There is a way to do Yellowstone without feeling like Clark W. Griswold in Vacation, not to mention the hordes of other sunburned tourists jumping up and town to catch a glimpse of Old Faithful. In fact that place you last viewed from the “way back” of a station wagon might surprise you. The country’s oldest national park covers nearly 3,500 square miles, but the average visitor does only a greatest-hits tour, sticking close to the attractions near the main road and staying less than a day. Which means that families who stray from the beaten path—even just taking a 15-minute walk away from the roadway—are rewarded with vast stretches of scenery all to themselves.
Of course, many of the park’s most popular sites are deservedly so. Chief among these iconic spots is the Old Faithful Inn. You can make reservations in May for the following summer at this grand hotel, which was hand-built in 1904, and it’s well worth the advance planning (and, like so many of the National Park Service’s crown-jewel hotels, usually a bargain). With a 76-foot-high lobby supported by pine beams and plenty of gnarled-wood nooks, the place looks like a Lincoln Log palace built by the Berenstain Bears.
An ideal day in Yellowstone starts with a heaping plate of breakfast tacos by the volcanic-rock fireplace in the inn’s dining room, followed by a visit to Mammoth Hot Springs, 40 miles and about an hour’s drive north. Mammoth is quieter than the more popular Upper Geyser Basin area by the hotel, but as a geothermal hot spot, it’s just as fascinating. Steam rises from the ground’s sculptural volcanic formations, while herds of elk, so accustomed to people that children can safely get within picture-taking distance, graze lazily around the grounds. From Mammoth, head southwest to the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, where naturalists will enthusiastically describe the park’s history and the social intrigue of its wolf population, whose pack rivalries and territorial wars are right out of a soap opera.
The next day, make your way to Lamar Valley (about 40 miles northeast of the inn), passing mountain ledges and gullies along the way. Lamar’s long grass and proximity to the Yellowstone River attract thousands of creatures; an early arrival betters your odds of seeing a grizzly bear or a wolf ambling down to the water. Then head a few miles east to the Trout Lake Trail. Take the semisteep but short hike up to the lake (kids 7 and up should be able to handle it without assistance), where you can spread out for a picnic and watch for trout while admiring views of the Rockies in all directions.
Spend the late afternoon at the Gardner River, a “boiling river” in the northwest section of Yellowstone to which families have been coming to soak and bathe for more than a century. A volcanic thermal runs into the icy water, creating a hot-tub effect that’s best enjoyed after the intense midday sun has passed. When the air is cool, the whole place becomes enveloped in fog, making the experience even more dreamlike.
Some Yellowstone Shortcuts, Tips, and Hidden Treasures:
Timing: If you can swing a trip in early May or September, it’s well worth it. The air is cooler, and because there are few crowds, you’ll have a better shot of spotting wildlife than you would in the peak summer months.
Epic Views: Head to the top of Geyser Hill or to one of the Old Faithful Inn’s patios in the early morning for an unobstructed view of the famous geyser, which blows every 74 minutes on average. Equally fascinating to kids are the nearby “paint pots,” puddles of mud that gurgle from the volcanic heat.
Become a Ranger: Kids earn their very own badges when they participate in the National Park Service‘s Junior Ranger Program, which teaches children ages 5 to 12 about conservation as well as the geology of the park.
Follow the Leader: For outdoor-adventure newbies, the Flying Pig Adventure Company offers low-key rafting expeditions down the Yellowstone River, and Matson Rogers’ Angler’s West Flyfishing Outfitters teaches kids 10 and up how to cast.
Cool Off: Sweeten a day of hiking with a trip to Moosebury’s Ice Cream & Eatery, in West Yellowstone (406-646-9776). The homemade huckleberry-cheesecake ice cream has a devoted following.
Bask in the Sun: Take an afternoon break in the sunroom at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel and enjoy a sparkling view of the park’s largest lake as a string quartet plays in the background.
Pony Up: Spend a day at the Chico Hot Springs Resort & Day Spa, about 30 miles north of Yellowstone, where cowboys and -girls 7 and up can go for a trail ride, then splash in the springs.
Ride a Dinosaur: On your way out of town, stop by the roadside brontosaurus in Emigrant, Montana (population: 372), 30 miles north of Yellowstone.
Photos Bobby Fisher