A Survival Guide for Ambitious Parents
- What: Yellowstone With Kids in Tow
- When: Traveling with kids
- Why: Keep yourself sane on vacation
- Where: Yellowstone National Park
We just got back from taking our kids, ages six, nine, and ten, to Yellowstone National Park for the first time. Although we had made the trek ourselves years ago, we thought the kids would love it – once we got up the nerve to take them.
This trip had been on the back of our minds for several years, but we couldn’t find the time or the inclination to make it happen. Yellowstone is one of the places where you need to make plans at least several months in advance. We tried to visit over spring break, only to realize the park only stays fully open from May to October. So we booked a summer vacation instead, like a lot of other people in America.
With record-breaking crowds in July 2021 (and by my estimate, even more visitors in August), the park still hosts millions of visitors each year. The long lines and heavy traffic can make it trickier than ever with younger kids in tow. If you want some hints for success, here’s what we recommend.
Binoculars: Get a good set of binoculars, like these from Obuby. I got three pairs, one for each kid, before our trip, and tucked them into a bag unseen. Once we arrived, I handed them over. I probably could have passed them out earlier. Once they had them in hand, they became so mesmerized they didn’t even need to see anything interesting to be entertained. The binoculars can be used from inside the car, or on hikes, and after your trip ends when you attend sporting events.
Back Seat Organizer: While our favorite fold down tray car organizer can be hard to find these days (I needed a third one so all the kids had the same exact one since we had changed cars since our last road trip), it is totally worth finding one that works for your child and vehicle. These organizers came in so handy. They have space for drinks, books, drawing materials, stickers, crayons, markers, you name it. My kids had theirs stuffed to the brim for our entire trip. Having entertainment and necessities on hand saved me from having to hand out things constantly.
Chalkboard Placemats: I loaded their organizers with these travel-sized chalkboard mats. We used them countless times, from coloring while waiting in traffic, to playing games like tic-tac-toe and guess the number while looking for wildlife. I gave each kid a few different colors of crayons and a tissue or napkin so they could wipe it clean when they needed more room. It beat the pants off trying to come up with paper and writing utensils on the fly.
Water Bottles: Never leave without a water bottle for everyone. While Yellowstone offers several places to refill your water bottle, you never know how long it might take you to get there. Also, never miss an opportunity to refill water bottles if you get a chance. Even if the bottles aren’t empty yet, top them off. Lots of the sights at Yellowstone require walking, and everyone gets thirsty.
Snacks and Food: After our first day fiasco with water and food, we learned to have snacks on hand at all times. We packed an entire meal most days, usually sandwiches or bagels, as well as plenty of snacks, and had the option to eat anytime we wanted on our own schedule. We packed everything into a car cooler to stay chilled. Keeping the kids (and ourselves!) fed helped us avoid a lot of meltdowns. The park has several places you can grab food, but they might not be what your kids like, and the lines can get very long at the busiest times. If you’re trying to catch a geyser erupting, waiting to get food can throw off your sightseeing big time.
Activity Books: If you don’t bring your own activity, or even if you do, be sure to stop by any visitor’s center and grab the Junior Ranger activity books. These have age-appropriate activities for kids ages six to fourteen years, and really help pass the time. Whether you get stuck in traffic, or wait for a geyser to erupt, kids can work on the pages. Once they complete their pages, they get sworn in as Junior Ranger and get a patch for the efforts. These new books really helped us, especially while sitting and waiting for geysers like Old Faithful to erupt.
Bag: Even if you don’t carry a diaper bag any more, have a good bag or backpack to keep up with everything. Kids can carry their own snacks, water bottles, activity books, and sunscreen. Or you can load up a daypack with everything you need, and get a few more miles out of your kids by carrying the load.
Get There Early or Late: Finally, if you want to miss the worst of the crowds, consider visiting the most popular spots early or late. Unless you’re staying inside the park (which requires even more advance planning as camping and lodging fill up fast, and don’t come cheap, either), getting to most major attractions requires almost an hour in the car. Get a jump on the traffic and the crowds by leaving early and eating on the way. Or visit less popular spots and wait to hit the main attractions until later in the day. Even the busiest spots had cleared out considerably by 5:00 local time, making it easier to find parking in crowded lots, and less busy on boardwalks with limited space. Fewer people also made it easier for the kids to see the sights, and we could go at our own speed.
Sunscreen: Finally, don’t forget the sunscreen! The sun can be pretty intense, especially in summer, and there’s no faster way to ruin a vacation than sunburned kids. Keep a bottle or stick of their favorite kind handy.
If you do go to Yellowstone National Park with your family, it’s a trip you and your kids won’t soon forget. Just make sure that’s for the right reasons with these tips.