"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."