The Ultimate Family Tour of Yellowstone

By Michael Lanza

Every American should see Yellowstone—and not just for the historical significance of it being the world’s first national park. Few places in the United States still host the range of wildlife thriving in Yellowstone: You are likely to see numerous bison and elk, bald eagles, osprey, and trumpeter swans among the park’s 285 species of birds, possibly wolves, and maybe even black and grizzly bears (usually from a distance). With more than 10,000 thermal features including hot springs and more than half the planet’s geysers, and nearly 300 waterfalls, it often feels like the park is putting on a live performance.

Arguably best of all, many of Yellowstone’s signature natural features, as well as abundant wildlife, can be seen on short walks—making a trip to see this fascinating landscape ideal for families with children of all ages and anyone willing to walk 15 to 30 minutes, or an hour or more to see a bit more of some areas. My kids have seen Yellowstone several times, dating back to their first visit at ages four and two, and they loved it even then.

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A hot spring in Midway Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park.
A hot spring in Midway Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park.

This article will list my expert tips—based on numerous trips to Yellowstone over nearly three decades—for a tour of the park’s top features that can be seen on short walks, with a few tips for longer excursions thrown in. See also “The 10 Best Short Hikes in Yellowstone.”

I’ll order my suggestions below in a way that makes sense if you’re driving through the park. Please share your questions, comments, or suggestions about Yellowstone in the comments section at the bottom of this story; I try to respond to all comments.

A hiker watching sunrise at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park.
A hiker watching sunrise at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park.

Mammoth Hot Springs

Entering Yellowstone through the North Entrance (via Livingston), begin your visit at Mammoth first. The walk around Mammoth Hot Springs is easy, gorgeous, and engaging for kids.

At grade-school age, my children were fascinated by the steam billowing from the springs and all the leaves, sticks, and other vegetative matter that had fallen into the hot water and become crystallized. And there are usually elk grazing right in Mammoth village and around the hot springs.

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Northern Yellowstone

The northern road to the Lamar Valley is a great area for seeing wildlife: bison, elk, coyotes, maybe even bears and wolves if you’re lucky. Winter is actually a better time to see wildlife; when our kids were school age, we took them cross-country skiing in Yellowstone, which I think is one of the greatest national park experiences.

Heading south, stop at Tower Fall and take the short walk to this impressive, 132-foot-tall waterfall plunging below basalt pinnacles, with views of the canyon of the Yellowstone River. The drive over Mount Washburn and Dunraven Pass gets you to the highest spot on a road in the park, with quite spectacular views along the way. The 6.2-mile, round-trip hike up Mount Washburn from Dunraven Pass follows a wide path to the summit, which offers a 360-degree panorama of the entire park.

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At the brink of Lower Yellowstone Falls, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, Yellowstone National Park.
At the brink of Lower Yellowstone Falls, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, Yellowstone National Park.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River is one of the scenic highlights of the park. I like cross-country skiing it in winter, but spring-summer-fall are wonderful, too, although busy with tourists in summer. The fairly flat, 6.4-mile, out-and-back of the North Rim Trail from Inspiration Point (near Canyon) to Upper Yellowstone Falls; you’ll pass several viewpoints of the canyon.

The trail also partly parallels the North Rim Drive, so you can take shorter walks to viewpoints along the trail from parking areas along the road. One of the highlights is the steep but short (three-quarters-of-a-mile round-trip) spur trail to the very brink of 308-foot-tall Lower Yellowstone Falls (above photo).

Otherwise, take the very short walk to Artist Point for its killer view of the canyon, and the short walk to Upper Yellowstone Falls.

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Like this story? You may also like my “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids”
and “The 10 Best Family Outdoor Adventure Trips.”

See “The 10 Best Short Hikes in Yellowstone” and all of my stories about Yellowstone National Park at The Big Outside.

You might also enjoy my book, Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks, about taking our kids (at age nine and seven) on a series of national park wilderness adventures, including cross-country skiing in Yellowstone.

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