I’ve always been an adventurous outdoorsy girl, but, I honestly didn’t imagine I’d be eager to take a cross country road trip with toddlers and tent camp in bear country. But I did both — and camping in Yellowstone National Park was one of our family’s best vacations ever. Thanks to a friend’s urging, we set out on an adventure to camp in Yellowstone and Grand Teton. We piled a ridiculous amount of camping gear into our car, packed ourselves like sardines and drove 22 hours from Chicago to Yellowstone to explore these two-for-one parks. Thankfully, we were well prepared with insider tips (shared below) that helped make this adventure positive and memorable.
Our friend, who is also the parent of a toddler, rallied a group together for a week-long camping adventure capped by a two-night stay at the historic and beautiful Old Faithful Inn. The first thing I learned when planning for this trip was we literally had to begin preparations more than a year and a half in advance (I share the reason why below).
Before we arrived in the parks, we watched videos and looked at photographs to help us anticipate what to expect. Even the most stunning imagery, do not do these parks justice. From bursting geysers to rainbow colored basins and mammoth hot springs to vast canyons, gushing waterfalls, and sweeping valleys so filled with wildlife they are on par with African parks – the dramatic and dynamic landscapes within the parks are unlike anyplace else.
Yellowstone National Park is quite possibly the most extraordinary environment in North America. We were quickly swept up in the majesty of this remarkable landscape and all concerns about camping dissolved as we embraced the splendid scenery.
If Yellowstone isn’t on your bucket list, reconsider. If you are hesitant to bring your kids, I understand. But it was one of the most incredible family vacations we have had yet (and we’ve been to some amazing places together).
For the record, the trip may have been a miserable failure if it had not been for a few important planning tips our well-traveled friend, who has guided expeditions in Yellowstone’s back country, provided to us to help us prepare. This is my way of “paying it forward” – sharing some of his helpful advice along with a few tips of our own.
Ten Tips for Staying in Yellowstone National Park:
1. Lodges: Book WAY in advance. I’m a planner, but planning this far in advance felt a bit extreme, but as we learned it was necessary. If you want to stay at a lodge inside the park, plan to secure reservations at least a year in advance if not more. Reservations for summer travel open May 1 the prior year. Plan to be on the phone and their website that morning as soon as reservations open. Lodges sell out quickly – often the same day.
We had been forewarned and strongly urged to get on the phone and website immediately at 8 a.m. Mountain Time on May 1 or else the rooms will vanish and we won’t be able to stay at the lodge. I admittedly thought my friend was being a little overly cautious, but we dutifully complied. That morning, coffee in hand, I began attempting to make reservations. Several hours later, with mounting frustration, I was still trying. I continuously received a busy signal and the website perpetually crashed. I literally had to call back 104 times! Thankfully, after three hours of relentless attempts, I eventually made it through the booking process on the website. A couple of our friends weren’t so lucky. Within hours, the Inn was completely booked for our week in August of the following year.
If your visitation dates are more flexible, you might have better luck securing something without such advance notice, but it’s a gamble. Your best bet is to plan your trip well in advance!
2. Campgrounds – The best ones can’t be reserved in advance. Here’s how to snag them. There are 12 developed campgrounds in Yellowstone accessible by cars. All offer tent camping, except Fishing Bridge RV park. Five campgrounds accept reservations in advance. Seven of the campgrounds (and arguably some of the nicest and most desirable) do not accept reservations. Can you imagine driving 22 hours with camping gear and two toddlers and not having a place to pitch your tent? We know this feeling of desperation because we experienced exactly that trying to prep for our trip and finding “no room at the inn” in campgrounds near Chicago.
To secure a desirable campsite within Yellowstone or Grand Teton you must arrive EARLY the morning you want to camp there. And by early, I mean daybreak. Get in line by 5 a.m. and hope a site opens up. They start awarding campsites between 8- 9 a.m. From our experience there were at least 40 people in line by 7:30 a.m. hoping to get a site. We had hoped to camp for one night at Jenny Lake in Grand Teton after reading several positive reviews about this desirable location. Unfortunately we made the mistake of getting in line around 8 a.m. thinking that was early enough. What a mistake! By the time we arrived, all of the campsites were already awarded. Thankfully, we arrived just in time to snag another campsite within the park, but it was a close call.
We would never have secured a campsite at Yellowstone if it hadn’t been for our friend, the park guru. He arrived a day in advance of us, lined up at dawn and secured one. Each campsite can accommodate two tents and up to six people. The next morning, we paid it forward – woke up before daybreak, got in line and secured two more campsites for more friends who were arriving later that day. A few of the people we met in line had made reservations in advance at one of the (arguably) less desirable campgrounds with the expressed purpose of being inside the park so they were able to line up by 5 a.m. to snag a site at Norris Campground the next morning. I’m glad to report their strategy was successful. The effort was not in vain.
Despite filling up daily, dozens of sites are often released each morning. As long as you get in line early there is a solid chance you’ll secure a campsite.
We highly recommend Norris Campground. The central location within the Park was ideal and our campsite was located next to a gorgeous, cool stream overlooking mountains and forests. The “walk in” sites were the best. We weren’t far from our cars – making loading and unloading easy – but the cars were out of the way so we could enjoy more nature. I’ve camped a lot, and in some pretty amazing places, but this was the prettiest campsite I’ve ever stayed.
3. Bear Boxes and “Eating Clothes”: Obviously, pack your bear spray – Yellowstone is bear country, and you should have bear spray while hiking and camping. We never saw any up close, but some of our friends did. We know they are around, so be bear smart. Bear boxes are provided at every camp site. Bears are crafty creatures. These large, bear resistant storage boxes are for storing food and fragrant items that could otherwise attract a bear to your campsite (something you want to avoid entirely). Use the bear boxes diligently – lock up all food and anything that is fragrant (toothpaste, deodorant, etc).
If your kids are anything like mine, they are almost constantly covered in food, typically of a most delectable variety (honey, applesauce, fruit, peanut butter), what bear could resist? Since we can’t lock the kids away, our friend recommended we designate “eating clothes.” We turned rain coats and pants into their “eating clothes” and donned them for every meal. After they finished eating, we put their rain gear in the bear box with the rest of the food supplies.
4. Pack for Weather Extremes. We camped in midsummer (late July/early August) where daytime temperatures were in the 80s and sunny. Don’t be fooled – we needed fleece, long underwear, knit hats, gloves and winter-rated sleeping bags for camping in Yellowstone. It gets COLD at night and early mornings. Temperatures dropped into the low to mid 40s most nights and I think there was even one night that inched into the high 30s — in the middle of summer! Who knew? Bring clothes that can layer, and remember gloves and hats. And don’t forget rain gear. When storms roll in they can be torrential. And besides, rain gear makes great eating clothes. Luckily, we only experienced a couple mornings of light rain during our time there. Also, bring a good sunhat and a lot of sunscreen – with the high elevation, the sun is intense!
5. Disconnect from Devices (whether you like it or not). Many people take vacation with the goal of disconnecting. Within these national parks this isn’t just a goal – it is reality. Like it or not. There are only a couple places within the extensive park system between Grand Teton and Yellowstone where you can secure a cellular signal and access Wifi. Most of the parks are blissfully off grid. Embrace it. Live in the moment and enjoy.
6. Go Nowhere Fast. There will be bison jams – at times they can last for hours. One of the most incredible aspects of Yellowstone is its magnificent wildlife. Sometimes that wildlife rules the road. We had seen pictures like this and heard stories, and admittedly this idea gave us a bit of anxiety. We live in a congested city, and deal with traffic jams every day. Who wants to drive across country with the goal of escaping traffic congestion just to put ourselves right into the middle of it again? Well, it isn’t as bad as it looks or seems. In fact, it was kind of funny when it happened to us — and let me assure you, when you pass a bison within a few feet outside your car window – it is extraordinary. They are massive beasts!
Enjoy the scenery, take a breath, there is nowhere you need to be in a hurry. Sure, you want to see geysers and take a hike, but it’s not like you have to make the 1 p.m. showing of the Grand Canyon waterfall. Be patient. Keep your distance. Observe and enjoy. Just don’t expect to go anywhere fast.
7. No Safety Nets. Yellowstone’s geyser basins, bison, topography and terrain are impressive, but also perilous. It’s important with little ones to keep them close when hiking and exploring the park. There are more than 900 miles of hiking trails across the 2.2 million-acre park. Walking off the designated pathways near vents and geysers can be dangerous, there are obviously no guard rails for canyons, and wildlife is everywhere. Bison might seem harmless, but they can be hazardous. The park reports they gore about 12 people per year. Observe at a safe distance, and keep a close eye on those kiddos.
8. Take a Dip in the Boiling River. Most hot springs are hazardous and strictly off limits in the park. Sadly many people have died in Yellowstone by falling or climbing into hot springs. Don’t try this! But there are a few legit hot spring areas safe to access. One of them is where the cold Gardner River meets the Boiling Spring hot spring, creating a wonderful natural hot tub swimming experience. Do wear water shoes because it is rocky and will be painful on your feet. But soaking in this spring-warmed river is a delightful experience. And if you are as lucky as we were, you might have a herd of elk come down the hillside to join you in the river. It was a magical experience!
9. Look Up! Look up at the night sky. You will see the Milky Way and millions of stars. Without light pollution to obscure the view, stargazing in Yellowstone is breathtaking. (I don’t have photos of this, but click the link above to see what I mean! It was incredible! Something our city kids had never experienced and won’t soon forget. Consider bringing age-appropriate books like Zoo in the Sky to engage your kids with stargazing and finding constellations.
10. Pack Some Familiar Toys. Finally, don’t forget to bring a few familiar toys and child accessories. Even the most adventurous kids like a little familiarity. We brought Play Doh, Legos, coloring books, and games for times spent at the campground as well as their favorite stuffed animals for sleeping and car rides. Familiar items create a sense of comfort in new and unfamiliar environments, And let’s face it – content kids makes life much more enjoyable for parents. Though our kids enjoyed select moments playing with familiar items, for the most part, their awe and attention was fully focused on the incredible nature around us. Nothing can compare to that!
There are definitely the must see experiences: Old Faithful Geyser, Grand Prismatic Spring and Midway Geyser Basin, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Artist Paint Pots and Mammoth Hot Springs. We strongly recommend driving Lamar Valley around sunrise and sunset for extraordinary wildlife viewing in a gorgeous warm light. Above all, plan your trip well in advance, pack for the weather, plan to disconnect completely from the outside world, and enjoy the vast wilderness of this extraordinary place.