Our family was fortunate to be able to take a big road trip this summer, and we chose Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons for a visit. We were gone for nine days, driving and camping along the way. We stopped at Craters of the Moon on the way back. Wow, what a trip this was! We were lucky to have great weather and no vehicle issues, and we got campsites even during this busy season. I’ve decided to split this trip into three parts, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, and Craters of the Moon. It’s going to be long, so grab a cup of tea or coffee and settle in. (Click on any photo for a larger version!)
Day 1 – Driving from Home to western Montana.
We got a fairly early start after somehow shoehorning all or our gear and food into the Pilot. Not one inch of available space remained, and we decided at the last minute to leave the bikes at home to make it easier.
This turned out to be a good decision, since we did so much driving and sightseeing and didn’t really have the time for bike rides. We had an easy drive over to central Washington, where we made our first tourist stop at the Wild Horses Monument.
You can see these metal statues from the freeway as you cross over the Columbia River at Vantage. We stopped there mostly for Annika.
The viewpoint has a commanding view over the river valley and surrounding hills. We were disappointed there were no signs and no services at this pull-out. Nothing to give any history or context for the statues. We climbed the steep and loose slope to get a better view of the horses. They are really fabulous. But the graffiti covering almost every inch of the poor horses really detracted from the experience.
Since we were hungry and needed a restroom, we didn’t stay long, but continued onward to the most disgusting rest area ever. Then we made another stop in Spokane for coffee, gas, and a few things we had forgotten. From there it was upward and westward, to see how far we could get before stopping for the night. We made it almost to Missoula, when we pulled off to try to visit a ranger station to find out where there were campgrounds nearby. Unfortunately, the ranger station was closed, but we inferred from a faded map outside and some road signs on the way that there was at least one campground up the road. Sure enough, Kreis Pond campground was only a few miles up a decent gravel road, and we were lucky enough to get the last campsite available.
The best part: it was free! There were outhouses but no water, but we didn’t need it for that one night.
Gabe had been feeling really tired, with a sore throat a few days earlier. That evening, I’m pretty sure he had a fever. Major bummer. Some ibuprofen and a good night’s sleep really helped, and he felt much better in the morning.
Birds we encountered there were common nighthawks and western tanagers.
Day 2 – Kreis Pond to Yellowstone.
This day was composed of driving and resting where we could. When we had cell service we checked the Yellowstone website to see if campsites were still available. Surprisingly, throughout the afternoon Indian Creek and Mammoth campgrounds still had openings, so we thought we’d try to get a spot at one of those instead of following our original plan to camp outside the park. The drive between Livingston and Gardiner was beautiful (actually, all of the drive through western Montana was breathtaking.) Eagerly we checked and rechecked the website – just before we arrived at the entrance gate, Mammoth posted that they were full for the night, but Indian Creek still had openings. We entered through the Roosevelt Gate, and drove straight to Indian Creek campground, holding our breath. We got in line at the registration hut, and were super fortunate to get one of the last few spots available in the park. When you arrive that late in the day, you get assigned a campsite, so we hoped it would be OK. The spot we got was in a meadow, which meant no privacy and little shade, but Gabe thought it would be good for star photography. We considered ourselves super lucky, set up camp, made a nice fire to ward the chill off, and settled in for the night as we made our plans for the next few days.
Gabe was worn out by the end of the day, but somehow managed to stay up late to take photos of the night sky.
Day 3 – The Northern Loop (Norris, Canyon City, Gardiner and Mammoth)
We awoke to the sounds of dripping on our tent. We found that it had frosted during the night (we knew it was cold, but we were all toasty in our sleeping bags) and the thawing condensation was dripping down inside our tent. As we made breakfast the weather quickly warmed up so that we were ready for shorts when it was time to go. Our plan for the day was to drive what we termed the “Northern Loop,” stopping at as many sites as we could. Our first stop was at Roaring Mountain, our first geothermal feature of the trip.
It was impressive! An entire hillside, eroding, smoking and steaming in the morning light. I felt so excited, I couldn’t believe we were actually there seeing that. We then stopped at a lake along the road, which we checked out for birds and wildflowers.
Our next stop was at Norris, where we visited the Museum of the National Park Ranger.
We spent a short time there viewing the displays, got our Passports stamped, and then we moved on to the Norris Basin parking area. Parking was a challenge there, as there were very many cars and the spots were super narrow. Somehow we got our vehicle into a spot, and walked down to the museum. It was getting hot, it was crowded, and Gabe had used up both his camera batteries the night before taking star photos. We found an out-of-the-way outlet for him to charge one battery (I’m not sure this is completely allowed…my apologies to the park if it isn’t…) and we ate lunch in the cool shade while waiting for him to get enough charge. We also visited the museum there and learned about the features we were going to be seeing on our walk. We learned about the 4 geothermal features, and how they are expressed in different places throughout the park.
The Norris Geyser Basin has two main trail systems. One, called the Back Basin Trail, is 1.5 miles long and loops through an area of geysers, mudpots and fumaroles.
The surface is part boardwalk and part dirt.
There are scattered trees around, but don’t expect much shade on a hot day.
We sweltered around the loop, getting our first real taste of what makes Yellowstone so special.
We oohed and aahed over the different features, each one unique.
The other trail system in the Norris Basin is the Porcelain Basin Trail. This boardwalk and dirt path takes a 3/4 mile loop through spectacular features.
Baby blue pools steamed in the afternoon heat.
Some areas were orange or brown or black or green depending on the chemistry and what bacteria were growing there.
Bacterial mats formed interesting patterns. Killdeer skittered through the warm waters looking for food.
Lots of hats had been blown off into the danger areas, prompting us to call that section Yellowstone’s Hat Graveyard. “Fragrant” odors wafted on the breeze. Even with the huge crowds there, we were enthralled by what we were observing.
We were getting pretty hot by this time, with the lack of shade, geothermal features, and glaring reflected sunlight. It was time to leave, but first we had to stop in at the book store and get our Passports stamped. We bought some stickers and a few other items, too, and chatted with the friendly worker. Then back to the blessed air conditioning in the car, as we drove along the loop road to our next stop, Canyon City.
We spent some time in the Visitor Center viewing the interesting exhibits, then went over to the store and got ice, ice cream, and coffee drinks. We were bummed about the lack of real coffee in the park. It was a true hardship for us people from Seattle who are used to a Starbucks on every block. 😉 But we soldiered on for the rest of the afternoon, continuing north over the spectacular Dunraven Pass (where we suddenly had full cell coverage and managed to send texts to family letting them know we were OK) and down into the Tower area.
It was along this stretch that we encountered our first true wildlife traffic jam, where people had stopped in the road to look at a mama bear and two cubs down the slope.
The parking lot at Tower Fall was jam packed, and it was getting to be close to dinner time, so we passed that sight up, only stopping for a brief photo op at a pull-out of the layered basalt and columnar basalt in the area.
We drove the winding road toward Mammoth without too many stops, and headed out of the park to eat dinner out in Gardiner. We found a decent pizza place in town, got gas, and took photos of the entrance areas we had driven through the day before.
At twilight we walked through part of the Mammoth Hot Springs trails, since we didn’t know whether we’d be able to make it back that direction again.
By that time, the number of people on the trails was almost none, so we enjoyed the last of the light and the different kinds of formations we were seeing there.
Mountain bluebirds and some kind of swallows flew around in the fading dusk. We ended up driving along the Upper Terraces road, where we used up the absolute last of the daylight available to us.
It was a long, hot, but satisfying first day in Yellowstone.
Day 4: Artist Paintpots, Firehole Canyon, Lower Geyser Basin, Midway Geyser Basin, Old Faithful, Yellowstone Lake, Hayden Valley, and Artist Point
We determined for Day 4 we should get up early and plan to bring dinner along to cook in the evening, since we’d be doing a long loop of the lower section of the park. However, we’d need to pay for the next two nights at our campsite, so we had to wait until 8am, when the hosts opened the registration booth, to leave. Shortly after that, we were fed and dressed and ready to hit the road. Our first stop was the Artist Paintpots trail, a one mile path to and around some interesting features.
This easy path travels through the lodgepole pine forest to the base of a small mountain, where multiple springs bubble out, mud pots blurp, and boiling water smokes and stinks.
Fringed gentians and yellow paintbrush bloom in the damp earth around the features.
The end of the loop climbs steeply but briefly up the hillside, allowing people to look down on the area (and see some features up there.)
We really liked this trail, and especially liked that it wasn’t quite as crowded.
After the Artist Paintpots we drove south past Madison junction and took the Firehole Drive side road. This narrow road follows the river through some interesting canyon formations, including a waterfall.
We saw marmots on the opposite side, and enjoyed the coolness of this area.
From there we continued on to the Lower Geyser Basin. By now the parking lots were starting to fill up, but we were patient and got a spot pretty quickly. This boardwalk trail takes visitors past the Celestine Pool, Fountain Paint Pot, and other geysers and colorful features.
We learned from the trail guide I had picked up the day before that the dead trees were called “bobby sock” trees, because of the white minerals that were absorbed into several inches of wood at the bottoms of the trunks.
We watched mountain bluebirds coming in and out of a nest hole in one dead tree, feeding their chicks.
Tree swallows also swooped around. This was a beautiful set of features, and we enjoyed it.
Our next stop was the Midway Geyser Basin, where the famous Grand Prismatic Spring sits. Cars were lined up on the road to get into the parking area, and people were parked all along the street before and after. We decided to wait in line to get a parking spot in the parking lot, but it would have been quicker to just park along the road and walk in. If you are patient, and wait in line, enough people are coming and going, and you will eventually get a spot. Just be mentally prepared to wait.
I’ll tell you though that it was worth the wait. The features here were my favorites. First you cross over the river on a sturdy bridge, the mineral water from the Excelsior Geyser creating orange and white deposits of bacteria and minerals on the river banks.
The excelsior Geyser is the most incredible blue color.
It is mesmerizing. It steams and bubbles, and fairly glows with blueness.
The trail splits at this point and creates a loop; we took the right-hand loop and continued counter-clockwise to a couple of other pretty features.
Purple gentians dominated the sere landscape around these pools.
The top of the loop allows a spectacular view of the Grand Prismatic Spring.
Orange and turquoise of the deepest shades, with greens, yellows and browns along the edges.
We lingered with the thick crowds in this area, taking it all in. (One side note: I was told about an unofficial viewing area above these features, where you take a different trail and can look down on them. The Park Service had this trail closed for the summer, as they were creating a more official trail with fences and safe viewing platforms. So we were not able to view the Grand Prismatic from above, but in the future, visitors will have that option.)
It was now mid-afternoon, and we drove along toward Old Faithful. What a shock to get to that parking area! It was a zoo. Multiple huge parking lots were jam packed, and cars were circling around and around like vultures looking for an open spot. We did our share of circling, then decided to drop Aaron off at the store for ice and another memory card, and I’d come around in a few minutes and pick him up. We thought we’d go down to Yellowstone Lake and come back to Old Faithful in the evening. Miraculously, though, we found a parking spot way in the back. I sent Gabe over to find Aaron, and after filling the cooler with fresh ice, we ventured over to the visitor center to see about Old Faithful.
We were hot and grumpy and had already seen a lot that day, so it was difficult to take in what we were reading in the displays.
Thankfully, Old Faithful was due to erupt soon, so we walked out to the viewing area to get a spot with the crowds.
Aaron and the kids managed to find an empty spot on the front of the boardwalks to sit, but I was content to stand several rows back. The sun was beating down, bright and merciless. Finally, the geyser erupted.
Yay! We got to see this iconic American treasure.
We would have liked to have walked around the geyser basin there and see the other features, but it was just too hot and we were too tired. Instead, Aaron and Gabe went into the lodge to charge Gabe’s batteries some more and use the wi-fi to check emails and texts. Annika and I spent the next hour reading, snacking, and napping in the car while we waited for them. As we were doing these things, thunderheads were building around us, and by the time the boys came back to the car, we were hearing thunder to the south. The good news was, the parking lot had almost emptied out, so there were plenty of spaces for people wanting to park.
It was late afternoon now, and we had a lot more driving to do if we were going to stick to our plan. We continued on the southern loop, heading down toward Yellowstone Lake. On the way we passed over the Continental Divide twice.
Thunder and lightning were flashing and crashing, and we stopped briefly at the West Thumb area to look out over the lake. But we didn’t feel like it was a good time to be outside, so we continued driving through pelting rain and wind around the lake and toward the Hayden Valley.
This section of road along the Yellowstone River was gorgeous. Dark clouds interspersed with sun, making for dramatic, glowing green foliage.
This section is also where we saw the most bison.
We made one more stop at a geothermal feature – the Mud Volcano and the Dragon’s Mouth Spring.
They were both super cool, but really stinky (I felt like I wanted to throw up, and Annika wouldn’t continue along the loop.) We got the full experience of malodorousness by accidentally parking over one of the storm drains in the parking lot, which vented sulfuric steam into our car when we opened the doors. These were Aaron’s favorite sights.
We continued along the loop road, and thought we’d try to find a place to make dinner along the southern Canyon Road. The sun was now close to setting, and the light had turned golden, so we stopped at Artist’s Point to take photos from the famous vantage.
Then we found a picnic area, got out the stove, and cooked up some mac and cheese for dinner before heading back to camp. This was a 14 hour day, and we were exhausted when we rolled into the campground after dark.
Day 5 – Doing Laundry, Resupply, Mammoth Visitor Center, Petrified Tree, Tower Fall, and North Rim of Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
We were so tired out from our two very full days of sightseeing, and it was time to do laundry and resupply. So we headed down into Gardiner. On the way we stopped at an unlabeled pullout that drove through a tumble of huge boulders.
In Gardiner we got more groceries and ice, and asked for a place to do laundry and take showers. A local recommended the Wash Tub, which had both options, so we spent a couple of relaxing hours cleaning up, using the free wi-fi, and once again charging camera batteries. I highly recommend this establishment for their cleanliness and convenience. We also got REAL espresso and ice cream before leaving town.
We drove back into the park and stopped at the Mammoth Visitor Center to get our passports stamped and view the displays.
I really liked these educational displays.
We had enough time in the afternoon to drive the northern loop again to stop at some of the sights we had skipped on the first day. We saw the Petrified Tree, which was really cool.
We stopped at the overlook for Undine Falls. And we stopped at Tower Falls and did the short walk over to the viewing area.
It’s a beautiful waterfall, and I wish we had had the energy to hike down to the bottom for a better look. Next time!
It was now late afternoon, but we thought we’d check out the northern road above the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. There were some neat viewing areas of the waterfalls and rapids.
Thunderheads were building during this time, too, so we didn’t stay too long.
We also wanted to get back to camp to have a good dinner before it got dark.
Day 6 – Packing up, Biscuit Basin, Lewis Lake and Lewis Falls
Thursday was our final day in Yellowstone, and we got packed up by mid-morning to head down to Grand Teton NP. We made a few stops along the drive. Biscuit Basin had some neat geothermal features, but Annika was having no more of stinky fumes, so Aaron and I took turns walking along the short trail.
This area had some cool bacterial mats and a wide variety of styles of geysers and mud pots in a small distance of one another.
We felt we needed to stop again at West Thumb on Yellowstone Lake to walk around and get our passports stamped. I hadn’t realized there were more geysers, mud pots and pools.
We stopped briefly at Lewis Lake to look at it – it seemed like it would be a lovely place to stay. Lewis Falls was also worth a quick stop, before we left the park.
I’ll continue our trip report of Grand Teton and Craters of the Moon in a future post, since this one is long enough.
Tips for Visiting Yellowstone with Kids (in random order):
- Bring plenty of sun protection. The geyser basins are bright, with no shade and lots of reflected light and heat. Sunscreen, wide-brimmed hats, and sunglasses are essential.
- But plan for cold nights and the possibility of frost and rain.
- Bring lots of water. The campgrounds have water, of course, but not all of the bathrooms have water (many are pit toilets) and not all of the popular areas have water available. Bring plenty to drink, plus extra in your car. Stay hydrated! The elevation, heat, and dryness make it a challenging environment.
- STAY ON THE PATHS! and keep watch over your children. There are many dangerous areas at Yellowstone. People need to take the warnings seriously.
- Plan to do the popular attractions early or late in the day. The crowds are truly a force to be reckoned with. Bring a ton of patience with you, and understand that for some areas you will be waiting in line just to get a parking spot.
- I recommend having sturdy, closed-toed shoes for walking the trails. Annika wore sandals one day, and got blisters from the grit.
- Yellowstone National Park is HUGE. It takes a long time to drive around the loops, and from one attraction to the other. We had 4 days in the park, and we just barely scratched the surface (though we got to see the major headline attractions). The speed limit is also pretty slow, for good reason – wildlife and terrain necessitate a 35-45 mph speed in most of the park.
- The major junctions where there are visitor centers have gas, ice, and other supplies, but just beware that you will be paying more for everything. If you need a good coffee, you’ll have to go outside the park.
- If you want a campsite, you’ll need to get there early. Some campgrounds, like Mammoth and Indian Creek, fill later, but you can’t always count on it. Busier campgrounds might not have any openings, and you’ll have to wait in line in the morning to see if anyone leaves. It can be stressful. Watch the website to pick up on the patterns of how they fill (they have a table with the times the campgrounds have filled each day.) Some campgrounds take reservations, but they normally fill up to a year in advance. Many campgrounds are first come-first served. There are also many campgrounds outside the park. Finding a spot was the most stressful part for me of the trip.
- If you are doing the National Park passport stamps, stop at one of the visitor centers and ask for a list of where they give out stamps. We found this out on our last day, and inadvertently passed by some centers that had stamps.