For many years, Yellowstone National Park was top of our bucket list. Having seen a documentary about it, we knew one day we would visit Yellowstone. However, we had long thought of it as somewhere to go when our son was older. But, in 2016 we took a chance and, on a whim, booked flights, car hire and accommodation to make our dream of visiting this amazing place a reality. In this guide to visiting Yellowstone with kids I’ll tell you how to get there, where to stay and the best things to see and do in this unbelievable National Park.
Unbelievably I didn’t wake until 9.30am. I must have been tired from all the driving. BattleKid didn’t wake until after 10! Shortly after a light breakfast we spotted some deer in the back garden of the building our apartment was in. The smoke haze hadn’t lifted either. In fact, I thought it was getting worse.
After getting dressed, we headed for the National Bison Range, located 55 miles from our apartment. Our host had left some information magazines in the apartment about Montana, and we had spotted the National Bison Range in one. Although we had seen lots of bison in Yellowstone, the article said there were other animals to see, so we thought we’d head there. Unfortunately, our plans of spending two days exploring Lolo National Forest went up in flames, literally. The fires we’d hit at we crossed from Idaho to Montana had hit Lolo Forest and the surrounding areas, so we had no chance of seeing any of it. I was thankful for the information magazines our host had left in the apartment.
Established by Theodore Roosevelt, the National Bison Range is a wildlife refuge set up in 1908 to provide safe sanctuary for the America Bison. Incredibly, we had learned in the Albright Visitors Centre Museum in Yellowstone that the bison population had been decimated between 1870 and 1880 by 85% from 5.5million to less than 400k. I was absolutely shocked at this statistic. One question raised during our cookout was why people hadn’t farmed them. I can understand them being slaughtered for their meat but not in those numbers over just a ten year period.
The National Bison Range is also one of the oldest refuges in America and serves as a basis for research with the United States. The bison herb is quite small numbering between 350 and 500 individuals, but the range also has other animals including prong-horned deer, elk, big-horned sheep, black bear, coyote and even mountain lion. It covers 18,800 acres and has two different trails, along with a visitors centre where you pay your entrance fee, can get information and even see examples of some of the animals to watch out for during your visit.
We stopped at the gift shop just outside the gates to the National Bison range when we arrived, and BattleDad hired a set of binoculars from the shop for $10, with a refundable deposit of $100. He was hoping to buy some for BattleDad as the little ones we had bought him in Yellowstone were only toy ones and you couldn’t really see anything through them. But there weren’t any suitable ones in the shop. Armed with better binoculars, we went in.
We entered the Range and went to the visitors’ centre first where it cost us just $5 to gain entry to the range. We decided to do the longer drive, the Red Sleep Mountain Drive, through the range, which took us just over an hour. We saw individual bison, but no herds. The office does warn you that the bison can be anywhere in the Range and that some areas aren’t visible from the roads. You can hike part of the Range, but we weren’t planning on doing any hiking, especially with BattleKid in tow.
We did see some prong-horned deer and also some elk along the river on our return drive towards the visitors’ centre. One thing we did realise was that you really need a 4×4 type vehicle to do the full drive as it is a dirt road and very bumpy in parts. We would not have enjoyed it had we been in a normal family car. There were steep inclines and switch backs too, which aren’t advisable for trailers either, which you must leave in the car park at the visitors’ centre.
We returned the binoculars to the gift shop as we left the range, with BattleDad getting us a small wooden carved bison as a memento of our visit, and we took our time driving back to Missoula. We decided to have an early dinner in a TripAdvisor recommended Chinese Restaurant called China Garden. Hailed as THE best Chinese in Missoula, we weren’t disappointed by our meal. The portions were absolutely huge though! We could have easily shared one main between the three of us.
Suitably stuffed we decided to make our first ever visit to a Walmart. Holy cow, what an experience. Not only was the store ginormous but what an array of people visit it. We couldn’t get over the size of the place and the fact they sell guns in what we’d class as a supermarket! You can literally buy anything in Walmart.
In the end we bought an extra suitcase to bring home all our souvenirs and things we’d bought, and at the same time treated BattleKid to a new set of Cars 3 models. But my word, did it take some doing to free them of their packaging. Each car was held in by not one but two of those annoying string ties and there were 5 cars. Frustrated isn’t the word for it. And no meant feat to get it done quickly with a three year old constantly asking for his new cars either.
We decided to have a chilled afternoon and evening after our long drive the day before. So, I made us some popcorn and we found Paddington to watch on Netflix on the PS3 in the apartment. I thoroughly enjoyed the film and BattleKid watched most of it, in between driving his new cars.
We got BattleKid into bed not long after 8pm and BattleDad and I watched the first episode of Ozark, a new Netflix series starting Jason Bateman, who I hadn’t seen in years. We’d been meaning to start it, so thought this was as good a time as any. Us parents were in bed by 10pm though, still tired from driving.
We woke at 7am and after a quick shower we had breakfast. I cooked us an omelette in my bid to use up our fresh food before our day of driving. We finished packing up, tidied up our ‘cave’ and got the car ready to go. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay in our AirBnB cabin in the woods and were sad to leave.
We left at 9.30am and there were mixed emotions as we turned onto US-87, ready to retrace our steps to I-90 as we headed for Missoula and Lolo, the next stop on our road trip. We passed through a town called Ennis in Montana and it turned out to be a really western type of town. I took a few snaps to send home to my sister and her hubby who got married in the Irish Ennis.
We stopped at the Lewis and Clark gas station just that we’d visited on out journey towards Yellowstone to fill up, get drinks and snacks and to make sure everyone had used the toilet. We had seen these two names quite a lot throughout Montana and Googled them. It turns out these are the surnames of the two men who lead the first American Expedition during 1804 and 1806 into what is now the western portion of the United States. Leaving from St Louis, they crossed the Continental Divide (which we crossed ourselves in Yellowstone) and carried on until they reached the Pacific Ocean. It was the first expedition west and opened up the rest of America.
It was just before this pit-stop that we entered the smoke haze from the many fires in Montana. We couldn’t believe how bad it was in parts. We drove along I-90 until we hit Missoula just after 2pm, in time for another Five Guys lunch.
For some reason I didn’t enjoy this lunch as much as the first time. I had a double burger the first time but only a single this time around and it fell apart quite easily as I was eating it. As we were early for our check in, we decided to get groceries before going to our AirBnB apartment in Lolo. The smoke haze was quite thick around Missoula and I had a bad feeling about our planned visit to Lolo National Forest.
At 4pm, we unloaded the car into our apartment for the next three nights, and while it wasn’t as modern as I was expecting, it was clean and comfortable with modern furnishings. BattleKid certainly made himself at home as you can see below.
I cooked us a spaghetti bolognaise and we all chilled out watching some Netflix on the PlayStation in the apartment before we got BattleKid into bed. It was nice to chill out after doing over 270 miles in the car with only one stop.
Once BattleKid was in bed, BattleDad managed to get us the last episode of Game of Thrones, which was brilliant. We had wanted to watch it before going back on social media and having it ruined for us! Once that was done, we headed to bed. Not a very exciting day, but driving all day isn’t exciting at all.
We were all awake by 7am. BattleDad kindly cooked breakfast for everyone and after we headed to West Yellowstone. We had to piggy back free WiFi in West Yellowstone to sort something out, and as soon as that was done, we headed into the park, bound for the Lower Geyser Basin and the Snow Lodge gift shop beside Old Faithful. BattleDad really wanted something he’d seen a few days earlier. Once we’d picked up our souvenirs, we headed East, destination Roosevelt.
We stopped at the sign for the Continental Divide as BattleDad wanted a picture beside it. One day he plans to ride most of the Continental Divide. One of our favourite YouTube bikers has, Alex Parillo. We took our time driving to Roosevelt and passed a few more smaller herbs of bison near the same spot we saw them two days earlier.
We had our lunch picnic at Roosevelt Lodge with a cuppa before heading out along the Lamar Valley. It is this valley I remember well from the BBC Yellowstone series that piqued our interest. We didn’t see any wolves, which BattleDad was hoping for. I think you really need to be there before first light to stand any chance of seeing wolves.
That said, we saw the real herd of bison along the Lamar Valley. We even had to stop the car at one point while about twenty of them decided to cross the road. BattleKid was delighted and got his ‘noclars’ out, although you didn’t need them as the bison were so close. We even saw two young males squaring up to each other but their fight lasted only a few seconds.
And would you believe it, we got rain while driving along the Lamar Valley. There were quite a few big splodges in there. I commented to BattleDad the snow mustn’t be too far off. Little did I know. We returned to Roosevelt Lodge for 3.30pm, in time for us to join the Old West Dinner Cookout. During my research into things to do with young children in and around Yellowstone, someone suggested this dinner experience and we thought it would be a good way to end our visit to Yellowstone.
The Old West Dinner Cookout involves either a wagon or horse ride out to the cookout area, where you are greeted by real cowboys and are treated to a traditional cookout and western music.
We left Roosevelt just before four in wagon number 5 with the main man, Joel, leading our horses to the Cookout. We had a real cowgirl in our wagon too, Kimberly, and my gosh she was inspiring. A lady, probably in her 50’s, she had raised her kids and decided, when they left home in Ohio, to become a cowgirl. And she spent the next 6 years making her way towards Yellowstone while learning the ropes, if you’ll pardon the pun.
We arrived at the Cookout and found a seat before the bell went for dinner, round one. Yes, you get the chance to have seconds if you have room. And I can categorically say the steak was amazing. During dinner Joel and another musician played country and western songs and BattleDad got one dedicated to his Dad, who is a big fan. After dinner, the cowboys told stories around the camp fire and it was just brilliant.
What an experience. The setting was beautiful and thankfully the rain we’d seen earlier had stopped and stayed away. And we were told by Kimberly that they were expecting their first snow fall within the next week, hence my comment earlier about little did I know! Snow in early September! The food was great, the atmosphere was lively and it was a real treat to end our visit to Yellowstone on the Old West Cookout. If you EVER get the chance to go to Yellowstone, you MUST do this!
We left Roosevelt after 6.30pm and started the long drive back to Island Park. But we got BattleKid dressed in his pyjamas in case he fell asleep along the way.
As we drove along the Madison River we saw lots of elk along the river and some running through the long grass. They looked like something had spooked them but we couldn’t see what.
We also drove along the River Drive itself off the main road and were treated to the most amazing colours in the sky. I know I’ve used the word amazing so much while writing about Yellowstone but there are few words that can accurately describe Yellowstone. BattleDad and I tried on that last drive out of the park and we failed miserably trying to find the right word.
As we left Yellowstone, we were quite quiet in the car, almost lost for words. Yellowstone had affected us in a way we didn’t expect and I, for one, was emotional to leave this beautiful place. I think we’ll be returning in years to come.
We got home after 9pm and were all in bed by 10 after some packing. Although we didn’t quite complete our entire Yellowstone Bucket List, we did almost all of it and came away completely satisfied with what we did see.
Not quite over his jetlag, BattleKid was awake from 5am. So, at 6am, we got up. We had breakfast, packed a picnic and were ready to jump into the car by 6.40am, record time. As we were pulling away from our cabin we noticed a mama moose and her calf in the neighbour’s garden. We couldn’t believe our luck. Our AirBnB hosts had mentioned we might see some wildlife but we never imagined we’d see a moose and her calf so close.
We filled up with gas in West Yellowstone to ensure we had plenty in the tank for the day. We were in the park by 7.30am and on our way to check out not one, but two waterfalls. First up was Gibbon Falls. We had spotted this on the drive out of the park the day before and knew we had to return. There was lots of spaces in the car park and we jumped out and headed for the lookout point. However, BattleKid had a nasty fall off a rock on the way down and he was in a bad mood for our family selfie!
Gibbon Falls themselves are very beautiful and we picked the perfect time to visit them, just after sunrise. The light on the falls was just magical and no picture can do it justice. From there, we headed towards Canyon Village, spotting more bison along the way. I needed the toilet and we had to drive around a second time as the only toilets on Canyon Drive are at the Brink of the Upper Falls, something to remember!
BattleKid had actually fallen asleep by the time we parked up so I went first to see the Lower Falls via the Red Rock Trail. This is a very beautiful but steep trail down the side of the cliff that leads you to the lookout point. You pass some brooks and it is shaded in parts and was just lovely at that time of the morning. I passed only about three or four people as I made my way down.
And what a sight you are greeted with. The Lower Falls are just stunning and this was certainly the best place to view them from. I was so glad I went down, after debating with myself whether I would or not.
However, what goes down must come back up again and the return trip was a slog. What took me only a few minutes to get down took me almost 15 minutes back up with a few stops to catch my breath. I was in good company with another couple who found the trek back up as hard going as I did. I was thankful BattleDad had suggested I take a bottle of water with me.
Once I was up, I had to convince BattleDad to go down as I knew it was highly unlikely we’d be back during this trip. Off he went, completing the return trip in only 8 minutes! He was glad I had talked him around as it’s one of the most beautiful sights either of us have ever seen. We were also secretly glad BattleKid slept through it all as it wasn’t the sort of trail we would want to do with a pre-schooler. Despite our opinions, it didn’t stop other parents with young children taking them down the Red Rock Trail. I take my hat off to those who have completed it with young kids in tow. BattleKid can return at a later date to see the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River.
Satisfied we had seen the waterfalls we set out to see, we headed towards Tower Falls with me in the driving seat, I could now officially say I had driven in Yellowstone National Park. But before leaving Canyon, we stopped briefly to capture some pictures of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Yes, they have one too.
We didn’t stop at Tower Falls and instead carried on to Roosevelt Lodge in the Northern half of Yellowstone. We had a cuppa and some cookies with BattleKid who was quite refreshed after his nap. It was lovely to sit out in the sunshine outside the General Stores.
From Roosevelt Lodge we continued west to Mammoth Hot Springs, an area that had been recommended to us. We found some picnic benches and enjoyed our lunch outside. BattleKid enjoyed himself running around on the grass where the benches were located and picking Jinny Joes from the grass (that’s dandelion flowers). I think he just needed to stretch his legs. After our lunch we had a wander through the Albright Visitors Centre which has a lovely display of the history of Yellowstone and the rangers. It was really well done and very interesting.
We also took a stroll around Mammoth, the town where the rangers reside. The road that leads from Mammoth to Roosevelt is the only one to remain open all year round. Ever other road in Yellowstone closes, typically from October or November to May due to snow.
Mammoth town is really lovely and made for a good spot for a picnic. We decided not to stop and walk around Mammoth Hot Springs themselves. Instead, we headed for West Yellowstone and home. The return journey to West Yellowstone took over an hour due to road works taking place between Mammoth and Norris. Warnings were clear in the paper we had received on our first entry into the park but we didn’t envisage such a delay because of them.
Between Norris and the Madison junction we spotted more bison and a coyote, although the couple who stopped alongside us were convinced it was a young wolf. It wasn’t! Arriving at West Yellowstone after 3pm, we stopped at a bookstore café, the Book Peddler, we had spotted on our first day and had a cuppa and some cake. I can’t for the life of me remember what we had but I do remember the cakes were really good.
We had a stroll around West Yellowstone and stocked up on a few more groceries before having a meal in Pete’s Pizza Parlour. BattleDad and I shared a pizza while BattleKid thoroughly enjoyed spaghetti Bolognese. We were home before 5.30 and treated BattleKid to his first ever campfire.
He and BattleDad built it and got it going, ready to make S’mores with the kit our hostess had left for us. Not only was he thrilled with the fire but BattleKid also rather enjoyed his S’more.
We adults did too, albeit with a cup of tea. After a bit of TV, we were all tucked up in bed by 8pm, ready for our last full day at Yellowstone.