Yellowstone is HUGE! So, how can you ensure that your Yellowstone family vacation is a success? (Aside from hiring me as your travel advisor to take care of every little detail for you, of course!) A Yellowstone family vacation takes a lot of planning, so here is a list of important info to consider while planning your family vacation.
How Big Is Yellowstone National Park?
As previously stated, Yellowstone National Park is massive. It is over 2.2 MILLION acres which is about 3,472 square miles. To give you some context, Yellowstone is larger than both Rhode Island or Delaware. Thus, you can not expect to visit the park in one day and see everything that needs to be seen.
Yellowstone Family Vacation: Which Entrance To Take?
You can not just put Yellowstone into your GPS and expect to end up where you want to be during your Yellowstone family vacation. Which entrance to start at is the first thing you should decide upon so here is a summary of what highlights are at which entrance.
This entrance is, by far, the most popular entrance for planning the best vacations to Yellowstone National Park. Why, you ask? Because it is the entrance closest to Old Faithful.
But Old Faithful is not the only Geyser in town. This whole section of the park is teeming with geysers. After entering the west entrance, you’ll drive about 14 miles before having to make a decision …
Head north and you will find Norris Geyser Basin.
Head south and you will find the Lower and Upper Geyser Basins.
So, what is a geyser basin? Obviously, it is an area with a lot of geysers which are hot springs in which water intermittently boils which sends a tall column of water and steam into the air. The areas are referred to as basins because they are nearly always lower than the surrounding terrain due to erosion, faults, and the underlying hot water.
Norris Geyser Basin is the park’s oldest and hottest thermal area with two walkable zones. Some say it is the most intriguing part of Yellowstone, find out why below:
The area is Yellowstone National Park’s hottest and most volatile thermal area. In fact, it is one of the most extreme environments on Earth. Steamboat Geyser can be visited here, but from afar – it is the world’s tallest geyser and sprays water to 300-plus feet.
If you decided to head south when the roads diverged, you will find yourself in the Lower Geyser Basin which includes Fountain Paint Pot, Firehole Lake Drive area and the Great Fountain Geyser. As you continue to head south, you absolutely must stop at the Midway Geyser Basin. It is home to the Grand Prismatic Spring which has resident bacteria that creates rainbow-like rings in the spring.
Further south is the Upper Geyser Basin where there are about 150 geysers per square mile. Whoa. That is a lot of geothermal activity. While Old Faithful is the star here because of its frequent eruptions every 35 to 120 minutes. As you can see, it is pretty impressive.
I think it is easy to see why the West Entrance is the most popular entrance. This astounding work of nature must be witnessed.
This is the entrance to use if you are also staying in Jackson, WY during your stay. Staying in Jackson gives you easy access to another National Park. See more about Grand Tetons National Park below in the section ‘What Else Can You Do Around Yellowstone?’
After driving through the South Entrance, there is a long stretch of about 20 miles without any turn offs. You’ll make your way to West Thumb Geyser Basin.
You can continue west towards the fascinating geothermal activity of Upper, Lower, and Norris Geyser Basins. Or keep heading north along the shore of Yellowstone Lake to witness the lake in all of its glory. The shorelines of the lake are dotted with geothermal activity so keep your eyes peeled (unless you are the one driving, of course!)
This entrance is actually the furthest entrance from a town, so if you like living life off the beaten path, the East Entrance is the perfect option. While this entrance is closest to Yellowstone Lake, it actually does not skirt as much shoreline as the South Entrance.
The main reason to use this entrance is its proximity to Cody, Wyoming which is a town as American as apple pie, and the place to go for an authentic Western experience. See ‘What Else Can You Do Around Yellowstone?’ for information on Cody. While the East Entrance is over 50 miles from Cody, it is still your closest entrance.
The Northeast Entrance is the most isolated entrance, but it is also the easiest way to access the Lamar Valley. Fewer people mean opportunities to spot Yellowstone’s animals such as grizzly bears, black bears, bison, and elk.
The North Entrance is also an option for accessing the Lamar Valley, but is less isolated. It is actually right next to Gardiner, MT which is a quirky little town worth a visit. It is very close to Mammoth Springs which is a must-see part of vacations to Yellowstone National Park.
Mammoth Springs is different from other thermal areas in the area because limestone is a relatively soft type of rock which has allowed the travertine formations to grow much faster than other sinter formations. Some say that it is like a cave turned inside out.
Now that you have an idea of what you might want to see on your vacations to Yellowstone National Park, now it is time to decide when you want to visit.
When To Go?
Every season has something special to offer at Yellowstone, so here is a summary of the benefits of taking your Yellowstone family vacation during each season.
This is not your typical springtime that you are used to. There is likely still snow on the ground, and it is actually called the mud season as the snow starts to melt. However, there are not many tourists, so that is definitely a perk about traveling in Spring – especially if you wait until the end of Spring right before Memorial Day.
This is the most beautiful time to visit Yellowstone, but it is also the most crowded with over 3 million tourists so be prepared for crowds!
The changing leaves against the backdrop of Yellowstone will be inspiring for most anybody. Coupled with the fact that there are far fewer tourists during this time, this may be the best time to visit. Just be sure to check for road closures if you attempt to go starting in about November. If you travel to Yellowstone during the Fall you may be lucky enough to experience the elk rut which is part of the male’s mating call.
It may sound a little crazy to consider visiting Yellowstone in winter, but it is actually quite magical. Steam from thermal vents and springs turn to frost on nearby trees and geysers burst boiling hot water scattering into droplets that freeze in the air. There are even frozen waterfalls that can be witnessed.
Not only will you be treated to the winter wonderland sights, but Yellowstone is a playground for winter activities such as cross-country skiing, ice-climbing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and exploring the ski and snow vehicle trails.
What Else Can You Do Around Yellowstone?
To ensure your Yellowstone family vacation is the best that it can be, make sure to spend some time outside of the park. To make your trip truly epic, add on one or more of these activities.
There are so many add on nature experiences that can be added to your trip if you add a day or two in Gardiner by the North Entrance. Imagine a dogsled trek during the snowy months or white water rafting in summer. Of course, another must do activity in these parts is fly fishing.
Cody, WY is the home of Buffalo Bill Cody the legendary cowboy famous for hunting and killing over 4,000 buffalo and ingrained into history with his traveling Wild West show. Now Cody plays the part as the quintessential Western town where visitors can ride horses, rope cattle, sit around a campfire and stay at a genuine guest ranch. However, it is the warmth and the charm of this place that really attracts tourists.
How about a two for one special? It is easy to add The Grand Tetons to your Yellowstone family vacation. The gorgeous mountain range serves as the namesake of this National Park Mountains that led to the creation of Grand Teton National Park where you can explore over two hundred miles of trails, float the Snake River, and enjoy the serenity of this remarkable place. This park is less than 20 minutes from Jackson, WY and only 30ish miles from Yellowstone. These two spectacular National Parks are too close together for you not to combine them during your Yellowstone adventure.
Adding a dude ranch stay to your Yellowstone family vacation will elevate your entire trip experience.
A dude ranch is a a cattle ranch in the Western United States that has been converted to a vacation resort for tourists. It is the quintessential frontier experience, so it is the perfect addition to your Yellowstone National Park vacation. There are so many options in the area from bare bones to ultra-luxe. You can decide what type of experience works best for you but it is highly recommended that you take advantage of your time in Big Sky Country and stay at a dude ranch.
The great outdoors is our best friend during the COVID-19 so planning a family vacation that allows you to experience nature will likely be your best option for a while until we no longer need to social distance. There is nowhere better to experience the great outdoors as Yellowstone, so let’s start planning
Photo Credits: unsplash.com and pixabay.com
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