A Parent’s Story: Camping and Hiking with My Kids in Yellowstone

Yellowstone Camping

Camping at high altitude with young children and friends who have never pooped in the woods could be a wonderful adventure – or a spectacular disaster. Llamas to the rescue!

We have always enjoyed hiking and camping in the Yellowstone backcountry.

There was a time, in our not-so-distant, pre-kids past, when we’d carry 60-pound backpacks into the Wind River Mountains. My feet would sink an inch into the ground when my husband helped lift my pack onto my back. We’d hike 13 miles the first day over trails with names like Jackass Pass. One guidebook boasted that even a jackass couldn’t (read: wouldn’t) travel over the pass. We’d hike all the way to our desired destination the first day, spend the second day bagging a peak or two, and then hike all the way out on the third day. It was hard work that resulted in fatigue and lots of blisters. But, we were always better for it.

We often saw llamas on these trips. It was usually when we were hiking up out of Bill’s Park or up the saddle on the way to Stough Creek Basin. It was great marketing and timing on these outfitters’ parts. (We often wondered if the outfitter waited at the top of these steep trails and sent his troops down as hikers started their climbs. Now that’s what I call contextual marketing!)

Following one of those trips, we wondered, why not hire someone to carry our loads? That way we could hike further, and explore more terrain with fresh legs. The someone we hired was a llama.

That was seven years ago. Since then we’ve become parents. We are still making these trips to Yellowstone.

Llamas to the Rescue

When we were expecting our first son, several people exclaimed, “Congratulations!” followed quickly by: “Your life will never be the same…”

What most of them were really saying was that we’d never get to do the things we enjoyed anymore. Of course we were determined to prove them wrong. And thanks in large part to llamas, we have. Llamas are the “ace up our sleeve” when trying to figure out how we’re going to get ourselves and two truckloads of gear into the backcountry for a few days.

Two years ago, when our oldest son was 16 months old and I was pregnant with our second, we took llamas 10 miles into the Winds for a three-day trip. My husband, who’s normally a laid-back, happy-go-lucky guy, would have pitched a fit if I bungee-corded an “exersaucer” and bouncy chair to his backpack. Who wouldn’t?

Llamas, that’s who.

Still, knowing what gear and how much of it to pack to keep the young ones happy at camp is a challenge. And as most parents will agree, if your kids are happy, you’re happy.

Last year, we invited our good friends and neighbors, the Thorens, to join us on our traditional backcountry trip. Bruce and Sabrina have four kids, who at the time ranged in age from 3-1/2 to 14.

It’s always a risk to do something like a backcountry camping trip with good friends for the first time. You don’t know how you’ll all get along at 11,000 feet, with oxygen deprivation and fatigue setting in.

Add to that our 5-month-old son who wasn’t sleeping through the night. What if he cried all night and kept our friends, tired from hiking several miles at high altitude, awake?

We’d have to tell them about pooping in the woods, and would they still go if we said they’d need to pack winter coats for an August camping trip? These were some of our concerns.

Yet, what a great opportunity. We could share one of our favorite traditions with a wonderful family and some of our closest friends. We went for it.

As usual, the llamas didn’t disappoint. Although llamas typically hum, they didn’t whine, as we proceeded to fill 10 panniers with our gear, which included the Thorens’ “3-bedroom” tent, which is the size of a small condo, and their king-sized, self-inflating air mattress. (For not being experienced backcountry campers, our friends knew how to pack. We may have taught them about pooping in the woods, but they taught us about luxury accommodations.)

Because of the continuing drought conditions and resulting low supply of food for the wild animals that live here, our preferred destination had seen a lot of bear activity the week prior to our trip. So, the night before our trip, we changed our plans. We decided on Island Lake and Upper Silas Canyon.

Our Alpine Camp

Our camp was situated at about 10,500 feet. There was only one other group camped at Island Lake. The first morning was cold, clear and beautiful.

There are a lot of rocks scattered about the landscape in the Wind River Mountains, a result of glacial activity. Rocks, perfectly tiered and near our camp served as “thinking rocks” for each of us as we sat looking at the lake that served as a mirror to the massive granite wall that faced us during our first sunrise.

There was a fire restriction so our cooking was limited to gas stoves, but with llamas to haul for us, we didn’t go hungry. We feasted on stuff you would never carry on your back, such as Chef Boyardee Beefaroni. Okay, we didn’t eat that well, but the point is, we could have. We did enjoy pasta, beef chili, hot chocolate, and during the cold mornings and evenings, strong coffee in our backcountry bistros.

Seeing Certain Animal Tracks for the First Time

On the second day, we hiked a pass 1,000 feet above our camp to a point where we could see chiseled vertical cirques and teal-colored lakes. The pass is quite exposed, with only rocks scattered about the tundra-like landscape. Our oldest son, Wolf, who was 2-1/2 years old at the time, served led the way as our family scanned the ground for animal tracks.

According to our son, mountain lions, beavers, bighorn sheep, elk, bears, giraffes and even elephants called this place home! (Jerry and I verified signs of all the animals previously named except for the ones usually found in Africa.)

During the adventure, we also fished a little, read stories aloud in our tent, sang “brown bear, brown bear” with the kids, had great conversation, and relaxed.

On our final day we awoke to a temperature of just 20 degrees. A dense fog hovered over the lake and our camp. Condensation covered our tents. If only we could have had a campfire that morning!

Unsure of what kind of weather the day would bring, we high-tailed it out of there, stopping only long enough for the Thorens’ youngest, Jason, to catch a fish at Upper Silas Lake.

Although the footprints we left have long disappeared from the landscape, the memories of the adventure remain vivid in my mind.

To all of those parents who think having kids means you have to give up the things you enjoy most: think again.

You won’t cover as much ground, and you certainly won’t get there as fast as you used to, but you’ll see nature through the eyes of your children.

It’s been good for us to slow down and pay better attention. And, I’m quite certain we would not have seen elephant and giraffe tracks in the Wind River Range had it not been for our boys, and their valuable tendency to imagine!

To rent llamas or go on a llama-outfitted trip, we recommend you contact Lander Llama Company, in Lander, Wyo. Go to LanderLlama.com.


Shelli Johnson enjoys exploring Yellowstone country and writing about it for YellowstonePark.com