1) Feel a geyser’s “kiss” on your cheek
When looking at a map of Yellowstone, you’ll notice that the roads are shaped in a figure-eight loop. To achieve the “geyser kiss” experience with your kids, you’ll want to check out a few of the geyser basins in the lower half of the loop: Upper Geyser Basin (home of Old Faithful), Lower Geyser Basin (Fountain Paint Pots) and Norris Geyser Basin are just a few places to seek out this magical experience.
What is the geyser kiss? You’ll find that the boardwalks in Yellowstone are located very close to some of the smaller geysers, where this effect is most likely to happen. When these geysers erupt, and when the wind (even a slight breeze) is pointed toward the boardwalk, the steam and water resulting from the eruption will blow your way, showering you with a geyser kiss. It’s an experience that no one should miss out on, although you’ll want to cover your camera lens — the silica in the water can fuse to the glass, creating a permanent geyser kiss for the rest of your vacation.
2) Listen to the snort of a bison
Head to Lamar or Hayden Valleys in Yellowstone National Park, and you are guaranteed to spot a bison or two (or 500…) These enormous creatures, weighing up to 2,000 pounds, gather and breed in herds, and they love Yellowstone’s wide open valleys where they can keep a watchful eye out for predators. When driving through Lamar in the north or Hayden in the central part of the Park, you’ll oftentimes experience a “bison jam” when these humongous bovines slowly walk or stand in the middle of the road. When this happens, be sure to roll down your window and listen for the snorting and grunting of these wild beasts — it’s sure to produce a giggle or two.
3) Keep an eye out for the “Big 5” of Yellowstone
Just like searching out the “Big 5” while on safari in Africa, Yellowstone has its very own “Big 5” that you should watch for like a hawk.
Bears (grizzly or black), wolves, bison, elk and moose are on every Yellowstone visitor’s wildlife checklist and while some of these animals are very likely to be spotted on your trip (like bison and elk), others can take a lot more time and energy (bears, wolves and moose). Y
ou can spot wildlife literally anywhere in the park (and outside the boundaries too), but the concentrated wildlife areas lie in Lamar and Hayden Valleys, where the prey hang out and the predators follow suit. You should have a pair of binoculars with you and stop the car often to scan the hills (you’d be surprised what you miss driving 45 mph in a car). Remember to keep a good distance between you and all of these wild animals — park regulations state that you must stay at least 25 yards away from bison or elk and 100 yards away from bears or wolves.
4) Make a wish on a lodgepole pine cone
Here are a few easy statistics for you to remember: 80 percent of Yellowstone’s landscapes are forested and 80 percent of Yellowstone’s forest is made up of lodgepole pine trees. You will see lodgepole pine trees nearly everywhere in the Park — they are easy to recognize because they are the tall, straight-growing trees with no branches on their lower half (although you’ll see lots of young lodgepoles too that grow rampant after a fire burns through the area…a very common and natural occurrence in the summertime). One of my favorite things to do with kids is to find a lodepole pine cone lying on the ground (they are everywhere!) and make a wish while throwing the cone into a lake. Remember to initiate this activity at an actual lake; it’s illegal to throw anything (even pine cones) into a hot spring.
5) Expand your mind at a visitor center
When traveling through Yellowstone, you’ll definitely want to stop at one of the eight fascinating visitor centers spread throughout the park to give you some insider information on all the magnificent sites you’re seeing. Each visitor center is different but all have one goal in mind: to educate the public. All visitor centers are staffed with knowledgeable Park Service employees that can help you with anything from planning an easy day hike to telling you where you’re likely to spot a grizzly bear.
Several of the visitor centers display interactive exhibits that everyone in the family will find intriguing — the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center in particular (newly built in 2010) will keep the kids’ minds engaged with its animated and interactive features on geyser eruptions and hot water treasures. The visitor center is also where you can pick up a Junior Ranger program booklet for the kids to fill out over the course of their Yellowstone trip. After fulfilling the requirements of the program, stop by any visitor center at the end of your trip to have a ranger check your child’s work and reward their hard work with an official Yellowstone Junior Ranger patch.
6) Embark on a ranger-led hike
While on your Yellowstone family vacation, jump on board one of the many offerings of ranger-led programs parkwide. Topics range from geology to wildlife to geothermal features (and much more). Plus, they offer kid-oriented programs that are interactive and interesting for the whole family.
Programs vary in duration from 10 minutes to four hours and range from “sit and watch” presentations to full on hikes. You can plan which programs you want to attend ahead of time by looking at the online schedule or you can pick and choose the programs that sound interesting to you while you’re on your trip.
The best part is, these fascinating talks are free and you don’t have to sign up ahead of time — all you have to do is show up at the designated time and place and ready yourself to learn. Two of the requirements for the Junior Ranger Program (described above) are to attend a ranger-led program and to take a hike anywhere in the Park. Why not combine two in one and head out on a ranger-led hike?
7) Soak in a hot spring-fed river
When walking around the boardwalks of Yellowstone, those steaming, multi-colored, jacuzzi-like hot springs sure may look inviting, but it is illegal and dangerous to swim, wade or even touch one of these beautiful park features. Just because you can’t swim in a hot spring doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to swim anywhere in the park. There are two designated swim/soak areas in Yellowstone: one along a section of the Firehole River near the Madison Junction and one that is just a short walk up the Gardner River’s banks deemed “The Boiling River” near Mammoth. In both of these areas, hot spring water pours into the river, mixing hot and cold together to form a perfect soaking area for you and the family. Be sure to check conditions of these areas at a visitor center before you go; they are often closed in the spring and early summer due to high water from snow melt in the region.
8) Enjoy an ice cream cone on the Old Faithful boardwalk
On a hot summer’s day, there's nothing better than enjoying a nice, cold ice cream cone.
Now imagine you and your family enjoying ice cream cones geyserside while waiting for an Old Faithful eruption — it’ll certainly make your time spent waiting a whole lot sweeter. Old Faithful erupts on average every 90 minutes, giving you plenty of time to explore the Upper Geyser Basin while you wait for the next predicted eruption. Why not pop over to the Bear Paw Deli in the Old Faithful Inn while you wait? They have all sorts of delicious flavors like Montana Moose Moss, Stuck in a Rut, Moose Tracks and the local’s favorite: huckleberry. If you hit it just right before an eruption, you’ll get your ice cream right away. Otherwise, you may become a part of the mad rush to Bear Paw Deli that seemingly occurs after every Old Faithful eruption, and at that point, you might as well schedule an extra half hour into your day to wait in line. However, the ice cream is that good, and well worth any wait.
9) Smell the hydrogen sulfide of a belching mud pot
In Yellowstone, there are four types of geothermal features to search out: erupting, gushing geysers; colorful, bubbling hot springs; steaming, hissing fumaroles (or steam vents); and last but not least, my favorite…gurgling, stinky mud pots. When walking around Fountain Paint Pots, Artist Paint Pots or Mud Volcano, you will inevitably hear the question, “What smells like rotten eggs?”
That is hydrogen sulfide, a gas that alerts our noses to the presence of mud pots in the area, often times in a not-so-pleasant way. However, in my mind — hydrogen sulfide is the smell I think of when I reminisce about Yellowstone, and I love the smell for that reason. That’s why you need to seek out one of these burping, belching beauties with your family so you can share a smelly experience that you won’t soon forget.
10) Take the Polar Bear Plunge Challenge
The “Polar Bear Plunge” is an oh so fun and oh so chilling experience to mark off your Yellowstone checklist.
Step 1: Find a cold mountain lake (note: this shouldn’t be very difficult since all lakes in Yellowstone are snow-fed). I recommend Yellowstone Lake on a hot summer’s day — you will also have bragging rights that you “Polar Bear Plunged” into the largest high alpine lake in North America.
Step 2: Change into your swimming suit and find a log to hang your towel on, preferably close to the lake shore.
Step 3: Hold hands with all members of your family and do the countdown … 3, 2, 1 — go.
Step 4: Run into the freezing cold water, making sure to dunk even your head under the surface … a splash or two in your kids’ direction can’t hurt things either.
Step 5: Exit the lake, dry off and never forget the exhilarating feeling of plunging into a snow-fed mountain lake in Yellowstone National Park.
Kasey Austin is vice president of operations at Austin Adventures and was named 2014 Best Family Guide by Outside Magazine.