Heading into the mountains of northwest Wyoming, you can’t prepare yourself for the beauty you’re about to find: majestic views, seas of trees, rivers winding through steep canyons. It’s everything you’d expect from an ultrafamous national park and more.
But here’s the thing about Yellowstone: it’s massive. With over 3,000 square miles inside its borders, there is so much—almost too much—to see. Animals roam throughout varied ecosystems: alpine forests and meadows, freshwater lakes, grasslands, even taiga. This, coupled with the high levels of geothermal activity, will have toddlers enchanted with the park.
Rivers and Canyons
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone on the eastern side of the park is definitely a sight to behold. There are breathtaking views from vantage points all along the 20-mile canyon, but Inspiration Point, Artist Point and Lookout Point are all pretty exceptional spots from which to witness the grandeur. The steep sloping sides of the canyon are painted with mineral deposits from steam vents that form streaks of pinks, reds, yellows and whites. The blue-green water of the Yellowstone River winds through the bottom of the canyon, adding to the picturesque atmosphere of the area. As you take a peek over the railing, encourage little ones to search for hawks, eagles and ospreys that soar overhead and dip down into the canyon.
While little ones will enjoy spotting the colors in the rocks, they will be especially thrilled with the waterfalls that cascade into the canyon. Start with the less-impressive Upper Falls, a short but wide 109-foot drop. Move on to the Lower Falls for an incredible view that will impress even the smallest of children. The 308-foot drop plummets down into the river below, with the colorful canyon walls framing it on both sides. Artist Point is a great place for family snapshots with the waterfall behind you.
Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon is, of course, smaller in size than Arizona’s, but the vastly different structure and coloring make it a destination you won’t want to miss.
The geothermal activity within Yellowstone lends itself to a huge number of hot springs, steam vents and geysers.
Hot springs are very common throughout the park, but most are found in the west side in the Upper Geyser and Norris Geyser basins. Superheated water is pushed up from below the surface, causing bubbling when it mixes with the cooler water on top. Toddlers will have their eyes glued to the bright colors created by the microorganisms living in the water. A great spot to witness the variety of colors, sizes and shapes of the hot springs is the Artist Paint Pots. A short hike will take you along a wooden boardwalk that winds through the hot springs and some mud pots. Just make sure to watch your toddler and don’t stray from the path; with geothermal activity, it’s important not to walk on unstable ground to prevent injuries and burns.
Yellowstone also has plenty of steam vents, also known as fumaroles. In these, the water has boiled away before coming to the surface so all that is released is steam. A stop at the Calcite Springs Overlook will show you this process in the canyon walls right by the riverside.
The real treat, though, is Yellowstone’s geysers—half of the world’s geysers are located here. Like hot springs, water is pushed toward the surface but it can’t circulate. Once enough pressure builds, the geysers shoot water and steam up into the air, providing quite a show for young and old alike. Hands down the most famous is Old Faithful. With an eruption of over 100 feet lasting up to five minutes, and an average of 17 eruptions each day, crowds are sure to gather. If you’re lucky like I was, the sun will hit it at the right time and produce a rainbow! For fun, before you go, show your little ones how scientists predict the eruptions.
Old Faithful is located in the Upper Geyser Basin, along with some other notable geysers, but there are other spots to catch them as well. Norris Geyser Basin holds a slew of unpredictable geysers that can make for some fun guesswork and the Midway Geyser Basin is home to the rainbow-colored Grand Prismatic Spring. The Lower Geyser Basin is especially exciting with geysers going off on both sides of a wooden boardwalk as well as some hot springs along the same path.
If you have the chance to stop and see some wildlife roaming about, take it. Because of Yellowstone’s varied ecosystems, numerous species live within the park.
Buffalo, also called bison, often draw a crowd in the plains areas. There are two herds, one living around the northern Lamar Valley and the other near central Hayden Valley. Although it’s unwise to approach the animals, watching from your car can be a real thrill for toddlers. The massive creatures wander as they please, crossing in front of cars and walking down the side of the road. Watch as they roll in the dirt or flick their tails to swish the flies away. If you go during the late spring or summertime, you’ll probably spot quite a few babies too!
Another exciting animal that can be found among the trees is elk. There are around six herds of elk within Yellowstone and they’re most abundant during the summer months; in the winter, all but one herd migrate outside of the park. The branching antlers atop their heads are sometimes covered in a fuzzy skin known as velvet.
In the grasslands, keep your eyes peeled for camouflaging pronghorn antelope. Their tan-colored bodies blend tend to blend in with the high grasses, but their white bellies and the males’ black facial markings make them a little easier to see. They nearly always travel in groups so if you spot one, there are sure to be others nearby.
Although they’re not seen nearly as often, Yellowstone is also home to grizzly bears, bighorn sheep and, as of the 1990s, wolves. Easier to spot are the endless species of birds that nest within the park, including trumpeter swans, bald eagles and peregrine falcons.
So remind toddlers to keep their eyes open: whether they’re searching for animals, geysers or waterfalls, there is plenty to see at Yellowstone.