My first visit to Yellowstone National Park was nothing like I’d imagined it would be.
In my mind’s eye I would be hiking all day, then rinsing off the trail dust in Yellowstone Lake before cooking a manly meal on an open fire. Yellowstone National Park would be my escape to freedom.
Instead, for my first visit, I loaded my eight-year-old son and his best buddy into the Volkswagen camper and off we drove to Yellowstone. Turned out it was a much better visit than the one I had imagined.
Our national parks are real bargains and perfect places to take children; Yellowstone might even be the best family park of them all. Between the gorgeous scenery, oodles of wildlife, natural attractions and ranger programs, there’s almost too much to do. When you’re traveling with kids, having lots to do is a very good thing.
The first thing I did at the park, after checking in to our campground, was immediately sign the boys up for the Junior Ranger Program. This was the single best idea of our whole trip. Eight-year-old boys need action, and lots of it, and the ranger program was perfect.
The program requires kids to complete activities and a workbook about the park’s features, history and wildlife through actual hands-on observations. To meet this challenge we set out on a three-day frenzy of hiking, book research and generally racing around the park in a thoroughly entertaining quest for knowledge. The boys were completely captivated — and a little embarrassed when they received their badges to loud applause at the Ranger Station. I highly recommend this program for families with aged 5 – 14 year old children.
With the Junior Ranger Program complete we headed out to visit some of the park’s attractions that we had missed earlier. First up was Old Faithful; suspenseful, entertaining; then the Mud Pots in the Lower Geyser Basin area; smelly bubbling mud — this was an unexpected hit. Late in the day we explored along the Yellowstone River and witnessed a huge herd of bison grazing in a meadow. Then a drive over the mountainous north loop and a stop in Mammoth Hot Springs for ice cream. Nice.
Rising early the next day we shower and wash our clothes. Then we start our day in ernest with a trip to the West Yellowstone area. The day is warm and the kids are antsy for action after yesterday’s mostly car-bound adventures. I pull off the road for a lunch break near Firehole Falls. After a quick PB&J we notice a large open section of river just perfect for swimming, and in they go.
It’s a perfect Yellowstone day: bright sun, a few puffy clouds and a swimming hole. I stretch out on the grass and crack open a paperback. I may have driven hundreds of miles in an old Volkswagen only to be reading a book, but I’m reading it in Yellowstone National Park on the grassy bank of a wilderness river. A hundred feet away, my son and his very best friend are having the time of their young lives. If life is but a collection of moments, I’ll be happy to include this one.