Planning a Summer to Remember
Yellowstone National Park
Beat the January blues by planning a summer to remember. “When children see their first bear or geyser eruption, it typically makes an impression that lasts a lifetime, and those kinds of experiences are exactly what families can expect from a trip to Yellowstone,” says Rick Hoeninghausen, director of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, operator of the lodges, restaurants and other concessions in the park. “To ensure Yellowstone memories are the best possible for everyone in the family, we recommend a little bit of advance planning coupled with realistic expectations.”
Hoeninghausen offers the following suggestions for ensuring a great family trip.
Before you go:
- Carefully choose the time you travel. If you have very young children or a flexible travel schedule, consider traveling during the shoulder seasons of spring and fall. These seasons offer a greater choice of accommodations and campground sites. Plus there is the added bonus of the best wildlife-viewing opportunities. Spring is the time to view bison and elk calves and fall is the mating season for bison and elk.
- Study the park before you go. Xanterra offers a Yellowstone Adventure Planner through its online gift store. Priced at $39.95, the planner comes with a DVD highlighting the park, park map, copy of the Yellowstone National Park Magazine, guide to activities and picnic spots, safety and photography tips and coupons for more than $40 that can be used for gifts and activities. Another source is the National Park Service (NPS) site, which also offers a variety of online vacation planning tools. Learning about the park together also gives family members a chance to discuss their expectations. After learning a bit about the park, ask each member what they’d like to do and see? Older teens may want to take a challenging hike while younger kids may want to see a mudpot.
- Decide where to stay in the park. Yellowstone is highlighted by a huge diversity of geological features, including hot springs, geysers, Yellowstone Lake, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Lamar Valley, considered the best wildlife-watching region in the lower 48 states. Yellowstone’s nine lodges are located throughout the park. Xanterra recommends studying a map to help decide which location – or locations – makes the most sense. Some people prefer to change hotels every night as they move around the park; others prefer to establish one lodge as a home base and then return to the same lodge each night. Lodging reservations can be made at online or by calling (1) 307-344-7311 or toll-free (1) 866-GEYSERLAND (1-866-439-7375) Ask reservations sales agents for their suggestions and guidance when booking lodges and activities.
- Let every family member pick at least one activity. There are numerous activity choices that are perfect for every age group. For example, little ones might enjoy the covered wagon ride to the Roosevelt Cookout. Another family member might want to participate in a ranger-led hike. Concessioner Xanterra offers an online adventure planning tool that allows travelers to choose activities based on the duration of the adventure, intensity level and region of the park.
- Book your lodge(s) now. Yellowstone National Park features nine lodges in a variety of locations throughout the park. Some of the historic or most popular lodges – the Old Faithful Inn and Old Faithful Snow Lodge – are beginning to fill for prime summer dates. Still, with some 2,000 guest rooms in the entire park, there are plenty of rooms available for the summer. Lodging reservations can be cancelled with full refunds on deposits if made 48 hours or more before the arrival date.
- Pack smart. Yellowstone is one of the wildest spots in the country, and the weather is no exception. Pack for rain and widely fluctuating temperatures. Typical summer temperatures range from the high 70s to the low 40s. Sturdy shoes, sunscreen, hats and refillable water bottles should be included on every packing list.
During your trip:
- Get to know the National Park Service rangers. Free ranger-led programs are offered daily in every area of the park. The programs are fun, creative and available for families with children of all ages. For example, the Yellowstone Wildlife Olympics, a four-hour program offered six times during the summer, gives budding wildlife scientists a chance to show off their knowledge of the park’s non-human residents. The Junior Ranger program is a perfect way to engage children. Plus, there are ranger adventure hikes, evening astronomy programs and evening talks.
- Don’t be too ambitious. An early-morning wildlife-watching tour in Lamar Valley followed by a ranger-led geyser hike followed by a lake cruise followed by the Roosevelt Cookout may sound like a good plan, but it’s not. And it probably would not even be doable. Driving from one part of the park to the other, especially in the middle of summer, takes time. And travelers lucky enough to encounter wildlife or other special park experiences during the drive should savor those experiences instead of worrying about making it to the next activity on time.
- Think beyond the burger. Xanterra offers 17 restaurant choices in the park, ranging from the quick-serve Geyser Grill at Old Faithful Snow Lodge to the elegant Lake Hotel Dining Room. Every restaurant offers value-priced options to suit every budget, as well as vegetarian and children’s options.
- Designate a spontaneous day. Over-planned vacations can sometimes seem like a forced march, with everyone proceeding in lock-step to the next planned activity. Sometimes, planners just can’t help themselves. Hoeninghausen recommends “planning” a nothing day. “The park is full of surprises – like an unexpected eruption of a backcountry geyser or a clear safe-distance sighting of a bear and cubs,” said Hoeninghausen. “Many families miss these special and truly memorable experiences because they’re driving to the next place on their agenda. Get up one morning and just let the day happen. Allow time to stop for that ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ wildlife sighting that seems to always occur when you are in a rush.”
- Be safe. Follow all posted National Park Service signs and directions. Every year, tourists stray from a boardwalk in a hot springs area or get too close to wildlife. The National Park Service medical clinics see plenty of injuries each summer that could have been prevented if travelers had simply followed NPS rules.
- Start your in-park visit with a trip to a National Park Service Visitor Center. NPS rangers have the latest information on wildlife sightings, trail conditions, ranger-led programs and more. This is also where kids can obtain information on becoming a Junior Ranger.
- Do the dawn. Wildlife are early risers, and the best time to see them in action is just after dawn. Make the effort to get up early to improve your chances of seeing wildlife. Save the geysers for mid-day when animals are less active. The other great time to see wildlife is at dusk.
- Visit Old Faithful in the late afternoon and evening. When day- trippers head back to their hotels in gateway communities, the popular spots such as Old Faithful Geyser have fewer visitors. See it in the late afternoon and you are more likely to find a place to sit and watch from the boardwalk benches.
Start planning your family’s Yellowstone