Best Places to Go and Things to do with Kids in Each of Yellowstone’s 14 Road Sections
Updated: Mar 21, 2019
Most kids are doers and want to be up and, on the go, exploring and experiencing, especially if they get a chance to do so in a land of wonder like Yellowstone. As a kid and living just over an hour away from the West Entrance to Yellowstone, each year our family made numerous trips to the Park and did so during each season of the year – spring, summer, fall, and winter. As expected, over the years we visited all the major iconic wonders like Old Faithful and the historic Old Faithful Inn, the various geyser basins, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone with the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone Lake, countless historical and geological sites, and the list goes on and on.
No doubt that while on your trip to Yellowstone you will want to take in some, if not most of these landmark features. However, in this land of enchantment there is so much more exploring and adventuring to do that kids will love, and parents will too. We are confident that the many hidden gems of Yellowstone that are available to all, if you chose to explore them, will prove to create some of the fondest memories you will experience during your trip to Yellowstone National Park.
Now with a family of my own, I have kept the tradition alive with multiple family adventures to the park. We continue to enjoy the old favorites, and yet have also discovered many fun and exciting places that our family loves to go for adventures. Yellowstone is our sacred spot, our escape to the great outdoors, our place of memories not a few.
So, in this article (a trip down memory lane for me) we will present for your consideration, several sites and experiences, we feel you and your family will enjoy on your trip to Yellowstone National Park. For your convenience, and to help you plan your trip, we have organized our top two choices for each of the 14 different road sections throughout the park. However, please know that there is way more than 28 “hidden gems” to be explored in the park. We hope these presented in this article will at least wet your whistle as you contemplate your next, or maybe first, trip to Yellowstone.
West Entrance to Madison
Two Ribbons Trail – a boardwalk adventure: This loop or point-to-point boardwalk trail (nice for strollers) is a lot of fun for young children. It is only .75 mile in length and takes you down to the river’s edge and returns by cutting a path through trees. The scenery is beautiful and makes for some fun photo ops. Along the boardwalk the river is wide and shallow and bordered by green grasses and shrubs with trees further back. Information signs along the way are fun for the kids to read.
The Spectacular Amphitheater at Madison Campground: While there are about 10 amphitheaters in the park, this amphitheater has a backdrop everyone in the family will love. National Park Mountain rises majestically in the background along with other caldera rim mountains, and Madison Valley sprawls for miles. On hot summer days the nearby Madison River is filled with kids running, jumping, and playing in the water. The “Campfire Programs” are a fun and enjoyable way to introduce kids to some of the unknown and yet fascinating background information of the park and its natural and cultural history. The programs, a different one almost every night, occur at 9:00pm (early season) or 9:30pm (late season) and last about 45 minutes. Dress warm and while seated on the log benches, look skyward on a clear night and show the kids the sky filled with the lights of distant stars.
Madison to Old Faithful
The Explosive Great Fountain Geyser at Firehole Lake Drive: This is our family’s favorite geyser in the park, and for good reason – its main eruption is explosive and comes when you least expect it, and you are seated much closer than when at Old Faithful. After a few what seems to be a few failed attempts, there is a quiet period making you think it failed to launch. Then suddenly and with great power and noise the geyser erupts like a shotgun blast shooting great amounts of water over 100 feet into the air. It can almost scare you if not prepared. Kids and adults thrill at the spectacular bursts. Listen to fellow onlookers and you will hear their wows, occasional screams, and other expressions of excitement - unless you yourself are making the noises - and that's more than OK.
You will need to have some patience for this experience as it is only somewhat predictable to within 1-2 hours, with intervals ranging between 9 to 15 hours apart. To get an idea of the next eruption time frame, check at the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center. We like to get there early, secure our seating, and enjoy chatting with fellow park visitors. You know, where you from, how is your vacation going, etc.
Grand Prismatic Overlook and Fairy Falls: While many choose to walk the boardwalk up to the Grand Prismatic Springs, we highly recommend that you choose the Grand Prismatic Overlook experience. From the overlook platform the Grand Prismatic Spring takes on a whole new and more breathtaking look, and the color schemes seem more vibrant. Continuing another 1 mile puts you at the base of Fairy Falls and a picturesque view of Fairy Creek falling over the edge of the Madison Plateau. This is a great hike for everyone with a very rewarding surprise at the trails end.
Old Faithful to West Thumb
Old Faithful and Historic Old Faithful Inn: Yes, I know, this is one of the major iconic landmarks in the park. However, kids love the 100-180-foot-high eruption of the geyser (and the waiting anticipation) and the grandeur of being inside the historic Old Faithful Inn. Kids love to climb as high up in the Old Faithful Inn as they are allowed, and we parents seem to enjoy some relaxation time in the many sofas and chairs scattered throughout the accessible floors. We also enjoy getting an ice cream and watching Old Faithful erupt from the Inn's back outside porch. It's makes for a nice combo.
Kepler Cascades: This beautiful waterfall cascades over 150 feet downward through a deep canyon ravine. I think the kids most like the overlook that is built to extend over the edge of the canyon wall. If you don't like heights this can be a bit intimidating. But, you are treated to a breathtaking view of the river below and the cascades in the distance.
West Thumb to South Entrance
Lewis Falls: This is a beautiful waterfall that spans the width of the river. Our kids love to hike up to and past the observation platform to see the brink of the falls, with us close by. as with so many places in the park, this can also provide another unique spot for a family photo op.
Moose Falls: The uniqueness of Moose Falls is that you can get right next to the falls, unlike most waterfalls in the park. Kids love the hike down from the parking lot to the falls as it has stone steps, dirt paths that wind sharply, and a place for a good photo op with the plunging falls in the background.
Madison to Norris
The Hidden Duck Rock and Waterfall: This is one of our family’s favorite places to spend a little time and take pictures of the kids in various poses. Out in the middle of the river is a large broad boulder supported below with a small base, compliments of water erosion over the years. The official name of the oddity is Duck Rock, as it kind of looks like a duck standing in the water. However, our kids have chosen to name the rock by what they think it looks like. Those names being Ballerina Rock, Balancing Rock, and most recently "The Fist". What will your kids choose to name this rock?
By the way, we enjoy helping our kids wade out through the shallow river (cold water) so we can get a picture of them with Duck Rock and the waterfalls in the background.
Enjoy the Artistry of Artists Paintpots: This short hike gives kids the chance to burn up some energy, climb terraced wooden stairs, scan from a lookout post, and most importantly watch as gases rise through the mud and sling it into the air - the mudpots. Yes, the kids get a little theatrical about the old slinging mud and enjoy when those mud projectiles travel far enough to hit the wooden observation decks. Is that the "artistic" part? Not sure.
Norris to Mammoth Hot Springs
Hiking Sheepeater Cliff Trail to Tukuarika Falls: Our kids love the hike to Tukuarika Falls. The trail itself is filled with adventures like having to hurdle over some fallen trees, maneuver around rocks, bend over to pass under thick willows that have grown over the trail forming a tunnel, and the nearly guaranteed sighting (and hearing of chirping) of yellow-bellied marmots that live in the sheepeater cliffs along the path. The waterfall is more of a steep dropping of the river as it runs through a narrowed chute. Keep a close eye on the kids at certain points on the trail that passes by the falls as it can be a steep drop to the water below.
Hoodoos: This part of the park is sometimes referred to as where the Flintstones lived. The Hoodoos are large travertine boulders that have broken away from Terrace Mountain located just west of the Hoodoos. Take the side road through some of the rocks for this little blast from the past. It can be a fun place to explore.
North Entrance to Mammoth Hot Springs
Taking a Dip at Boiling River Hot Springs: We like to think of Boiling River as a location to relax in a natural hot tub at the end of a day of exploring. It’s only a half mile level walk from the parking area and you arrive at the edge of Gardner River where a large hot spring mingles with the river. The warm water from the hot springs provides a stretch of water that is comfortably warm – a sort of wilderness jacuzzi that is surrounded by the beautiful outdoor scenery of Yellowstone. It is open throughout the year, except during times of high water in the spring.
Roosevelt Arch: Closed for decades, the doors to this landmark structure are now open to the public to walk inside the arch completed in 1903 and dedicated by then President Roosevelt. This too can be a place for a great photo op as our kids like to pose in the opened doorways for pics. Look for the date marker of the time capsule on the inner west side of the arch.
Mammoth Hot Springs to Tower-Roosevelt
Wraith Falls: Our kids love this trail to the falls as it passes through a flat meadow, over wooden bridges, and at the very last climbs up stone stairs to see a beautiful waterfall. Spring is the best time for this hike when lots of water fans out over the entire face of the falls . Be sure and look across the ravine to the other hillside and spot for yellow-bellied marmots cruising around the rocks and belting out their familiar chirps.
Petrified Tree: There are actually multiple “petrified tree forests” in Yellowstone, but this lone structure is the one that is easily accessible without a long hike, making it a unique place for kids to see the remnants of a once tree. As you are looking up at the petrified tree, if you turn around see if you can spot some other smaller petrified trees on the opposite hillside.
Tower-Roosevelt to Northeast Entrance
Confluence of Yellowstone and Lamar Rivers and Historical Landmark: If you want to show your kids the remnants of the first bridge ever to be built over the Yellowstone River, this is the place. A short hike (sometimes close to the canyon's edge so watch the kids) is all that is required to get you to the spot. The story of the place includes it being built for travelers (1871), burned and destroyed by Native American Indians, rebuilt by the U.S. Army, and eventually replaced. At the end of the trail is the confluence of the Yellowstone and Lamar Rivers.
Lamar Valley - The Serengeti of North America: This is the best place in the park to see a wide variety of wildlife. During a spring trip in 2012, and standing in a spot near the Lamar River and Soda Butte River confluence, we were able to see through our binoculars, when turning a 360° radius a grizzly bear, bison, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, pronghorn, and a badger. It was awesome. Bring your binoculars or spotting scope.
Tower-Roosevelt to Canyon Village
Tower fall and Ice Cream: The general store at Tower Fall is a nice place to stop, get the kids an ice cream treat, and take a short walk to the edge of Yellowstone Canyon and a look at Tower Fall as Tower Creek tumbles 132 feet over the edge of the canyon. If feeling adventurous, a steep and winding trail leads down to the river.
Cascade Lake: This is another relatively short (4.5 mile out-and-back trip) hike that leads you to a beautiful backcountry lake that is a great place to teach the kids fly fishing. There are several areas on the west side of the lake where they can fish from the shore. Native cutthroat trout are plentiful and grayling, a kind of pre-historic looking fish, are found in this lake. This trail will have some wet places into the summer season.
Norris to Canyon Village
Virginia Cascades Drive and the Devil’s Elbow: This drive is filled with spectacular views for all to enjoy and a piece of Yellowstone history where the stone retaining wall remnants of the old stage coach road and its amazingly sharp curves and switchbacks can be seen up close with a short, but steep, hike down to the location. From this location you have a great (literally right next to) view of the two-tiered cascades as they rush downward.
Virginia Cascades Meadow Fishing: This is located by a small picnic area and another location where you can take your kids fishing. Here they can literally walk right up to the stream’s edge and cast their fly line for the chance of hooking a brook or rainbow trout. Or, they can simply choose to play in the stream, look for the fish (visible in spots), or skip rocks. The stream is visible from the picnic area and makes for an enjoyable little stop at the end of the Virginia Cascades Drive.
Canyon Village to Fishing Bridge
Upper Falls of the Yellowstone: Kids of all ages love to feel the mechanical pounding sensation in their chest as the mighty Yellowstone River plunges over the edge of the cliff falling 109 feet to the canyon below. The overlook rock platform puts you literally just feet away from the brink. To get there only takes a short and fun walk, dropping just 75 feet in elevation from the parking lot to the rock overlook platform. Keep an eye on the kiddos.
LeHardy Rapids, Cutthroat Trout Migration & Harlequin Ducks: If you are in Yellowstone during the latter part of June and the month of July, you should visit this place. These rapids provide a unique and up-close view of native cutthroat trout as they leap up the rapids as part of their annual migration. We love to count the number of fish they see jump the rapids in a minute’s time frame. Another treat is that this place is where you are likely to see harlequin ducks standing atop the boulders that are spread out across the river.
West Thumb to Lake Village
Sand Point Picnic Area and the Beach: There are a few picnic areas in the park that come with some added amenities, and this is one of them. The picnic area is located in a wooded area, but a short walk down a well-marked trail takes you a beach on the shores of Yellowstone Lake. On this beach the sand is like what you would experience at the ocean, finely squishing between your toes. There is lots of room for the kids to run and play while mom and dad relax on "the beach".
Natural Bridge: The creativity of geology and the power of nature combine to create an edifice that is worth the 1.5 mile walk along an old abandoned road to the trailhead. Then a short, but upward climb, takes you to the top of the Natural Bridge and a great place for family photos, taken looking downward through the arch as the background. This nature made arch is the result of centuries of Bridge Creek undercutting the rock formation through which it flowed.
Fishing Bridge to East Entrance
Lake Butte Overlook: Take the kids for a spectacular view of Yellowstone Lake as it stretches over 30 miles to the south. On an adjacent hillside are a number of very unique looking trees that have been shaped and chiseled over the years from the winds and rains and snow that whips across the top of the lookout area. This lookout provides a great place from which to scan surrounding hillsides for bear that are often seen in this area.
Sylvan Lake: The reason we and our kids so enjoy this area is that we can get right close to this small high-country lake. The setting is beautiful and along the lake's edge in certain places are what seems to be colonies of frogs that live here. We love the scenery of the lake and surrounding mountains. This is another pristine location from which to snap some selfies with a beautiful background.