There is no destination more magical than Yellowstone National Park for a family vacation. The park has earned its well-known and deserved reputation. It was the first officially designated National Park in the world, founded in 1872. It is home to fascinating wildlife and boasts over 10,000 geothermal features like geysers and springs.
Yellowstone regularly ranks as one of the top National Parks in the United States, and if you have ever visited, you know why. Some of my favorite memories in the park include getting stuck in a bison traffic jam, watching adult wolves reunite with their young after hunting, and reveling in the never-ending natural beauty.
Each year in Yellowstone National Park, over 4 million visitors enjoy the expansive wilderness and intriguing geological features. The park is busiest in the summer, but there is still a lot to do and see every season.
Photo by Meina Yin
When to Visit Yellowstone National Park
Summer has incredible weather, and all park roads and concessions are open. Spring is a great season to visit if you want to see young bison, elk, deer, and more. The orange fluffy baby bison are a treat to see, they are so cute! Autumn brings beautiful foliage and cooler temperatures (in my opinion, the best time for hiking).
During the winter season, many park roads and entrances are closed. Visiting areas outside of Mammoth Springs and the Lamar Valley requires riding in a snowcoach (an experience itself!) or the power of your own two legs.
Honoring Yellowstone’s Indigenous People
Yellowstone is as rich in history as it is in the great outdoors. Historically, this land was occupied for thousands of years by several Indigenous tribes. These tribes include Kiowa, Blackfeet, Cayuse, Coeur d’Alene, Shoshone, Nez Perce, and others.
Indigenous populations were drawn to this area to use the abundant natural resources, some on a seasonal timeline. The obsidian cliff in the northwestern quadrant of the present-day park was mined and used by tribes for creating weaponry and other tools.
Don’t Miss These 8 Places on Your Family Vacation
1. Old Faithful
Even if you’ve never visited Old Faithful, you likely know what it looks like. Perhaps one of the most iconic features of the entire park, this geothermal spring erupts on a predictable schedule and reaches heights of over 100 feet. You can find out from rangers when the next eruption will occur so you won’t miss out.
Image by Mike Goad
2. Grand Prismatic
Known for its vibrant rainbow colors, Grand Prismatic is an enormous geothermal spring. Thermophilic bacteria and water temperatures cause the rich colors. Walking along the boardwalk, you can sometimes feel the heat and moisture from the spring; it feels sort of like a steamy bathroom after a hot shower. There is an overlook trail for a higher elevation vantage point of the natural wonder.
Image by Mike Goad
3. Lamar Valley
The Lamar Valley is one of the best places in the park for wildlife viewing. Keep an eye out for small gatherings of people with spotting scopes. They generally know what’s out and about in the area and may help you spot a wolf, bear, pronghorn, elk, or more. Even without a scope or binoculars, you are almost guaranteed to see bison. Besides the wildlife, the mountainous scenery is worth the drive.
Image by Brigitte Werner
4. Mammoth Hot Spring Terraces
Another stunning geological feature of Yellowstone National park is the Mammoth Hot Spring Terraces. A contantly growing, ever-changing, slightly stinky (slight sulfur smell) hydrothermal feature that looks like a waterfall frozen in time. The terraces are easily accessible by boardwalks and stairways.
Image by Jung Ryeol Lee
5. Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
This is one of those features that many visitors have never heard of before visiting, but it ends up being one of the highlights of their visit. The yellow-hued rocks alongside the river are where the park (and river) get the name Yellowstone. You can view the river and canyon from a couple of vantage points. I highly recommend the Brink of the Lower Falls hiking trail. It’s a short but steep hike that offers the best view of the falls.
6. Museum of the National Park Ranger
An easy-to-miss little gem, the Yellowstone Ranger Museum is located along the Grand Loop road. It’s a small log cabin style building that is a former soldier station from when the United States Army managed the National Park. Inside you’ll find tons of historical information and artifacts from the inception days of the National Park Service and Yellowstone National Park.
7. Old Faithful Inn
Completed in 1904, a stay or even a brief tour of the Old Faithful Inn is like a walk back in history. It was built from resources within the park and is considered the largest log structure in the world. Stroll through the lobby and halls to admire the historical construction that had truly stood the test of time.
8. Hiking Trail Options
There are hundreds of hiking trails within the park, ranging from quick trips to all-day adventures. Some popular hikes include Fairy Falls, Mount Washburn, and Avalanche Peak. Don’t forget bear spray, which is available for purchase or rent from locations outside and inside the park.
Treat Nature with Respect
Essential information to remember when visiting/recreating anywhere, but especially public lands, are the Leave No Trace principles. These include packing it in and packing it out and minimizing impacts.
Respect all wildlife and give them plenty of space. Bison are wild animals, and you should not approach them. Be aware of your surroundings and plan ahead. Consider that some places you visit or recreate may be sacred land to Indigenous peoples; treat it respectfully.
There are many ways to design an exciting Yellowstone National Park family vacation. The best part is the park is so big that even during the busiest days, you can still find some serenity with a short walk away from parking lots and roadways. Enjoy every moment you spend in the park, and take only photos and memories!
More National Park Guides
Looking for more family guides to America’s national parks? See the complete list here.
Main photo by Tevin Trinh