Yellowstone: Cliché Family Summer Vacation? No Way!

"Griswold Family Vacation, Yellowstone edition, take one!"

When Scott first floated the idea of a road trip to Yellowstone National Park with our girls (Kaya, who is 11-years-old and Riley, who is 8-years-old), that was the first thought running through my head. It's just so...cliché. Everyone goes to Yellowstone. Hours upon hours in the car. Bored kids. Annoyed adults. And, aren't the roads in Yellowstone melted due to all the volcanic heat anyway? Scott was persistent though, and he thought it'd be a perfect opportunity to get the girls more excited about the outdoors, so we began plotting our course. 

As it turned out, Yellowstone National Park is an incredible family vacation and a unique way for your kids to experience the outdoors--and it can be as easy or as involved as you want it to be. You don't have to conquer the entire park with only a backpack and a handful of MREs. So, if you or your kids are outdoor greenhorns, remember:

  • You don't have to camp, you can stay in hotels
  • You don't have to hike to the highest mountain top, you can hike easy day trails or not hike at all
  • You can choose to see only a specific part of the park, you don't have to see everything

No matter how you tailor your trip to Yellowstone, you'll have a good time. 

The Road to Yellowstone

In an effort to add to the learning, help develop some useful skills, and, well, to just keep everyone occupied, we created the roles of Navigator and Loadmaster, which the girls held on alternating days. The Navigator helped go over the maps, plotted the course, and provided a bearing based on the sun's position. The Loadmaster made sure the coolers were full of ice, all trash was cleared out of the truck, distributed snacks, and made sure no phone chargers or other belongs were left at the motel. Scott brought up the concept of "Expedition Behavior" as we munched through our burritos the first day in an effort to keep harmony in the Suburban. While these efforts were well intentioned (and moderately successful), Grandma's expertly packed road kit care packages were the real hit and helped us lop off a good 300 miles before the first "are we there yet?"  

Entering Badlands National Park in South Dakota

Entering Badlands National Park in South Dakota

It's a 15.5-hour drive to Yellowstone National Park from Minnesota. We quickly decided to make a few stops along the way to give the girls (and us) a reprieve from the car.

Badlands

Our first major stopping point was Badlands National Park in South Dakota. The Badlands offer an interesting geological history to even the most amateur geologist, hiking trails, and (for the girls) a look at how different the country can look from the northwoods even when you're only one state away. 

Although a lot of people spend days in the Badlands, we only had a few hours, so after climbing over rocks, hiking a few trails, and searching the hills for big horn sheep and pronghorn, we got back on the road. 

Scott, Riley, and Kaya excited to see Mount Rushmore.

Scott, Riley, and Kaya excited to see Mount Rushmore.

Mount Rushmore

From the Badlands, we continued our westward journey to Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills of South Dakota. I think a lot of people in the U.S. will agree that Mount Rushmore is a monument you've seen a million times in textbooks and every July 4th on TV with the obligatory shot of fireworks exploding above. It has become as commonplace as mosquitos in Minnesota. But when you see Mount Rushmore in person, the enormity of it is almost overwhelming. The work, the perseverance, the detail, the time, and the sheer art that went into creating such an incredible monument is really only fully realized in person. Even the girls were awestruck by it. 

Other than a few trails, Mount Rushmore National Memorial is primarily a place for viewing and learning. There is recreational rock climbing. However, we're not rock climbers--not even close. So, after checking out the monument and watching a video about its history and building process, we were back on the road.

Devils Tower, Wyoming

Devils Tower, Wyoming

Devils Tower

Just outside the Badlands and Black Hills is Devils Tower. Situated and prominently on display in an otherwise prairie-filled area of Wyoming, Devils Tower is just far enough off the road to Yellowstone that we only had time to stop and see it from afar. Even so, it is an impressive natural feature, and if we had more time, it would've been fun to see it up close and watch the crack climbers

There are a ton of opportunities for kids to climb rocks and hike easy trails on the route into Yellowstone.

There are a ton of opportunities for kids to climb rocks and hike easy trails on the route into Yellowstone.

Yellowstone!

From Devils Tower we drove up and over Wyoming's Big Horn Mountains on our way to Yellowstone. Although it's one of the most scenic drives in the U.S., if you're prone to car sickness, you better remember your Dramamine or this ride will be nothing but ugly.

As the terrain began to change from Wyoming prairies to Wyoming mountains, we got out and climbed the rocks, explored trails, and took in the vastness of such a beautiful land. This area is so different from our typical Minnesota northwoods that the girls looked at everything in wonder. 

The first of many bison we saw throughout Yellowstone National Park.

The first of many bison we saw throughout Yellowstone National Park.

Wildlife

As we entered Yellowstone's East Entrance, as if on queue, we pulled up alongside a bison that was eating lunch just a few feet off the road. We had to explain to the girls that no, you can't just reach out and touch bison because they may not be too friendly and could actually destroy our truck and kill us. Details. Even so, the girls were hooked and from then on, they had their cameras and binoculars in hand, ready for any sign of wildlife.  

We saw numerous bison, mule deer, mountain goats, birds we didn't know, elk, prairie dogs, and more bison as we toured Yellowstone. In the Mammoth Hot Springs area near the North Entrance, the elk are so conditioned to humans, they seem more like household pets than wild animals. Although there are signs everywhere warning people to stay away from the elk, that's an almost impossible task as you can't help but pass within a few feet of them on your way to the restroom, the gas station, the convenience store, the deli shop, and anywhere else you're walking. 

Even though we never saw a bear or a moose, the wild animals were incredible. An unmatched experience for most kids--even many adults!

Nature

The beauty of Yellowstone's natural makeup was no less incredible than the animals we saw. From the mountain peaks to the valleys, the serene beauty of Yellowstone never stopped. Neither did the unique and natural landmarks. We saw Yellowstone Falls, geysers galore, bubbling hot springs scattered throughout the park, Mammoth Hot Springs, Dragon's Mouth, Mud Volcano, Yellowstone Lake, Gibbon Falls, rushing rivers, endless prairies, snow-capped mountains, and Firehole Falls--and we enjoyed every bit of nature in it's raw form. Well, that's not entirely true. None of us really enjoyed the sulfur-filled smells of the geysers and hot springs...that was an experience the girls won't forget, but not for good reasons.

Firehole River swimming hole--a perfect break from the car when you're touring Yellowstone National Park.

Firehole River swimming hole--a perfect break from the car when you're touring Yellowstone National Park.

Pro tip: If your kids are on the verge of going crazy (or driving you crazy) because they've been in the car for way too long, make a stop at Firehole River swimming hole, just beyond the Firehole Falls. It was a warm July day when we stopped, so the water was full of people, but it was calm and warm nonetheless--a perfect and unexpected swimming spot. The girls couldn't have asked for a better break from the car. 

Can't Wait to See it Again!

We didn't come close to seeing everything in Yellowstone, but we had an incredible time and everyone is excited to return.

When you're planning your family vacation next year, consider a road trip to Yellowstone National Park. Cliché or not, this is one of the best family road trip vacations you can take--and it introduces new outdoor elements to your kids that get them excited and curious about the outdoors in a way that is easy, convenient, and non-threatening. What other destination in this country can you drive to and give your kids the opportunity to:

  • See real, live, in-the-flesh bison, elk, mountain goats, mule deer, prairie dogs
  • Smell geysers and watch them erupt
  • See and feel hot springs 
  • Watch awe-inspiring waterfalls
  • Hike through mountains and climb boulders

Plan Your Yellowstone Trip--Now

Important note: You can wait until the last minute to book your trip to Yellowstone--we did, and it all worked out--but if you want to stay in Yellowstone National Park at one of the hotels, it's best to start planning early. Some of the Yellowstone hotels book up a year in advance! That's crazy. If the hotel you want isn't available, check VRBO for area rentals (we've used VRBO numerous times with awesome places and prices). The VRBO options won't be located right in the park, but they are typically cheaper than the Yellowstone hotels and fairly close to the action. 

If you and your family want to camp, be aware that the Yellowstone campsites are equally as full as the hotels and are generally first come, first serve. If you're camping, you'll want your course plotted, so you can stake your campsite claim early in the day.

Have you been to Yellowstone? Any tips you want to share? Email us or share in the comments below!


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