around all of them. (Though with some driving involved, rather than walking the whole thing.)

We saw elk every time we passed the Mammoth Hot Springs area, calmly wandering through as if they own the place. (Technically, they do.) They're not exactly in the best setting for photographs, but it was a great place for our children to see them up close.

Mammoth Hot Springs marks the junction closest to the North Gate, and its village is a good place to stop for a snack. Word of advice: if you want ice cream, try the General Store instead of the Terrace Grill. It has better flavours and cones. (Also cheap ice cream bar options.)

Our last geothermal stop on the south-to-north route was the Boiling River.

Swimming under a hot spring's cascades

I've seen the Boiling River described as Yellowstone's worst kept secret and I'm inclined to agree. The sheer weight of traffic to it is so damaging to the environment that there is no signpost and it doesn't appear in any of the park's literature or maps. However, as we drove from Mammoth Hot Springs to the North Gate, right after we crossed the border into Montana, we saw people walking below the road and along the Yellowstone River, while the unmarked carparks were overflowing along both sides of the road.

The Boiling River itself is a hot spring that joins the Yellowstone via a number of small waterfalls. The water from the falls is scalding hot; the Yellowstone is too damn cold. Between the two, there is a very fine line of happy medium.

The trail there is half a mile, and then there are two sets of stairs leading into the river. The first one leads into a more of a hot tub pool: just the right depth to sit in and no current to speak of. The second allows you to explore down the river a little way, but beware of the currents when you turn back. Put another way: don't take small children down into the fast-flowing part. Even if you keep a tight hold of them, it's going to be difficult enough getting yourself back without any extra weight. There's a small area of shallows here where children can play.

This is more of a sit-and-soak area than a swimming hole, though the crowds are reassuring if you need assistance. (One kind bystander carried my daughter back for me, when I found I'd taken her further than I could manage.) The children found the crowds and current too much, but as an opportunity to truly experience a hot spring, I recommend it.

NB Bring water shoes. The riverbed is lined with shifting rocks, and treading lightly is not an option.


The eastern road more or less follows the course of the Yellowstone River, from Yellowstone Lake through the canyon and towards Gardiner. Tower Falls, at the junction for the Northeast Entrance was the well-recommended sight that we missed for the sake of more time.

We stayed one night at Canyon Lodge on our return journey. It was a lovely hotel and location, but we found a cuddly toy bear waiting for us in our room, with a note saying that if we took him, $18 would be charged to our account. In the time it took for us to read that, the children fell in love with the bear. As they had enough pocket money to buy him, I couldn't say no, but I didn't care for this commercial manipulation.

The Lower Falls of Yellowstone Canyon

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is what gives the park its name, though the Canyon walls have very vivid hues of red as well as yellow. The two waterfalls (Upper Falls, 109 ft, and Lower Falls, 308) are the main focal points of the trails and turnouts. What with the small children, we did the north rim drive which has short trails to the brinks of both waterfalls. The Lower Falls trail is a short but steep hike. Neither child had a problem with the effort involved, however the path is not paved, and loose gravel made it treacherous for somebody as accident-prone as my daughter--there's no danger of falling any distance, but it was a wonder she had any skin left on her knees by the time we got to the end of it. I still recommend the trail. Looking down over the brink was an incredible view. We let the children throw stones over the edge, and watching them fall until they finally got swallowed up by the spray helped put into perspective just how high the Falls are.

I've also heard this is a fantastic place to spot rainbows in the spray, but you would need to go in the afternoon. We were there in the morning, so rainbows could only be seen from the south rim which has less child friendly trails. The above picture was taken by my husband from the end of Uncle Tom's Trail, which meant climbing down hundreds of steps with metal teeth to retain grip in wet (and presumably icy) conditions. I was not trusting my daughter on those, and my son was done with walking, so we stayed in the car.

For a south rim view with less rainbow but more canyon potential, Artist Point lived up to its recommendations, but our best photos easily came from my husband's trek down Uncle Tom's Trail.

After saying goodbye to the Canyon, we proceeded through Hayden Valley for one final geothermal exploration: the Mud Volcano.

The Dragon's Mouth, in the Mud Volcano area
The actual Mud Volcano blew itself up years ago, and is merely an anticlimactic mudpot crater today, but the Dragon's Mouth was what made this worth the stop for me. It was also far and away the smelliest of the geothermals we encountered, which may or may not be considered a positive. It was all part of the joke for us, until my three year old daughter walked through a sulphurous bank of steam and promptly threw up.

There's a very short loop that takes you past the Mud Volcano and Dragon's Mouth, and a short trail up and around the Cooking Hillside to go past Sour Lake--go clockwise for a less steep ascent. This trail was where we got charged by a bison--again, this may or may not be a recommendation to visit.

Yellowstone River where it drains Yellowstone Lake, as seen from Fishing Bridge

The Fishing Bridge, these days open for viewing fish rather than catching them, along with Lehardys Rapids, just a little further downstream was recommended as a great place to view cutthroat trout spawning in the summer months. Either we missed the spawning or on the day we came, the waters were too wind-ruffled, but we saw no fish. Even with the wind distorting visibility, we could see that the river was astonishingly clear, and our children are at an age where walking across a bridge is high entertainment. Had we been able to actually watch fish, we would probably have had trouble tearing them away.

Yellowstone Lake

Yellowstone Lake became a casualty of time and tired children. We had lunch at Lake Lodge--one of our more successful lunches owing to the canteen style buffet approach which made it easy to customise the childrens' meals. As with most of the buildings we visited in the park, the Lodge featured lovely architecture--and some soft armchairs that I all but fell asleep in. The children loved the rocking chairs on the porch with a view of the Lake.

We had debated doing the West Thumb Geyser Basin, home to the infamous fishing cone where fishermen used to cook their freshly caught fish in natural hot waters. However, we adults were tired by this time, our son was not interested in getting out of the car any more and our daughter was asleep.

We did stop at Lewis Falls on our way out to the South Entrance--this suffered in comparison to Lower Falls, and would have been better done at the start of the park, but it was a nice short walk. Unfortunately, we still couldn't persuade the children to do it, although our daughter left the car to scramble over the log jam that had developed in the river below the falls.

Wildlife Watching

Roadside bear near Artist Point
We made a conscious decision not to go all out for wildlife spotting. The best times of day to see wildlife are dusk and dawn, which would mean either a late night or an early start for the children. With ten days of roadtrip to get through, we decided that the children's sleep time was more important.

The three recommendations I found for wildlife watching were Fountain Flat Drive on the west road (a little south of Madison), Hayden Valley on the road between the Canyon and the Lake, and Lamar Valley on the road to the Northeast Entrance. Lamar seemed to be the best rated, but would also have required the biggest detour. Had it been a different sort of holiday, I would probably have tried one twilight excursion to Lamar. I spoke to a woman who said she had gone at dawn and been able to watch a mother grizzly with two cubs.

We did do an early evening trek through Hayden Valley on the night we stayed in the Canyon area.

Elk herd in Hayden Valley
The reason Hayden Valley is a good place for wildlife viewing is because it has a wide swathe of open grassland along the river. It's great for grazing animals, and from the road you can see for miles around--but in many cases, the wildlife you're seeing will be brown spots against the green. Binoculars and a good zoom lens are a must. (We saw some really serious camera equipment from people doing this properly.)

One area was jammed full of people hoping to spot some grey wolves that had been seen the previous night, and it looked like the best approach was to park up somewhere with food and drink, enjoy the evening peace and keep an eye out for anything that arrived. We had less than an hour, so we simply drove along, stopping at clusters of people to see what they were looking at. With this minimal effort approach, we saw three bison by the road, and the herd of elk in the above picture, plus numerous distant bison.

With small children, wildlife 'encounters' were probably more important than getting a good picture of one in its natural habitat. The elk at Mammoth Hot Springs may as well have been in the suburbs, but we saw mothers, babies and young bucks with their first antlers. We couldn't get a clear shot of the bear we saw near Artist's Point, but we got a great view of it foraging in a log. Bighorn sheep, mule deer and bison were all common sights, and further north, in Glacier National Park, we saw mountain goats and a moose.

In short, without making any particular effort, we came across a wide range of wildlife. I had planned our itinerary with Hayden or Lamar Valley being a backup plan if we felt we had missed out, but in the event, we felt that the See Local Fauna goal had been well and truly achieved. Still, given a second chance, I might well have consulted with park rangers about where animals had been sighted recently and planned a picnic supper/breakfast.

Paddle and Saddle with the Flying Pig

Two popular activities for the area are horseback riding and white water rafting. There are pony trekking places inside Yellowstone, but the children were too young for them. However, after some hunting around the internet, I found the Flying Pig Adventure Company, which had an option to do an hour of horseback riding followed by an hour of white water rafting for adventurers as young as five (The Paddle and Saddle Express). I signed myself and my son up for the second morning of our visit.

My five year old on Sunset
The horse rides were actually done by Hell's A-Roarin' Outfitters at a ranch in the Gallatin Hills. Our hour let us ford two streams, ride along an impressive panoramic view of the hills and through a wood. My son's horse was held by our guide the entire time, as seen in the picture. They have options for much longer rides, but this was the perfect length for us.

My husband and daughter waited for us back at the ranch, where a ranch-hand kindly gave my daughter a free ride around the yard and showed her the other horses. Being British, it never occurred to us to tip anybody until too late, which we still feel guilty about, because they were really considerate.

The ranch dog was friendly too.
Afterwards, we drove back down into Gardiner, my husband dropped me and our son off at Flying Pig and took our daughter to Mammoth Hot Springs. I had our gear and snacks in a backpack, so we changed into swimsuits at Flying Pig. (The website offers wetsuits and footwear, but it was apparently warm enough not to need wetsuits and we had our own water-shoes with us anyway.)

The rafting was on the Yellowstone River, an eight mile course from the back of Flying Pig. I've never done white water rafting before, and I suspect that if you're an aficionado, this would be a pretty boring trek. For the first half of the trip, the river marks the border for Yellowstone National Park, and a little later on, you can see the Devil's Slide, a long red streak down a mountain. Otherwise, it's fairly featureless--obviously, this is the shortest trip... I can't speak for the two hour or full day treks.

For us newbies, the rapids were dizzyingly fun. My son was the youngest person in the boat and sat in the back/middle without a paddle. Before the end, he was asking to paddle too, and for the last stretch, I swapped places with him and helped him paddle the final rapids. Our guide was excellent with him and let him row at one point. (We did remember to tip this guide, since the bus that took us back had a sign urging you to do so.)

Other features of the trip included a spot to get out and swim--we did, but the water was so cold (53 degrees or so fahrenheit) that my son started crying and we had to get back onto the boat. There was also a photographer on shore at one point taking pictures--if you want to feature prominently in shot, I suggest sitting in the front or on the lefthand side of the boat.

We were staying at the Super 8 in Gardiner, so afterwards, we went back to the hotel, changed into dry things and headed out to the well-recommended Wild Buffalo foodtruck for lunch, where my husband and daughter rejoined us. Though the Paddle & Saddle Express is a half-day option, designed to let you have the rest of the day to explore Yellowstone, in practice, we needed a rest break afterwards. But my son and I absolutely loved it.