Thursday, August 25, 2016

Yellowstone National Park: Best Hikes and Activities for Kids

Planning a trip to Yellowstone National Park is no easy feat. The park is the size of a state, and driving from one sight to another could take hours, depending on the animal-related traffic jams. Unless you're spending more than a week there, you'll have to pick and choose what you want to do. After plenty of research and referring to these maps, I narrowed down our three-and-a-half day visit to two major hubs: Old Faithful (for the geological sights) and Canyon Village (for the wild animals). We also took a day trip from Old Faithful to the Mammoth Hot Springs area to see the travertine terraces.

What to Do: Old Faithful Area

We stayed two nights at the Snow Lodge in the Old Faithful section of the park, known for Old Faithful itself, of course, but also for other weird and wonderful natural phenomena that you have to see for yourself to believe. Driving through the area is like crossing through a prehistoric landscape — steam billows out of geysers, hot springs and thermal pools everywhere you look.

We took several amazing hikes to get a closer look. Each was easy enough for small children to do (in our group, the ages ranged from 4 to 7), and there were plenty of extraordinary sights to keep their interest. Arming them with binoculars, cameras and power pellets (Tic Tacs) was also very helpful. We started at the Lower Geyser Basin, which was a nice introduction to thermal springs, geysers and mud pots, and the boardwalk path kept the kids on track. The whole distance is less than a mile.

Immediately after that hike, we visited the Grand Prismatic Spring in the Midway Geyser Basin, which totally lives up to its name and is the grandest hot spring of them all, spanning almost 400 feet and stretching out like a colorful, smoking lake. It's located just a few yards from the parking lot. The Grand Prismatic can also be viewed from above by hiking the Fairy Falls Trail, but we didn't get a chance to do that.

On our second day, we woke up early and hiked directly from our hotel, past Old Faithful, to the Morning Glory Pool (about 1 mile each way), which is more vividly colorful than anything else we'd seen (and we'd seen our share of vividly colorful pools by then!).

Next we did a more traditional hike (along dirt paths in the woods) to Mystic Falls (a little more than 2 miles round trip). While the payoff of the falls was certainly beautiful and dramatic, I enjoyed this hike more for the hike itself. Sometimes you get so caught up in all the weird things that Yellowstone has to offer, you forget to take in the incredible forest landscape.

What to Do: Mammoth Hot Springs Area

We detoured off to the Mammoth Hot Springs section of the park for an afternoon in search of elk, but wound up with more awesome ecological wonders. The drive from Old Faithful to Mammoth is jaw-dropping, each hairpin turn revealing an even more impossibly beautiful (and high up!) vista than the last.

Mammoth Hot Springs is a major hub for its travertine terraces, which resemble snow-covered overflowing hot springs, but upon closer examination are completely dry. There's an extensive stairway path that brings you up for an up-close look. It was tough for the kids to climb all the way to the top, but they managed. After ascending all those steps, we discovered that there's a parking lot at the summit (!!!), so it's also possible to just drive up.

What to Do: Canyon Village Area

One of the biggest reasons we came to Yellowstone was to see the animals, and I was led to believe that there would animals everywhere the moment you stepped into the park. False! We spent two days in the Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs areas without seeing so much as an interesting bird.

Fortunately, we'd planned to stay a night at Canyon Lodge in Canyon Village, which is situated between two valleys that are supposedly teeming with wildlife: Hayden and Lamar Valleys. We only had enough time to drive in one direction, so we chose Hayden Valley, and were not disappointed. There were bison on the roads. Bison herds in the distant plains. A lone bison in our hotel parking lot. One bison trotted past my car window and made me drop my camera because I thought it was going to stick its head in.

Beyond bison we got to see a herd of elk crossing a river in the distance, and a lone male elk munching on some leaves in the bushes. We wanted to see bears and wolves, but they didn't come out for us, and perhaps that was for the best!

Canyon Village is also the location of my favorite hike of the whole trip: Uncle Tom's Trail. But first: drive over to the Artist Point parking lot and walk a few yards to get the most amazing canyons views you'll see outside of the Grand Canyon. There's even a waterfall right in the center of it for added effect.

After getting our fill of the view, we drove back down the South Rim to reach Uncle Tom's Trail. The hike consists of a steep, 328-step descent down the side of the canyon to get an close-up view of that waterfall we saw in the distance from Artist Point. There's a rainbow by the falls that's practically a permanent fixture, and the dramatic beauty of that hike down is impossible to describe properly. The only problem is climbing back up! Fortunately, there are many landings with benches along the way.

A bit south of Canyon Village is the Mud Volcano area, home to the Dragon's Mouth, which is the one thing I remember from my own childhood visit to Yellowstone. The hot spring resembles a cave with steam pouring out of it, the dramatic effect enhanced by the sloshing water and a low rumbling sound. It's quite easy to believe that a dragon actually lives in there.

Where to Stay

In the Old Faithful area, we stayed at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, which is newer than the popular Old Faithful Inn. In the Canyon Village area, we stayed at the brand new Canyon Lodge. I'd recommend both. No matter where you decide to stay in the park, though, book at least a year in advance! We did it 11 months out and there was literally one weekend still available in the Old Faithful area for the entire summer of the following year.

Where to Eat

Unfortunately, we found the food in Yellowstone to be mediocre at best. Fortunately, after a long day of hiking, it almost doesn't matter what you're eating. No matter where you dine, the menus offer similar variations. There are three types of restaurants: dining rooms for more formal sit-down meals, cafeterias and general stores for more casual sit-down meals, and grills and delis for takeout/fast food meals.

Our best meal (in terms of food quality) was at the Obsidian Dining Room; get the shrimp and grit cake appetizer. Our best meal (in terms of ambiance) was at the Mammoth Dining Room, which was open and airy, with panoramic window views. The Canyon Village General Store is also very atmospheric, resembling a soda fountain from the 1950s. For dessert, don’t miss getting ice cream at the Old Faithful Lodge Cafeteria and eating on the second floor patio, with a view of the geyser.

What’s Nearby

After three days of intense hiking, we drove into Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a couple of hours outside of the park, for some R&R and Wild West fun. Jackson Hole is a destination in its own right, with the most picturesque town square you can imagine, a surprisingly excellent culinary scene, and awesome activities for the kids, from horseback riding to rodeos to covered wagon cookouts. Here is my kid-friendly itinerary.

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