Tips for a Family Trip to Yellowstone
Photos courtesy of Yellowstone National Park
Parents who journey to the country’s most popular tourist destinations during the summer are some of the bravest. But if you’re concerned about crowds, one of the best things you can do is consult the expertise of someone who’s traveled there before you. Local librarian and mom Michelle Ferguson journeyed to Yellowstone National Park and Jackson, Wyoming, and reported back with these insider tips.
Car trips may be outdated, and if memory serves me, I understand why no one would want to hop into the car for a 19-hour ride. I was an only child with a cocker spaniel and a pile of books to keep me happy between point A and the far-reaching point B.
As an adult, I get carsick so easily that I’m afraid to even glance at the radio. Eyes on the horizon, that’s how I travel.
So perhaps an airplane is the best way to go (there’s an airport in Jackson). But, should you choose to forego immediacy and tackle the open highways between Oklahoma and the other side of Wyoming, I have a plan.
Get through Colorado, whatever it takes. Whether you travel I-35 or a more circuitous passage through southern Kansas or Colorado, the road is dull. I recommend a fistful of game consoles and tablets to get the family over the rough stuff, the endless plains occasionally broken up by gas stations and fast food restaurants. Get north of Denver about two hours, just over the Wyoming line, and then confiscate the tech devices for a while.
Stop at the Wyoming Welcome Center. Its modern design features lots of exhibits—even a mammoth skeleton—to break up the road monotony, and its restrooms are spotless. Plus the kind staff can answer any question and suggest enough reading material to weigh down any visitor. They have “That’s WY!” sacks to tote your literature and hot cups of coffee to go.
Hop back onto the road and travel north, following Highways 25 and 26 past Cheyenne (home of the annual July Frontier Days, an old West celebration worthy of a trip in itself) up through Casper to follow the northern stretch of road to Jackson. It’s only 25 minutes longer than the southern route and will lead you directly to the pretty parts of the state.
Frankly, the stretch between Cheyenne and Riverton, though lovely with its rolling hills and frequent antelope populations, is a bit dull. Unleash the kids’ tech and let them enjoy their pixelated world while you occasionally point and yell for their attention to relish the wildlife spotting. It will be an easier ride for all. (Bonus: the speed limit is 80 mph.)
Just before Riverton, gather yourselves for a breathtaking tour of the Wind River as it winds through the reservation past Shoshon into Boysen State Park, only the first of many state parks in Wyoming.
Watch the plains. With glorious randomness, the Wind River bubbles up in ditches, in tiny creeks, in puddles and ponds and pools. Try to follow it back and forth beneath the road as you drive. It sparkles.
You’ll only have a little over an hour to enjoy the scenery between Riverton and Dubois. I recommend stopping there to rest and get a bite to eat, especially high on the list: the Cowboy Cafe’s hot hamburger smothered in brown gravy. Perfect road trip food.
Dubois is a cute western village with a bookstore tucked into trees, a public piano under the awning of a locally crafted jewelry store, and the first elk antler arch so popular in Wyoming. Thousands of horns, collected statewide, are cobbled together in vaulting arches over paths to places unknown.
Just past Dubois, after a curve through the plains: an unexpected, breathtaking first view of the Grand Tetons arching above the trees of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. It’s a wall of rock stretching to the stratosphere, on display for every photographer suddenly shuffling to the roadside pullout for a picture or three.
You’ve entered Togwotee (toe-guh-tee) Pass, a stretch of road atop the Continental Divide that leads from Dubois to Moran Junction. At Moran, you can travel north to Yellowstone National Park.
Once You’re There
Visitors to Yellowstone should plan at least two days to visit. The park covers more than two million acres, and with traffic and scenic turnouts, the visit is an epic undertaking. It should be enjoyed in sips, not gulps, but with modern times, our family feasted, ingesting as much of the park as possible in our limited two-day time frame. Knowing there’s more to see just makes it more tempting to visit again next year.
Traffic is bumper-to-bumper and slow going, but it’s okay, really. Because around nearly every scenic corner is another “ooh” or “aah” moment, with craggy peaks reflected in mirror lakes drawn together by rippling water from one pool to another. Water flows in a seemingly endless supply from the mountains’ melted snowfall. Rest stops and scenic pullouts are abundant. Take advantage of them. And if you can get close enough, stick a toe in the river water. Trust me, it’s chilly.
Choosing an Entry Point
South entrance: All the maps from the state visitor centers warn visitors to allow an extra 45 minutes for entry here. I thought it was because of crowds, but no, it is to compensate for the drive through the Grand Teton National Park. The cost to travel through this park is $20 and is non-negotiable if your goal is to get to Yellowstone. Added benefit, though, besides more fantastic scenery, is the chance to drive along the banks of Jackson River, the Tetons reflected in its blue, glassy surface. It’s spectacular and worthy of all the extra minutes you can spare. Another benefit of the South entrance: it is a favored home to red foxes.
West entrance: This route takes visitors through West Yellowstone, a tiny town in Montana, which houses 14 miles of roadway between Idaho and the Yellowstone West Entrance. Should you need gas, picnic supplies, t-shirts and hats, sunscreen or bug spray—anything you may have forgotten in your rush to get out the door and into the park—this little burg affords you the opportunity to ready yourself. Be aware, though, that traffic is heaviest at this entrance. Because there is no additional park fee, and it’s just over the Wyoming border, this entrance is highly utilized. Be on the watch for moose, as they love this area.
Western Cody entrance: This route is easy and calm. Lots of prairies and rolling hills to see plus three tunnels under mountains and a trip through Buffalo Bill State Park before abandoning flat land altogether and heading onto the Yellowstone mountain. This is a favored side of the park for bighorn sheep.
Entry into Yellowstone is $30 per carload. The permit is good for a full seven days and the ranger will hand you a few items, including a scavenger hunt and a map to the wildlife for the kids to use as guides to the day.
All the visitor centers in Yellowstone are packed with people. Because the park gets more than three million tourists a year, and weather does not permit entry all 12 months, those three million can seem to be visiting at once, on the day you’ve chosen to go. I recommend taking a picnic lunch and stopping at one of the many roadside picnic areas to dine, to avoid crowds. My only exception: Old Faithful Geyser. The geyser is located near the Old Faithful Inn, and fortunately there are two large parking lots, so finding a spot is not difficult. Plus, the lobby of the Inn is a wonder in itself. It’s one of the biggest log structures in the world and well worth seeing in its own right. Plus, the gift shop has ice cream. It’s a win/win situation.
Entertainment and Education Along the Way
I recommend downloading one of the numerous apps for Yellowstone. None require a Wi-Fi signal after the initial download. All of the tour information is stored on your phone, and GPS follows your vehicle in order to start narrating from wherever you begin your tour. The narrative is fascinating, with lots of tips for seeing the most scenic outcrops and insight into the science behind Mother Nature’s varied forms within the park. It’s a learning adventure as well as a sensory experience. My son followed along with the narrator and learned interesting geological facts while scanning the roadside to spot wildlife to claim for his scavenger hunt.
Exploring Nearby Jackson
About an hour and a half south of the park is Jackson, a tight community of businesses, restaurants, art galleries and retail shops. Quaint, rustic and built around a town square—at each corner of the square stands an elk antler archway, begging you to walk below—Jackson has everything you need. Winter offers your family your choice of three ski resorts surrounding town. Runs slide from the top of the mountain seemingly directly into the center of town. Without snow, these slopes are tree lined and green, great places to spot base jumpers and hikers. Hike, bike, camp, kayak, walk, jog, the options for outdoor fun seem endless. Or if you need a little downtime, stroll the streets window shopping while eating ice cream, catch a ride on the stagecoach or kick a ball in town center’s park, where the grass is so lovely you don’t need shoes.
Families will especially appreciate Jackson’s Visitor Centers. Built in convenient locations within town, they offer clean, modern restrooms, water bottle refill stations and informative displays about Jackson. For instance, one such center puzzled out the answer to the controversial question: “Is it Jackson, or Jackson Hole?” Answer: Jackson is the town, Jackson Hole is the entire valley in which Jackson sits. So, everyone’s right.
Hotels and inns are plentiful. Reserve early, especially during summer break, as rooms fill quickly.
For info on Jackson: www.go-Wyoming/JacksonHole
For Yellowstone: www.nps.gov/yell
For touring Wyoming in general: www.travelwyoming.com