"Yellowstone." Few words can inspire so much awe and wonder in a child—or, for the uninitiated parent, such uncertainty. This is a big, big park, after all: 3,400 square miles packed with steaming hot springs, burbling mud pots, exploding geysers, and more wildlife than your kids could see watching Animal Planet for a month. How to take it all in?
For advice, we went to the ultimate insiders: longtime resident Jeff Brown and his family. As director of education for the Yellowstone Association Institute, Jeff oversees some 400 learning programs for park visitors, on subjects ranging from wildlife photography to wolf watching. Jeff and his wife, Wendy, moved to Yellowstone in 1997, when their daughter Becca was 15 months old. Laura, 11, who was born in Uralsk, Kazakhstan, and Sarah, eight, who was born in Kolkata (Calcutta), have since joined the family. In many ways, the Brown girls are typical American kids: Laura loves J. K. Rowling and playing piano and Becca is crazy for art; Sarah is working toward her yellow belt in karate. They take ballet and painting classes and enjoy building twig forts on the hill behind their house—except, in the Browns' case, they often have to share the hill with a 1,500-pound bison.
The family lives in a small house in Mammoth Hot Springs, the "town" on the north side of Yellowstone that serves as the park's headquarters. Visitors know this area for the series of limestone terraces formed by a constant trickle of calcium-rich, steamy water. Two tons of travertine are deposited here daily, so the terraces are constantly shifting and expanding.
If you ignore the beautiful mountain backdrop (and the bison), Mammoth could be Anysuburb, U.S.A., with its basketball hoops, sprinklers, and backyard grills. About 50 Yellowstone employees and their families live here year-round. Park children attend Yellowstone Park Elementary, a five-minute bike ride from the Browns' front door, where Laura and Becca are in fourth grade and Sarah is in second. The entire school has only 27 students.
The subject all of the Browns know best is their own 2.2 millionacre backyard. Allow them to lead you to their favorite spots.
LAY OF THE LAND
Most visitors spend the bulk of their time in the center of the park, home to such popular attractions as Old Faithful, Fountain Paint Pot, and the Yellowstone River (which has carved out its own red-rimmed Grand Canyon). Along the north side are Mammoth Hot Springs (park HQ) and the grassy Lamar Valley, a.k.a. the Serengeti of America. Vast Yellowstone Lake dominates the park's southeast corner; the southern and eastern edges are largely mountainous backcountry. A 142-mile-long main road known as the Grand Loop takes in all of the most famous sites as it forms a figure eight in the middle of the park. The speed limit is 40 mph, and the going gets much slower during peak season: Beware elk rubberneckers! Fortunately, there are plenty of places to pull off the main road—parking lots, of course, but also smaller, less frequented byways.
HOW TO BEAT THE CROWDS
"Set the alarm clock early," advises Jeff. Not only are the roads relatively clear in the morning, but in those first hours after dawn Yellowstone can feel surprisingly calm, and wildlife sightings are more common. It's also helpful to embrace the summer throngs, as the Brown girls do: "You get to meet people from all over the planet. It's so interesting to see so many different clothes and hear all the different languages and accents," says Becca.
THE IDEAL INTRODUCTION
Enroll in a ranger program.You'll find detailed listings in Yellowstone Today, the park's quarterly newspaper that everyone gets on arrival (they're also at www.nps.gov). These intimate talks and guided hikes, offered at various locations around the park, last anywhere from 20 minutes to five hours. "Even if you're here for only one day, it's a must-do," says Jeff. "They're free, high-quality, and you'll get so much more out of your visit."
GOTTA SEE THE GEYSERS
"Most people don't realize that Yellowstone is actually one big volcano," Laura points out. "There's magma under the surface of the earth—even right beneath our house!" Morning is an ideal time to get an unrushed, intimate look at the park's astounding thermal features.
Start by hiking half a mile from the Old Faithful Visitor Center to Observation Point, which overlooks Yellowstone's most famous attraction and provides a view of the entire geyser basin. Then check in with the rangers at the visitor center to find out when some of the other springs are expected to erupt. Old Faithful goes off every 90 minutes, round the clock—it's the most regular, if not the most dramatic, in the park. The Brown girls' favorite geyser "performances": Beehive (just behind Old Faithful and astonishingly noisy—but erratic) and Riverside (which erupts infrequently, but for up to 20 minutes at a time in a magnificent 75-foot arc over the Firehole River).
Plan to wander in the geyser basin for a couple of hours, browsing among the hissing, bubbling, sulphurous mud pots, fumaroles, and hot springs. As Wendy notes, "There are more here than in the whole rest of the world combined!" Don't miss a swim in the Firehole River, just north of Old Faithful. The Firehole lives up to its name, to a degree; the hot springheated water is pleasantly warm, though not boiling. "There's a short section of rapids where you can just float along," says Laura. "It's so fun—we climb out, run back, and do it over and over again." If you prefer to stay put, find one of the shallow, protected wading spots that are perfect for small children. On your way to or from the river, be sure to check out Fountain Paint Pot, a bubbling mud pool ("like something out of a science fiction movie," says Wendy) surrounded by still more geysers. If you're lucky, you'll catch six blowing at the same time.
HIKES FOR EVERYBODY
The Brown kids actually like hiking—and, as an initiation for others, they recommend the two-mile Bunsen Peak Trail (located near Mammoth Hot Springs and named for the German chemist who invented the Bunsen burner). It climbs 1,300 feet to the summit, which provides a spectacular 360-degree vista of Mammoth and the Tetons (yes, that's Grand Teton National Park next door). "You can go up as far as you want to," says Becca, "and you have good views the whole way."
Point Sublime, near Canyon Village, at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, delivers an equally awesome panorama—"but keep an eye on the kids," warns Jeff. "The canyon drops off steeply." Tip from Wendy: take along blank postcards (from art-supply stores) and compact watercolor sets or colored pencils. "The canyon-rock colors are incredible—pink, red, orange, yellow. You can set up a studio on a bench or a log and make your own souvenirs."
After the hike, drive through Hayden Valley to Yellowstone Lake, watching for grazing bison as you go. "Be warned that Harry Potter fans will insist on visiting thermal features with names like Sulphur Cauldron, Mud Volcano, and Dragon's Mouth," says Jeff. Stop for lunch, and more lovely vistas, at the sprawling 1891 Lake Yellowstone Hotel (Lake Village; 307/344-7311; lunch for four $30).
While you're there, you can rent a rowboat or take a guided fishing trip down the road at Bridge Bay. "You might catch a cutthroat trout," says Sarah. "That's what the grizzlies eat."
HOW ABOUT A WOLF-WATCH?
On weekends the Browns often hop out of bed at dawn and head for Lamar Valley in hopes of spotting the elusive gray wolf (packs are most active at dawn and dusk). In the decade since Yellowstone's famous wolf reintroduction program began, the population in the park has rebounded to about 118. "Hearing the wolves howl is like nothing you've ever heard in your life," says Becca. Remember to take binoculars. "Jeff brings his high-powered ones, but each of the girls also has her own inexpensive pair, so they don't have to ask every time they want to see something," says Wendy, who buys the binoculars at the Mammoth General Store. "They're durable enough that they can be dropped and won't break. And they're always getting dropped."
Following their weekend wolf-watches, the Browns usually drive over to Cooke City, Montana—the minuscule hamlet outside Yellowstone's northeast entrance—for breakfast at the Soda Butte Lodge (209 Hwy. 212; 800/527-6462 or 406/838-2251; breakfast for four $25), plus a slice of "Joan's blueberry pie." Cooke City resident Joan Humiston's pies often sell out before lunchtime.
TIME FOR A PICNIC
The most foolproof summer activity, Jeff insists, is simply packing a lunch to eat in the wilderness. "You can buy all your ingredients in the morning at the Canyon Lodge Picnic Shop, in Canyon Village, at the center of the park," says Wendy. Then set yourself up by Solfatara Creek, which flows past the Norris campground, or Lava Creek, on the road from Mammoth to Tower Fall. "Spend a few hours simply relaxing and playing in the water," says Jeff. The primary objective: Slow down. "Your kids will remember more of Yellowstone from an unhurried afternoon than they will if they're herded from one sight to the next."
Getting To Yellowstone
The best way into the park is via the North Entrance (Mammoth Hot Springs). It's open all year, has good access to the wildlife-rich Lamar Valley, and is rarely backed up with traffic. Just outside the entry, Gardiner has a supermarket and an outdoor-equipment store. For park info, go to www.nps.gov.
Where to Stay
Lodgings at Yellowstone are run by Xanterra, a private concessionaire. For info, call 307/344-7311, or see www.travelyellowstone.com.
The Browns recommend:
Old Faithful Inn
(doubles from $109). The park's most famous geyser basin is right outside this historic spot, filled with nooks and crannies for kids to play in.
Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel
(doubles from $102). A hotel with cabins near the Lamar Valley, the hot springs in Mammoth, and the Norris geyser basin.
Above the Rest Lodge
(8 Above the Rest Lane, Gardiner, MT; 800/406-7748; www.abovetherestlodge.com; cabins from $125). Located two miles outside the North Entrance, the lodge has five roomy cabins.
The Yellowstone Association Institute (307/344-2293; www.yellowstoneassociation.org) is a nonprofit affiliate that organizes hundreds of educational courses for park visitors, including a new series especially for families. Most programs are held at Lamar Buffalo Ranch, in the park's northeast corner, where students stay in comfy log cabins or nearby hotels. The setup is ideal—engaging instructors, intimate classes, and affordable rates (as a nonprofit, the Institute is only required to break even). Jeff Brown's picks:
Yellowstone for Families A four-day naturalist-guided program geared to 8- to 12-year-olds and their adult companions. On the schedule: animal tracking; wildlife watching; painting; photography; hiking; and exploring canyons, geyser basins, and waterfalls. Kids get Yellowstone Junior Ranger badges at the conclusion of the course. From $595 per adult, $365 per child, including four nights' lodging at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel or Grant Village, with breakfast and lunch; offered June 9August 28. For reservations, call 307/344-5566.
Personal Ed-Ventures These private wildlife-watching tours of the park's Northern Range are great for families with a free day at Yellowstone. Each outing lasts approximately eight hours and is led by an Institute naturalist, who provides high-powered spotting scopes. The fee is $395 for up to seven people, $50 for each additional person up to a maximum of 14; offered year-round. For reservations, call 307/344-2294.
Best Ice Cream
"Ice cream is excellent here! Especially huckleberry and "moose tracks" [vanilla with chocolate chunks, caramel, and pecans]. You can get it everywhere, but the Old Faithful Inn has the coolest ice cream shop."
"Bison burgers [on the menu at most park restaurants] taste like regular hamburgers, but better."
"If you go to the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, they'll treat you to a brownie sundae and sing 'Happy Birthday' to the tune of 'Home on the Range.'?"
"You can take a horseback or covered-wagon ride to a big cowboy dinner. They serve steak and apple crisp" [Roosevelt Lodge Old West Dinner Cookout, 307/344-7311; www.travelyellowstone.com; adults from $51; kids from $41].
TO YELLOWSTONE: Salt Lake City International (SLC), a Delta hub, is the nearest major airport; it s located 330 miles from the park s South Entrance. Gallatin Field Airport (BZN), in Belgrade, Montana, near Bozeman, is 100 miles from Yellowstone s North Entrance the way into the park that the Brown family recommends. Tiny West Yellowstone Airport (WYS), serviced by Skywest, a subsidiary of Delta, is open from June through September, and puts you just 32 miles from Old Faithful.
The park draws more than 2.3 million visitors between Memorial Day and Labor Day; only about 1.5 million arrive during the rest of the year. But there are plenty of incentives for visiting beyond summer.
FALL Autumn arrives the last week of August and is over before Columbus Day. The fall foliage is gorgeous (especially the yellow cottonwood trees and aspens). The bears are out and about, eating vast amounts of pine nuts and berries before they hibernate, and other animals are returning from higher elevations as the cold sets in. The whole park grows a little quieter with one glaring exception. September is when male elk sound their insanely loud, trumpet-like mating calls, appropriately known as bugling. On autumn nights the meadow behind the Browns house becomes a veritable orchestra pit. We call it the Love Shack, Becca giggles. Sometimes we can t sleep because of all the noise!
WINTER This is the Browns favorite time of year, not least because Yellowstone's beloved snowcoaches are rolling. These crazy contraptions imagine a squat school bus with skis and tank treads for wheels are the park's main mode of transit after November. The Brown girls love riding the snowcoach out to the Indian Creek trailhead, 45 minutes south of Mammoth, to play in the huge snowdrifts and go cross-country skiing on the 2.2-mile Indian Creek Loop. There s a cozy warming hut where you can sip hot chocolate by the fire afterward. An easy place to stay and to rent Nordic ski equipment is the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel (doubles from $100), a simple, historic lodge that's one of the few open year-round in the park, plus it has hot tubs Or consider the cushier but less accessible Old Faithful Snow Lodge (doubles from $160), reachable only by snowcoach or snowmobile from Mammoth, but a three-minute walk from the geyser basin.
SPRING Blink and you'll miss it: Yellowstone's window between winter and summer lasts only a few short weeks, from mid-May to mid-June. Here s when the wildflowers purple asters, upland larkspur, marsh marigold, fringed gentians begin to bloom, and crowds are still minimal. Plus, spring is when the baby bison and elk are born and they re so cute! says Sarah. The bison calves are small with reddish fur. They're easy to spot because they walk down the road right next to their mothers they never stray far. (Bison tip: Babies do their romping during the cooler morning hours, and are especially common along the Madison and Firehole rivers from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful.) The newborn elk have tiny white spots all over their backs, like deer. Their legs wobble when they first learn to walk, and they make funny little squealing sounds. Best strategy for spotting the younglings: try the Lamar Valley and Mammoth Hot Springs. Stashed during the day to keep them away from predators, elk calves can be seen nursing in the morning and evening. Soon enough, like the Brown girls, they'll be frolicking about their park all year long.