10 Things to Do with Kids at Yellowstone

By Staff ,

Children on the boardwalk at the Grand Prismatic Spring. Photo by Kate Reigel

Family vacation? Find fun for all ages with these kid-friendly activities in and around the park including hiking, boat rides, and rafting.

1. Become a Junior Ranger

Gilaine Spoto leading program at Madison Junior Ranger Station. Photo by NPS Jim Peaco

The National Park System’s excellent Junior Ranger programs teaches kids (and adults) all about the park’s history, plants, and animals through fun activities. When children complete the minimum number of activities, they earn an official Junior Ranger badge and applause from real park rangers. Pick up a $3 activity booklet (there are different ones for different age groups) at any visitor center.

2. See the Geysers

Kids will marvel at the spectacle of superheated water erupting skyward from geysers—not to mention boiling mudpots, hissing steam vents, and brightly colored hot springs. Upper Geyser Basin contains the highest concentration of thermal features, including Old Faithful, so catching at least on eruption is guaranteed. Most kids can handle the short walk on flat boardwalks through the majority of the basin. Other child-friendly stops include Norris Geyser Basin, the park’s hottest basin, and Midway Geyser Basin, home to the world’s largest hot spring.

3. Go Camping

Nothing beats a night spent roasting marshmallows, telling campfire tales, and sleeping under the stars. Get prime family bonding time with a night (or three) at one of Yellowstone’s 12 developed campgrounds; options range from large campgrounds with full services to primitive, tent-only sites. Some are first-come, first-served, but reservations will ensure you nab a spot to pitch your tent. Don’t miss the evening campground programs at some sites, where rangers lead fascinating programs on a variety of topics (available at Canyon, Fishing Bridge, Bridge Bay, Grant Village, Mammoth, Indian Creek, Tower, and Norris).

4. Take a Hike

Turn the kids loose on one of Yellowstone’s 900 miles of trail to enjoy the wild landscape up close (and burn off some energy). Take the youngest hikers on shorter strolls, such as the 2-mile Yellowstone Lake Overlook trip from West Thumb Geyser Basin or the 1.2-mile hike to Trout Lake. Elementary-age kids will love Riddle Lake (5 miles) or the Lost Lake Loop (4 miles). Older children and teens should try the Lone Star Geyser Trail (4.8 miles) to see a backcountry spout or the climb up 10,243-foot Mt. Washburn (5 or 6.2 miles, depending on starting point).

5. Ride a Bike

Road cycling at Yellowstone is best for older kids, as sharing the road with traffic can be tricky. But two dirt roads are open for mountain bikes and see much less car traffic, making them ideal for two-wheeled family fun. Pick up Blacktail Plateau Drive for a 7-mile cruise through forests and meadows, or try the 5-mile gravel Old Gardiner Road through excellent pronghorn and elk habitat. You can also rent bicycles in the Old Faithful area. Ride the road alongside the Upper Geyser Basin or Fountain Freight Road behind the Midway Geyser Basin.

6. Ride a Horse

What kid doesn’t love a chance to hop in the saddle? Yellowstone’s open plains and quiet forests contain great horseback riding trails. Park concessionaire Xanterra runs one- and two-hour rides out of the Tower-Roosevelt and Canyon areas for children ages 8 and up. Even more fun: Sign up for the Old West Dinner Cookout, where you’ll ride horses (or a covered wagon) to an Old West cookout served by singing cowboys.

7. Attend a Ranger Program

Many of Yellowstone’s free ranger-led programs are geared specifically for kids. Activities might include wildlife talks, games, hikes, and science programs. Check the park newspaper for an up-to-date schedule, or inquire at any visitor center.

8. Take a Boat Ride

See the park from a new angle when you take to the water. Xanterra operates a one-hour scenic cruise on Yellowstone Lake (reduced ticket prices for kids 11 and under) several times a day, plus offers guided charter boat trips and boat rentals. For a sportier option, slip a canoe or kayak into Yellowstone Lake, Lewis Lake, or Shoshone Lake (an even bigger adventure, as Shoshone Lake is in the backcountry and requires a longer paddle to reach).

9. Go Whitewater Rafting

The Yellowstone, Gallatin, Madison, and Snake Rivers offer a variety of rafting adventures, from quiet floats to high-intensity whitewater action. The Yellowstone River is a great option for young kids (5 and up), while the Snake has some more challenging stretches for older kids and adrenaline junkies. Bonus: Many whitewater rafting operators also offer ziplines, a classic kid favorite.

10. Watch for Wildlife

Yellowstone is wildlife heaven, and your chances of spotting many different species are excellent on a visit to the park. The big mammals of the park are particularly thrilling for kids: You may see grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, bison, and elk in the open meadows or forests. For the best chances to see wolves and other big animals, fill the thermos with hot chocolate and head to the Lamar Valley at daybreak. Look for park volunteers with spotting scopes—they’ll let you take a peek at whatever they’ve seen.