“Don’t make eye contact!” my husband whispered, hands gripped to the steering wheel as steam billowed around our car and a huge bison ambled closer and closer. My family of four was packed into a rented Kia sedan exploring Yellowstone National Park for the first time. This majestic beast with horns and hooves was walking the yellow line down the road causing a bison jam.
The largest land animal in North America, bison may look like fluffy cows, but signs around the park warn visitors to fight the urge to pet them. The bison grazed the left side of our car as we all quietly squealed, lucky to take in one of the many magical wonders of the world’s first national park.
Yellowstone is a natural splendor that every family should experience. A huge, historic park spanning 2.2 million acres across three states (Wyoming, Montana and Utah), it offers eye candy in every direction. Bubbling, belching geysers; technicolor, sizzling hot springs and tumbling, towering waterfalls invigorate all the senses. The untamed wilderness provides awe-worthy opportunities to view wildlife like wolves, bears, bison and elk, putting it on the bucket list of many families.
This year, Yellowstone celebrates its 150th anniversary. From snowy mountaintops to pristine lakes and dramatic canyons, there is a plethora of beauty to explore in Yellowstone. The main roads form a figure eight around the park, which cover 142 miles and takes about four-seven hours to drive, depending on traffic. Pull offs and boardwalks provide accessible views of all the main attractions.
Here, we’ll cover the highlights and how to visit, including road tripping from Billings, Montana, to Cody, Wyoming, and Yellowstone National Park on the Beartooth Highway.
Note: The park was recently devastated by unprecedented flooding, which has closed some major roads and entrances. My family visited in early June, less than two weeks before the flooding, which is now limiting visits this season. Learn more about Yellowstone’s current conditions on the National Park Service’s website. While the north loop is currently closed until further notice, the south loop has reopened.
Yellowstone attractions not to miss
Old Faithful, the world’s most famous geyser, erupts 20 times a day on relatively predictable intervals. Watch the natural phenomenon from a comfortable bench on the boardwalk. Scalding mist (measured above 350 degrees Fahrenheit) and boiling water shoot 90-120 feet into the sky for cheering crowds. Before you go, check out geyser predictions online and try to get there early to snag a seat.
Grand Prismatic Spring is a kaleidoscope of colors and the most photographed geothermal feature in Yellowstone. Like a postcard brought to life, walking the boardwalk around the Grand Prismatic, you can feel the warmth of a steam room radiating around you as a cool breeze floats by. My son said he felt hot, cold and wet all at the same time. The sulfur smell around the geysers also makes for rotten egg and fart jokes galore.
Try to arrive at the Midway Geyser Basin parking lot to view the Grand Prismatic before 10 a.m., advises Rick Hoeninghausen of Yellowstone National Park Lodges. Because Yellowstone traffic can be difficult to predict, we arrived later in the day, but were able to park down the road and walk. Since seeing most of the sites around Yellowstone involves a lot of driving, it was a nice break to take a short hike.
The Fountain Paint Pots in the Lower Geyser Basin simmer a hyper-color dance of blue, green and gold. Yellowstone Lake, the highest altitude lake on the continent, is a serene spot to enjoy a picnic lunch.
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is a 20-mile gorge with two thundering waterfalls. Hoeninghausen told us most visitors don’t make it far from the boardwalks, but there are plenty of hikes to take if you’re up for it. You can rent bear spray from one of the general stores.
Some of the biggest thrills in Yellowstone include spotting wildlife. Visitors love to compare notes on what they’ve seen, including bears, wolves, bison, elk, badgers and fox. Hayden and Lamar Valleys tend to be the best places within the park to view wildlife. Early morning and late evening hours are the most active.
In the summer of 2021, more than 5,000 bison were counted within Yellowstone. You’re likely to see these 1,000- 2,000-pound chocolate-colored mammals all around the park. Elk are also abundant with more than 15,000 roaming the park. Thirteen wolf packs currently call Yellowstone home. Bears tend to be the animal most people are on the lookout for. My family had the great pleasure of spotting a cinnamon-colored bear close to the road.
Often, when there’s a lot of cars stopped and cameras out, it means wildlife is viewable. Please remember to keep your distance, 100 yards for bears and at least 25 yards for other animals.
Where to stay and eat in Yellowstone
There are many lodging and camping options within Yellowstone National Park as well as in the surrounding towns, such as Gardiner, Montana, (which is currently recovering from the flooding) and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, (near Grand Teton National Park).
My family stayed at Canyon Lodge, in the center of the park’s figure eight roadway system. Canyon Lodge is currently closed, but at the time of our visit, it provided easy access to most of the park, and was a modern, clean and comfortable place to crash after hours of exploring in the fresh air. Check online for lodging options by season. It’s wise to reserve far in advance.
Yellowstone offers several dining rooms, delis and gift shops serving sandwiches and ice cream. Check ahead for availability. Some require reservations in advance. Bringing a cooler with drinks and snacks is always a good idea for traveling families to keep hanger at bay.
We closed out our Yellowstone trip with a chuckwagon cookout. Two horses, named Nip and Tuck, pulled our covered wagon through sagebrush flats to an open-air steak dinner accompanied by campfire songs. While a visit to Yellowstone involves a lot of driving and sightseeing, our kids (ages 11 and 13) appreciated the grandeur more than I expected.
Getting to Yellowstone
Road tripping is a popular way to get to Yellowstone. Decide whether you’d like to drive from home or fly into Yellowstone, Bozeman, Jackson Hole or Billings, for example. My family chose to fly in and out of Billings, Montana, so that we could drive the Beartooth Highway, known as one of the most scenic drives in America.
The Beartooth is generally open Memorial Day through mid-September, weather permitting, and takes you into the northeast entrance of Yellowstone, through Cody, Wyoming, and the cute mountain town of Red Lodge, Montana.
The northeast Yellowstone entrance is currently closed as a result of the flooding; yet you should definitely put this wow-worthy drive on your list for future trips. Known for sandstone Rimrocks surrounding the city, Billings offers outdoor adventure and impressive eats. We also stayed a few days in Cody, Wyoming, a gateway town to Yellowstone with Wild West history, known as Buffalo Bill’s Town in the Rockies.
Here are our recommendations for each:
Fun things to do with kids
One of our favorite things to do in Billings was rent bikes from The Spoke Shop and cruise around the Rimrocks. We started at Swords Park, where there’s a wonderful overlook of the city, and zoomed down to Boothill Cemetery for a slice of history after a downhill glide. Numerous hiking opportunities exist all over Billings, including Phipps Park, Dover Park, Zimmerman Park and Four Dances Trail, which offers views over the Yellowstone River, of Downtown Billings, and on clear days, peaks of the Northern Rockies.
Bitter Creek Outfitters is a family-owned horse ranch with spectacular reviews that offers guided horseback trail rides. Catch a Billings Mustangs ball game or visit the wolves, sloth and red panda at ZooMontana. Take a scenic drive to Pompeys Pillar National Monument and see if you can spot William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s signature in the sandstone. View prehistoric rock painting at Pictograph State Park. If there’s rain in the forecast or you simply need a break from the sun, the kids can literally climb the walls at Steepworld Climbing & Fitness. Then bounce in the waves at Reef Indoor Water Park, the largest indoor water park in Montana.
Where to stay and eat
The Northern Hotel in the center of downtown Billings is modern, upscale and within walking distance to many fantastic restaurants, including Bernie’s Diner downstairs. Go wild and order the Vacation Breakfast from Bernie’s — it’s chocolate cake and a milkshake! Big Dipper Ice Cream is across the street, which meant my family visited several times. I had to try the black licorice and cardamon flavors. My kids went for white mint Oreo and huckleberry.
Our most frequent breakfast choice was Stella’s Kitchen and Bakery, which serves breakfast all day including huge, fresh cinnamon rolls. The Fieldhouse’s Challah French Toast topped with whipped cream made my son’s eyes roll back in his head. The Sassy Biscuit is another fantastic morning meal, offering a variety of sweet and savory options.
For dinner, we recommend The Marble Table, which opened in 2020 and was a James Beard best new restaurant nominee. Walker’s Grill is commonly referred to as one of the best restaurants in Billings. Many dishes are inspired by the chef’s parents and friends. Buffalo Block Prime Steakhouse serves aged steaks and is located in a hotel that was a popular hangout for Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane.
Fun things to do with kids
Wild West showman Buffalo Bill founded the town of Cody, Wyoming. Visit the Buffalo Bill Center of the West for five museums on the American West, where you can learn about Native American culture, famous cowgirls and cowboys, see live birds of prey and Western art exhibits. The Buffalo Bill Dam was the largest dam in the country until the Hoover Dam was built. Today, it’s a National Civil Engineering Landmark. It offers breathtaking views of the river, reservoir and surrounding mountains. You can also drive by on a Cody Trolley Tour, which offers a lay of the land with a side of history and silly jokes.
Whitewater rafting the Red Rock Canyon of the Shoshone with Wyoming River Trips was hands down our favorite adventure in Cody. With Class I to III rapids, depending on seasonal water levels, it’s about an hour-long paddle that slathered huge smiles across all our faces from start to finish. The kids hooted and cheered as water doused them in the raft (splash suits and life jackets provided).
The Cody Nite Rodeo is the longest running and only nightly rodeo, running June-August, in the world. See how long each brave cowboy or cowgirl can hang on. Catch a few chuckles from the rodeo clown and the kids’ event, where children are encouraged to come into the stadium and run around in the dirt with calves.
Drop by Old Trail Town for an authentic look at the Old West. Frontier buildings from the 1890s, like the saloon Butch Cassidy’s Hole-In-The-Wall-Gang used to frequent, along with thousands of historic artifacts are on display. Visit Jeremiah Johnston in the cemetery, with a backdrop of the mountains and big, blue sky. Heart Mountain Interpretive Center is an award-winning National Historic Landmark Site at the former Heart Mountain Camp where Japanese Americans were unjustly confined during World War II. The eye-opening exhibits are from the perspectives of the internees. Their perseverance and positive attitudes are inspiring.
Where to stay and eat
Opened in 2021, the Hampton Inn & Suites in Cody is a great place to overnight. Spacious rooms and suites, plus an indoor pool and free hot breakfast make this new hotel perfect for a family getaway.
Trailhead Restaurant served up our favorite meal in Cody. With wood-fired pizzas, pasta, plus steaks and burgers from Wyoming ranches, you simply can’t go wrong. The Cody Cattle Company dishes up unlimited family-style dinners with a live show. Clapping, singing, dancing and laughing are pretty much guaranteed. Dine at Michael’s Tacos for real-deal, authentic Mexican eats. Millstone Pizza Company & Brewery has an arcade downstairs, which is a huge hit with the kids.
Find the latest Cody travel updates on their website.
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