Yellowstone is one of the most popular U.S. National Parks, so if you are visiting Yellowstone with kids during the summer, you can expect to encounter heavy crowds. You will encounter everything from families to travelers in RVs to large bus tours full of tourists (plus hopefully some wildlife too!) Due to these crowds, while planning a Yellowstone family vacation you need to start early!
Yellowstone National Park is over 3,500 square miles. With a space so vast and so much to see, planning a Yellowstone family vacation can be a little intimidating. Before you stress, make sure you read these Yellowstone tips and you will feel ready to start planning a bucket-list trip to Yellowstone National Park.
Keep in mind that these tips are for visiting Yellowstone National Park in the summer. Follow these tips if you are visiting Yellowstone in the winter.
21 Tips for Your Yellowstone Family Vacation
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If you need help planning your Yellowstone Itinerary, my friend Bryanna has a great Yellowstone Guide with 57 pages of stop-by-stop instructions, daily guides, dining recommendations, and insider tips.
Yellowstone is one of the best National Parks for kids if you follow these tips:
1. Spend at least 3-4 Days in Yellowstone
To start, the one mistake that many people make, myself included, is not giving themselves enough time to experience the park. You can see Yellowstone’s top highlights in just a couple of days if you are staying in or near the park.
But there are so many things to do in Yellowstone that you really need to give yourself at least three to four days to get in some hikes and see more of the remote areas. If you have a week for a Yellowstone family vacation and love to hike, you could certainly spend all your time in the park. But for families, I’d recommend splitting a week between Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone.
2. Getting to Yellowstone
If you want to avoid connections, the closest major airport to Yellowstone National Park is Salt Lake City, which is about 4.5 hours away. However, you can fly into Jackson Hole outside of Grand Teton National Park, which is then about 2.5 hours to Old Faithful in central Yellowstone.
Alternatively, you could fly into Bozeman, Montana, which is about one to two hours from the North Entrance to Yellowstone in Gardiner or the entrance in West Yellowstone. You can then easily extend your trip to spend more time exploring Southwest Montana or staying on a dude ranch nearby.
3. Stay in the park
If you really want to make the most of your time in Yellowstone, it is best to stay inside the park. If you can’t find accommodations within the park (and those do book up a year in advance in some situations), you will end up wasting a couple of hours each day just getting to and from your lodging outside of the park.
That level of commuting, combined with time spent driving through the park, can really take away from the joy of exploring Yellowstone, In addition, driving through the park after dark takes longer than you would expect because it is so dark and you need to be on high alert for animals in the room.
4. Make your reservations early
I can’t stress enough how important it is to start planning your Yellowstone family vacation as early as possible. Reservations within Yellowstone book up nearly a year in advance. While there are many lodges to choose from, you will likely want to split up your trip to stay in at least two different sections of the park so you don’t spend all your time driving back and forth over the same terrain.
If you can’t get a reservation right away, keep checking back as you continue planning your trip because there are cancellations. Also, campground reservations are easier to secure, but even those should be booked early.
5. Stay nearby if lodges are full
If you can’t get into the park, the best places to stay would be West Yellowstone (45 minutes to Old Faithful) or down in Jackson Hole (but then you are driving through Grand Tetons each day – beautiful drive but long.) When we visited Grand Teton we really enjoyed our stay at the Rustic Inn Creekside Resort and Spa.
There are also some glamping options near Yellowstone National Park, including Under Canvas Yellowstone.
6. Split your time within the park
If you do stay in the park, you may want to split your time between at least two sections of the park to minimize driving. While there are tons of services around Old Faithful and the Old Faithful Inn is a landmark, I found that area too crowded and less “National Park-like.”
I would recommend staying a few days near the beautiful Yellowstone Lake, and then another couple of days up in Mammoth Springs. In Mammoth Springs, the elk like to come and graze on the town lawns in the evening, making for a great viewing experience.
7. Allow time for bison jams
When you are planning your day, keep in mind that driving through the park takes a lot longer than you might expect (or longer than Google Maps tells you it will.) Not only are there speed limits and single-lane roads, but you can encounter slow RVs, animal traffic jams, and scenic viewpoints that will entice you to make unplanned stops along the way.
The bottom line is: give yourself plenty of extra time and go with the flow!
8. Prepare to unplug
Keep in mind that there is very little cellular service in the park. If you are relying on your phone’s GPS, be sure to set your destination at one of the few spots in the park where you can get service, like Old Faithful or West Yellowstone.
The nice part of limited cell service is that you can actually spend unplugged family time during your drives and hikes. If you will be hiking in some of the more remote areas or want GPS, you may consider bringing along a Garmin InReach.
9. Become a member
If you are staying for a few days, consider purchasing a Yellowstone Association Membership. Not only will you receive a free t-shirt, bag, or stuffed bison, but you will also get 15% off all other gift shop purchases throughout the park, while also supporting the National Park.
10. Use the bathroom when you see them
Most of the main attractions have bathrooms, although you may need to wait in line. Some of these are just a step above a port-a-potty with a compost toilet and hand sanitizer. Be sure to bring along some travel toilet tissue and hand sanitizer or Wet Ones.
11. Pack a picnic
Each of the main villages within Yellowstone National Park has some food options, but unless you can plan your day to arrive at one of these around lunch time (and be prepared for long wait times), you may want to pick up a picnic.
There are many places throughout the park to stop and enjoy a picnic. These can all be found on the map given out at the entrance. Just keep in mind that when you get out into Lamar Valley, there aren’t many services around.
12. Leave no trace
Visiting the National Parks is a good time to teach the kids about responsible tourism. Not only does this include “Leave no Trace” principles when it comes to carrying out whatever you bring in, but it also means teaching them not to be a touron (tourist-moron).
This includes being responsible around wildlife. I love this article about the crazy questions people ask Park Rangers because they don’t understand that this is nature…not a zoo. So, no selfies with bison and no walking up to bears or elk. When they say stay back, it is for a reason. You don’t want to be one of those viral videos on the Internet showing the dumb or irresponsible things people do around wildlife.
For more on wildlife, see my post on the best places to see wildlife in Yellowstone National Park.
13. Stay on the path
While visiting Yellowstone you also need to be respectful of the ecosystem. Yellowstone sits on top of a supervolcano. In places, the earth’s crust is extremely fragile and thin.
Last summer I read multiple stories about people who died in the park because they were hiking alone without bear spray or they fell through the earth’s crust or even that they decided to take a dip in a hot spring and got boiled to death.
It is gruesome but all avoidable. Keep a close eye (or hand) on little ones and stay on the boardwalks when visiting geyser basins or geothermal features.
14. Buy bear spray
Even you plan on venturing beyond scenic viewpoints, it is highly recommended that you carry bear spray on any hikes or excursions within the park. You can buy bear spray at one of the visitor centers before heading out on any hikes. Make sure you are familar with how to work the bear spray and that you keep it easily accessible (not zipped away in your backpack.)
These signs along the rim hike at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone made us a little nervous and I kept my bear spray handy. Just remember that you can’t take unused bear spray on the plane ride home!
15. Don’t overdo it on the hot springs
Everyone can get geothermal feature fatigue. There is the Norris Geyser Basin, Upper Geyser Basin, Midway Geyser Basin, and Mammoth Hot Springs…you get the idea. After a while they all start to blur and get a little less exciting with each new thermal feature you walk by.
Don’t plan on visiting multiple geyser basins in one day or they will start to be less interesting. Instead, break it up with a visit to a geothermal feature combined with a hike or a drive through Hayden’s Valley to view some wildlife.
That said, a few don’t miss thermal features include West Thumb Geyser Basin, Old Faithful, and Grand Prismatic Spring.
16. Get up early
The best wildlife viewing is going to be in the early morning or closer to dusk. Just keep in mind that you don’t really want to drive through Yellowstone at night.
There are many parts with narrow, winding roads and you never know what might be standing in the middle of the dark road. Stop into the visitor center and ask the park rangers where wildlife has been spotted recently.
17. Wait for Old Faithful
When visiting Old Faithful, there are multiple buildings around the Visitor Center and a huge parking lot so it can be confusing at first to figure out where to go to see the geyser eruption.
When you pull into the lot, Old Faithful will likely be on the left-hand side. If you head into the Visitor Center, you can find out when the next predicted eruption will be.
However, if you walk up and see huge crowds around the geyser area, chances are it will be soon so you might want to head right over and ask one of the park rangers.
18. See Old Faithful from the back
At Old Faithful, some recommend walking around and watching the eruption from the far side, where there aren’t as many crowds. Depending on the wind, you may also get some spray in that direction though.
We got lucky and walked right up maybe 15 minutes before an eruption. A ranger was giving a talk and people were sitting on the benches. By standing directly behind the people on the benches, we had an unobstructed view and the crowd didn’t bother us at all (until we wanted to get lunch after.)
19. Park south of Grand Prismatic Spring
If you are going to the Grand Prismatic Spring in the Midway Geyser Basin, be aware that the parking lot is very small and gets really backed up. You may be better off parking on the street but it is only available on one side.
If you are heading north from Old Faithful, once you pass the parking lot, there is no parking on that side of the street for another mile. So either park where you see a spot before you get to the parking lot or take your chances in the lot.
Also, Grand Prismatic Spring is very popular and the boardwalks are very narrow so hold hands with your young kids so people squeezing by don’t knock them off the boardwalk.
20. Hold onto your hats
If you are wearing a hat in the geyser basin areas and it is windy, hold on tight! We saw quite a collection of hats in the springs.
21. Bring binoculars
Bring binoculars! If you see a bunch of people pulled off the road with binoculars or zoom lenses, chances are they have spotted some wildlife. It makes sense to keep your binoculars and cameras within easy reach.
We were so lucky to spend some time watching a grizzly bear chow down on a dead bison in the river. Having binoculars brought the experience up close (closer than we would want to be in real life that is for sure!)
Read Before you Go
If you are planning a Yellowstone family vacation, here are some books you may want to read together first or bring along on your trip:
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- Buddy Bison’s Yellowstone Adventure
- Hello Yellowstone
- Goodnight Yellowstone
- Yellowstone (A True Book)
- Yellowstone National Park Activity Book
- The Wolves of Yellowstone: A Rewilding Story
- Junior Ranger Activity Book: Puzzles, Games, Facts, and Tons More Fun Inspired by the U.S. National Parks!
If you need help planning your trip, be sure to check out my friend Melynda’s trip planning service.
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Tamara Gruber is the Founder and Publisher of We3Travel. A former marketing executive and travel advisor, Tamara is an award-winning travel writer and recognized expert in family travel. She is also the publisher of YourTimetoFly and the co-host of the Vacation Mavens travel podcast.