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Road Trip: Yellowstone

Friday, August 2, 2013 Leave a Comment

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We just got back from our epic western road trip to Yellowstone!  1,274 miles and many destinations on the way.

If you're alone, you can make it to Yellowstone in 10 hours, stopping for gas and bathroom breaks. With kids, plan on a good two day drive. Here are my Top 3 Tips for staying sane on the way:

1. Each step is its own destination.

It's a long drive, so make a plan in mealtime chunks. Plan your day out: will you leave early in the morning, and hope the kids sleep for a couple of hours? Or will you drive at night? Where will you eat breakfast, and lunch? Where will you stop for the night?  Book your lodging beforehand.

When you're road tripping through Wyoming, keep in mind that there is nothing but endless expanses of open land between towns. Make sure you fill up on gas, because the next town might be 100 miles away and phone service is nonexistent outside town.

There are four entrances into the park: Jackson in the south, Cody in the east, Gardiner in the north, and West Yellowstone in the west. Jackson and Cody are closest to Denver; we drove in through Cody, and came home through Jackson.

Day One went something like this:

  • 6:30 am: Hit the road
  • 7:30 am: Kids aren't sleeping, so we stop for the cinnamon rolls at Johnson's Corner, which is also stocked with necessities like Old Maid and Road Trip Bingo.
  • Noon: With 277 miles under our belt, we stop for lunch at the kid-friendly Sanford's Grub & Pub in Casper, which appeared like a shimmering oasis out of the scrub and brush desert we'd been driving through for hours: hello Daffy Duck, the great white from Jaws, and the Blues Brothers cruising along the ceiling.
  • 3:30: Hello, Thermopolis! A cute cowboy town with a natural hot springs park, it was the perfect spot to relax away the day's drive. With 27 soothing minerals, the healing waters of the hot springs are a state park - and the state bath house is free. There are two kid-friendly water parks. We chose Hellie's TePee Spa: indoor and outdoor pools and water slides, adult admission just $12.50 and kids $6.25. When you arrive, be prepared for the "EWWWW" factor from the sulphur smell... your kids will loudly let you know it stinks... but it's sort of like the monkey house at the zoo, it stinks at first and then you get used to it. If you have time, the Dinosaur Museum sounds good. 
  • 5:30: Check in at the Elk Antler Inn Motel. Quaint, clean, locally owned and with carved bears hanging from all the railings, it's a perfect stop for the night. Our room had bunk beds for the boys, hardwood floors, free wi-fi and a free breakfast in the morning - around $75 for the night. If you want to stay in the Hot Springs State Park, check out the Best Western or the Days Inn.

2. 2 kids + 2 iPads = quiet rides.

3. Pick one major activity for the day

Yellowstone is huge. There is a lot to see - and you cannot possibly see it all. The park is laid out in a huge figure-8 shaped road, so each destination along the way is 30 minutes to an hour away. Don't spend your day driving from one sight to the next - pick one and spend some time there. Your kids will thank you!

Yellowstone Tips

My family came every summer when I was a kid, so we've seen a lot but truthfully, haven't even scratched the surface of all there is to see and do. And Yellowstone with kids is a different experience than without!

Want to see geysers? You're in a giant supervolcano. Spend a day at Old Faithful and the geyser basin. Look for the Geyser Gazers with their radios - they'll let you know which geysers are going to go and when. You might just catch a rare one, like Morning and Fountain out at the Fountain Mud Pots area... they were dormant for years and are in the midst of an active phase.

Want to be on the water? Spend a day at Lake Yellowstone and rent a boat. After our long drive, we were eager to do something: rent a boat, go fishing, go for a hike... so we stopped by the Visitor Center to gather some info... but the boys ran out the back door and literally jumped in the lake. They ended up making sand forts while we sat in the warm sand and just enjoyed it all.

Yellowstone is fly fishing heaven. Find a fly shop in one of the towns (I love Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone) and get their advice on where to go. A guide for the day is a great investment.

Want to swim? The lake is pretty darn cold - but there's a swimming hole at the Firehole River Canyon... ask a ranger how to get there, and bring your water shoes. Don't EVER get into a hot pool in the park. Pick up the book "Death in Yellowstone" at one of the gift shops and you'll understand why.

Want to see wildlife? You'll see it everywhere. In summer, the elk and buffalo herds are up in the higher grounds feeding, but the Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley are good spots year round. The wolf packs roam the Lamar Valley. You can run into bears anywhere, so be watchful. Our friends camped at Grant Village along the lake and saw a grizzly.

Grand canyon of Yellowstone and Yellowstone fall nn edit1

Kids under 5? Don't go to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. Yes, it is spectacular. And steep - and I guarantee your kids will be running around and peering over cliff faces and giving you a heart attack.

Do go to the picnic spot on the Nez Perce Creek, part of the Firehole River along the west side of the park. The water is shallow and kids can wade in the creek, and it's a good spot to see elk or buffalo coming in for a drink.

Want to get your kids their Junior Ranger badge? Stop at any of the park's Visitor Centers to pick up the worksheet they'll need to complete. Mammoth has a great one, and so does Lake Yellowstone. Old Faithful's can be busy.

Want a night on the town? One of my absolute favorite do-not-miss things to do is in West Yellowstone: the Playmill Theater. We saw "Beauty and the Beast" and it was wonderful - one of the highlights of our trip. The theater is family owned, and features the talents of many drama students from Brigham Young University. It is a local treasure.

Want to see the Tetons? We came home via Grand Teton National Park. Don't miss having a drink at the grand old Jackson Lake Lodge. We rode ponies for $5, then drove down to Jenny Lake, where you can take a boat across the lake to the foot of the Tetons and do a spectacular hike to Hidden Falls, Inspiration Point or as far back into Cascade Canyon as you like. Moose sightings are likely. I absolutely love the Tetons.

Want to camp? There are 2,000 campsites in the park! Reserve a campsite here. There are also nine lodges in the park.

Where to stay? If you can, stay in the park for at least one night. There is something magical about night time and mornings in Yellowstone, under the huge Milky Way, and the mist that lies over everything at dawn.

Call Xanterra to book your lodging. If you go through their online system, everything is booked. Rooms get booked early in the spring - but people cancel at the last minute all the time. We called every week until we finally got a room at the Lake Hotel. Don't hesitate to check while you're in the park - you might just get lucky.

There are cabins, rooms with shared bathrooms, rooms with your own bathrooms, and campsites. Prices range from $19 to over $400.

Most of all, have fun!

What's your favorite Yellowstone sight?