How to Plan a Yellowstone Vacation with Kids

There’s just something so magical about Yellowstone National Park. We spent time there in July 2015 and I would go back in a second. A Yellowstone vacation is an experience worthy of any bucket list.

Yellowstone National Park Vacation

Yellowstone is truly awe-inspiring and a place that every child should see. To help you plan a Yellowstone vacation, I’ve compiled a guide to help you plan out a trip to this national park, including what to see and do, and of course, where to stay. 

When to Start Planning a Yellowstone Vacation

As you can imagine, a Yellowstone vacation is extremely popular, especially with families. According to the National Park Service, Yellowstone National Park is the fifth most popular national park in the U.S. More than 4.1 million visitors came to see Old Faithful in 2018.

That noted, if you’re keen to take your family on a Yellowstone park vacation, you want to begin planning as soon as you know your travel dates. By this I mean you’ll want to book your lodging or campground as soon as possible.

Some stays, especially those inside the park, book up a solid year in advance. Of course, there are plenty of hotels near Yellowstone National Park, but you’ll want to pounce on those too. A hotel near Yellowstone National Park won’t be impossible to find, but a Yellowstone park vacation is truly a bucket list experience.

Before you go, I highly suggest that you buy an America the Beautiful pass for $80. This annual pass allows you – and everyone in your vehicle – entrance into national parks that charge an entrance fee. Considering a seven-day pass to enter Yellowstone National Park alone is $35, you’ll quickly get your money’s worth if you visit two or three parks in a year.

As a side note, don’t forget about the Every Kid in a Park pass. It’s free pass for fourth graders that allows fourth graders and all family members with the passholder free entrance into national parks. I did that last year when my son was in fourth grade. It’s an amazing deal.

How to Get to Yellowstone National Park 

We traveled to Yellowstone National Park in July 2015 as part of a massive cross-country road trip adventure. We drove nearly six hours from Boise, Idaho. There’s a major airport in Boise, and to be honest, there’s a lot to see and do from Boise to Yellowstone, including Bruneau Dunes State Park, Shoshone Falls and the (maybe) world-famous Idaho Potato Museum. 

Idaho Potato Museum

There are also several small, regional airports that are access points to Yellowstone National Park. Some airports, like West Yellowstone, Montana (WYS), offer seasonal summer service, while other airports offer more frequent service. These include Bozeman and Billings, Montana, Jackson and Cody, Wyoming, and Idaho Falls, Idaho. Expect to drive at least one to two hours from these airports to reach the national park.

There are five entrances to Yellowstone National Park, which spans more than two million acres. These include South (from Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park), West (from West Yellowstone), North (from Gardiner), Northeast (from Cooke City and Silver Gate) and East (from Cody). The most popular entry points are from the south and west.

Where to Stay on Your Yellowstone Vacation

There are a wide variety of Yellowstone National Park lodging options both inside and outside this national park. I highly recommend staying very close to the park entrance if you aren’t planning to stay in one of the historic lodges at the park.

Yellowstone Lodge

Yellowstone Lodges

Yellowstone National Park Lodges operates a whopping nine lodging options inside the park, including hotel-style stays and cozy Yellowstone cabins. More than 2,000 rooms are available at any given time, but given the popularity of the park, they get snapped up very quickly.

Lake Yellowstone Hotel & Cottages
This historic property is set on the shore of Yellowstone Lake. On-site dining options include a formal dining room, a quick-service deli and a cafeteria. Take a one-hour guided cruise on Yellowstone Lake aboard the Lake Queen. Click here for more details or to book a room.

Canyon Lodge & Cabins
This three-star lodge is a short drive from Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, on the east side of the park. This sprawling family-friendly property has two sit-down restaurants, as well as a stable for one-hour horseback rides. Click here for more details or to book a room.

Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel & Cabins
This stay near the park’s north entrance is a short walk from Mammoth Hot Springs. Book a premium hotel room or one of multiple styles of cabins, including hot tub cabins. Dining is casual in the Dining Room and Terrace Grill. Click here for more details or to book a room.

Old Faithful Snow Lodge & Cabins
Completed in 1999, this is the newest of the in-park lodges at Yellowstone. Grab a quick bite at the on-site Bear Paw Deli, then make the short walk to Old Faithful. Rent a bike at the lodge to explore the area on two wheels. Click here for more details or to book a room.

Old Faithful Inn
This national historic landmark is the most requested lodge in the park. Take a free tour of the Old Faithful Inn, which is widely considered the most famous structure in national parks. Tours set off four times daily in high season. Click here for more details or to book a room.

Grant Village
Named for Ulysses S. Grant (the sitting U.S. president when Yellowstone became the first national park), this waterfront hotel is a short drive from Abyss Pool, the emerald green hot spring in the West Thumb Geyser Basin. Click here for more details or to book a room.

Lake Lodge Cabins
Enjoy rocking chair views of Yellowstone Lake from the large porch of the main lodge. Just behind the lodge are 186 spacious cabins, each with a private bathroom. Rent a motorboat at Bridge Bay Marina to get out on the water. Click here for more details or to book a room.

Old Faithful Lodge Cabins
This historic complex of Yellowstone cabins is situated near the Old Faithful Inn, boasting spectacular views of world-famous Old Faithful. Enjoy casual dining and take-away snacks at the on-site cafeteria and bake shop. Click here for more details or to book a room.  

Roosevelt Lodge & Cabins
Situated near Tower Falls, rustic cabins, family-style dining and front porch rockers take guests back to the Old West. An on-site corral organizes horseback riding, wagon rides and old-fashioned cowboy cookouts. Click here for more details or to book a room.

Quick note that if you’re planning a trip to Yellowstone National Park in winter, just two of the in-park lodges are open to show off the best of the park in winter, Old Faithful Snow Lodge & Cabins and Mammoth Hot Springs & Cabins.

You can also book winter vacation packages, like the five-night Old Faithful Winter Expedition that includes hiking, snowshoeing and snowcoach rides. These winter packages are popular among those eager to see the steaming thermal features and snow-covered native wildlife by way of guided Yellowstone tours.

Winter Yellowstone
Photo Credit: Xanterra Travel Collection

If you plan to visit in winter, you may also want to check out the Yellowstone Old Faithful Snowcoach Tour (from $325 per person) and the Yellowstone Old Faithful Full-Day Snowmobile Tour (from $325 per person). Both are incredible ways to experience the grandness of this national park during the stillness of winter.

Yellowstone Campgrounds 

For those eager to sleep under a massive sky full of stars, Yellowstone National Park has 12 campgrounds with more than 2,000 sites. Only five campgrounds take advance reservations, including:

  • Bridge Bay (near Yellowstone Lake)
  • Canyon (at Canyon Village, near Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River)
  • Fishing Bridge RV Park (near Yellowstone River, but closed until late-August 2020)
  • Grant Village (on the south end of Yellowstone Lake)
  • Madison (16 miles north of Old Faithful)

Yellowstone-Canyon Campground

All other in-park campgrounds are first-come, first-served. Given the popularity of this national park, these campgrounds are often booked up by as early as 10 am each day.

  • Indian Creek (a quiet campground 8 miles south of Mammoth Hot Springs)
  • Mammoth (near the park’s north entrance; open year-round)
  • Norris (centrally-located near Norris Geyser Basin)
  • Pebble Creek (situated near the northeast park entrance)
  • Tower Fall (on the road to Dunraven Pass)
  • Lewis Lake (8 miles from the south entrance)
  • Slough Creek (in Lamar Valley; fantastic wildlife watching)

West Yellowstone Lodging & Campgrounds 

If you can’t stay inside the park, the next best option is to book a stay in West Yellowstone, Montana. It’s just a few miles from the west entrance, which is the closest entrance to popular Yellowstone attractions, like Old Faithful, Upper Geyser Basin and Fountain Paint Pot.

West Yellowstone

There are many places to stay in Yellowstone, as well as restaurants, gas stations and grocery stores. It may be small, but it’s a full-service town. According to TripAdvisor, there are more than 85 Yellowstone hotels, motels, cabins, inns and RV parks in West Yellowstone, Montana.

Among top-reviewed stays in West Yellowstone are:

Beyond hotels, there are a variety of campgrounds and glamping stays in West Yellowstone, including two KOAs. We stayed in a deluxe cabin with incredible views at the Yellowstone Park / West Gate KOA. On-site, look for bike rentals, mini golf, a playground and an indoor pool. There’s even a Koffee Kabin for a morning boost. Plus, a fudge shop.

Yellowstone KOA Cabin

This KOA should not be confused with the Yellowstone Park / Mountainside KOA (we made this mistake during our stay in West Yellowstone, oops). This KOA is on the same road and just a few miles closer to the park’s west entrance. Here you’ll also find a pizzeria. Yum.

If you’re thinking about where to stay in Yellowstone and glamping pops into your head, look to Yellowstone Under Canvas in West Yellowstone, MT. Just 10 minutes from the park’s west entrance, you’ll find luxury canvas tents, organic bath products, a fire pit and s’mores. Order boxed lunches from on-site restaurant, Embers, to take into the park with you.

Things to Do on Your Yellowstone Vacation 

As you can imagine, there are a lot of things to do on a Yellowstone National Park vacation. For starters, here are a few must-do’s to add to your Yellowstone vacation planner:

Let Bubbling Mud Pots Entertain You

Stop to watch bubbling, blooping mud pots throughout Yellowstone, including Fountain Paint Pot and Artists Paint Pots. We loved watching the mud pots bubble. It’s a short loop walk around the mud pots, which can easily be done with small kids in tow.

Watch Old Faithful Erupt 

Old Faithful

This is a must, especially for first-time visitors. Park at the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center and check inside for the day’s predicted eruption times. We arrived just as Old Faithful was starting to erupt and we saw the display again about an hour later. Old Faithful erupts every 35 to 120 minutes.

Explore Upper Geyser Basin 

From Old Faithful, walk along the one-mile boardwalk through Upper Geyser Basin to check out a variety of hot springs and geysers, including Morning Glory Pool. Take one of the short hiking trails that branch off the boardwalk to explore the geysers from a new vantage point.

Be Awed by the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone 

While Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon may not be as large as the Grand Canyon in Arizona, it’s still a must-stop. Park near North Rim Drive and take the Brink of Lower Falls trail. It’s short, but very steep. However, it’s worth the walk for the views of the Lower Falls.

Become a Young Scientist 

At the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center, kids can check out a Young Scientist Toolkit, which includes a thermometer, stopwatch and more, to investigate the area around Old Faithful. Also, pick up and complete an activity booklet to earn a Young Scientist patch or key chain (for kids ages five and up).

Get to the Park Early for Wildlife Watching 

Yellowstone is well-known for its wildlife, including elk, moose, bison and bald eagles. Arrive at the park early when the animals are most active and bring along binoculars for some prime wildlife viewing. We saw a bison as we were driving into the park (he came within a few feet of our car!).

Stamp Your Passport (Multiple Times) 

First, buy a Passport to Your National Parks. You can buy one online for $8.95 or you can buy one at the park visitors center or bookstore (same price). Then, keep your eyes open for cancellation stamps. There are a handful of stamps, including stamps that can be found at the Old Faithful Visitor Center and the Canyon Visitor Center.

Become a Junior Ranger 

My kids love earning badges and patches at various national parks through the Junior Ranger program. You can pick up an activity booklet at any visitors center inside the park (while booklets are free at most national parks, they’re $3 each at Yellowstone). Complete a certain number of activities depending on your child’s age and receive a pretty nice patch.

I hope these Yellowstone vacation ideas are useful to you as you plan out your own fantastic Yellowstone vacation as a family. I hope you have an amazing experience you won’t soon forget.

Yellowstone Vacation Planning