Yellowstone’s Natural Wonders (With Kids!)

If you’ve wondered why I’ve been absent from this blog, it’s because we have moved from Jerusalem to Rabat, with a six-week United States vacation called “home leave” in between. This year, our home leave included Washington DC, Michigan, Yellowstone National Park, Portland, a day in Los Angeles, and a few in Santa Barbara. It was all awesome, but six weeks is a long time to keep moving around, and to eat everything in sight. And so, we’re happy to be arrived in our next post and to be getting in to a routine and finding our workout jam, our new friends, our grocery stores, a bar perhaps, all that good stuff. But more on that in near future post.

First, to back up and share with you the highlight of our home leave trip: Yellowstone National Park. For this home leave, like the others, we wanted to see a beautiful part of the country that we had never seen before, and we also wanted plenty of quality time with family, including my sister’s kids, who are six and 10.  So, we decided to fly the nieces from Detroit to Jackson Hole and see the Grand Teton National Park as well as Yellowstone. Keep in mind Mr. Em and Jerusalem are a childless couple with almost no experience with kids, let alone traveling with kids. But hey, we were up for an adventure.

Here’s the itinerary we followed in case you’re looking to visit Yellowstone. As you would find out, there is a A LOT of information out there so planning a visit was kind of overwhelming.


Day 1: Jackson Hole

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We flew into the adorably rustic Jackson Hole airport and took a cab (but you should pick up your rental car since the car rental places are located at the airport) and checked in to the Mountain Modern Motel, a recently-updated motel that my older niece described as “real lumberjack cute” and I’d have to agree. This motel has a pool, which is why we booked it because my nieces are fish and, as we’d soon discover, demanded to be in submerged in water daily.

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After a swim, we walked ten minutes into town to see the much-storied evening shoot-out in the town’s square. My drama-loving niece was quick to volunteer in the practice shoot-out and both kids enjoyed the local theater troupe’s production.

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Then, a taco and margs dinner, one of many ice cream stops, and off to bed.

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Day 2: The Grand Tetons

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Yellowstone might be the main attraction in these here parts, but the pristine lakes and the snow-capped mountains of the Grand Tetons are not to be missed. We went back to the airport to get our car, immediately poured chip crumbs, peanuts and orange pop all over the interior, and started out. First stop was Schwabacher’s Landing for a short hike along the Snake River. This was the first of many hikes of the trip, and Mr. Em in Jerusalem and I were a little worried about how the nieces would take to hiking. We’d been warned not to make them try to do anything crazy long, so this was a nice starting point (just a few miles there and back). We saw some cool birds, and the girls found some sun-baked animal bones.

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After that, we drove to Jenny Lake in the Teton’s and boarded a ferry that took us across the lake to a short uphill hike that ended a waterfall.

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The girls were starting to whine and ask isn’t a hike just a torturous walk to nowhere when the highlight of the trip occurred: The 10-year-old was a few yards ahead of us on the trail and when she came around a bend, she almost ran into a black bear! She screamed “Beeeeeeaaaarrr!!!” and ran top speed.  I thought she was playing around, but then I saw the bear’s ears bounding off into the woods. We told her you aren’t supposed to run from a bear and she assured us if she sees another, she’d run all the same. She’s the only one who saw a bear on our trip, and we got so much milage recounting the look on her face as she ran from a bear. She will not forget that too-close encounter.

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The nieces dipped in the lake on the other side of Jenny Lake for a bit, but the real swimming highlight came when we stopped the Chapel of the Sacred Heart picnic area on Jackson Lake for a quick peek and saw a group of young folks with lots rafts and stand-up paddle boards. The nieces convinced me to ask them we could borrow a few floaties and we all changed into our suits and spent a few hours swimming in pristine alpine lake that we very nearly had to ourselves. The water was so nice even my husband got in, which hardly ever happens given his major aversion to any water colder than a cup of tea.

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Next, we left the Teton’s and entered Yellowstone and checked in to our first Yellowstone lodge: Grant Village on Yellowstone Lake. I didn’t book our rooms a year in advance (recommended) so I had to piece together a stay in the park out of what was available. This place was perfectly fine, with two restaurants to choose from, both with lake views.

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Day 3: Geysers and Prismatic Springs

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The following day, we saw one of Yellowstone’s top attractions: Old Faithful, which is not the largest geyser in the park, but one of the most reliable, as it spews steamy water about every 90 minutes.

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If you were organized enough to score rooms at the Old Faithful Inn, lucky you, because it’s an awesome old wooden building and the girls were kind of bummed we weren’t staying there.

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There is a lot to do around Old Faithful, including hiking the nice boardwalk paths to beautiful pools and smaller geysers, a gallery, having ice cream in Old Faithful Inn, and listening to a ranger talk during which you learn about all the trippy geothermal features at Yellowstone.

Tip: If you’re traveling with kids older than four, make sure to sign them up for the Junior Ranger program. They’ll get a great science workbook to complete during the trip and if they complete the requisite pages and recite an oath to protect the environment, they’ll get a badge and become junior rangers at the end of the trip. It took a little prodding to get our nieces to do their “homework” on summer vacay, but in the end they were proud to be junior rangers.

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After leaving Old Faithful, we went to my favorite place in the park (or at least the most photogenic): The Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone’s Grand Geyer Basin. The Grand Prismatic is the third largest hot spring in the entire world (and the biggest in the U.S.). and the whole area will make you go “Oh my goodness! What am I looking at here? Nature is a wonder!” Some of the most beautiful colors I have ever seen.

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This is the spot where someone falls in now and then, dying immediately. There are signs all over to watch out and don’t be dumb.

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After the geyser basin, we stopped at the Lower Falls, just below Canyon Village, for a little hike down to a seriously impressive waterfall, and then back up again.

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We made our way to our lodging for the final three nights – Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel in the northern part of the park – and on the way spotted our first bison. We were total noobs and took a ton of photos, even though that bison would be the first of about a thousand we’d see over the next few days.

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Finally we checked in to our lodging, the grounds of which were teeming with female elk, who were awaiting the upcoming mating season in a relatively safe location.

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The girls were stoked to learn we’d be staying in a two-bedroom cabin, so they had each had their own bed and shared a room separate from ours. The only thing missing was wifi. Well, and a pool. I was told the only swimmable hot spring in the park was located very close to Mammoth Hot Springs, so the husband stayed back, pooped from a day of driving, and I took the girls to the Boiling River, which is where the icy Gardiner River and a super duper hot spring come together. You have to hike a mile in, but suddenly the girls were light on their feet with the promise of swimming at the end of the trail. It’s a really neat spot, but you’ll get intermittently scorched and frozen by the mixing waters. Also, stay in the pools closer to the entry with little ones because the youngest and I could hardly fight against the rushing river after we went to a warm pool a little too far away.

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Day 4: Mammoth Hot Springs and Bison in Lamar Valley

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The next morning after the umpteenth buffet breakfast with coffee for us and hot chocolate for the girls, we explored the Mammoth Hot Springs area next to our cabin. It’s a terraced spring complex whose cooling hot waters have, over many years, deposited calcium all over, giving it a snowy white appearance.

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After, we went to nearby town of Gardiner, Montana, which is located outside of the park. We had a pizza lunch and bought some Yellowstone sweatshirts and water shoes, and yes, then we went back to the icy hot swimming spot for a soak.

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After a lovely “vacay nap” (the girls were very excited to just chill out in the cabin), we drove the Lamar Valley for dusk bison spotting, which is one of the most popular activities in the park. And it did not disappoint! So many bison! And my eagle-eye older niece also spotted a pronghorn.

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Day 5: Norris Geyser Basin

Norris Geyser Basin in a super cool boardwalk area around the park’s hottest and most dynamic geysers. It’s also where the tallest geyser in the entire world is located, but it’s unpredictable. It last went off two weeks before our visit and that seems to be its pattern as of late, and so geyser-peepers had been set up in chairs for days in front of it, waiting for it to blow, cameras poised. It actually did seem like it was going to erupt, but alas, the girls got impatient and we moved on after about 30 minutes.

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Then, a detour to see something called the Mud Volcano.

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On our drive back to our lodge, we peeped a male elk in the forest. Had to wake up the girls, who were glued to their devices while in the car.

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And because a day had almost passed without swimming, we went back to the Boiling River.

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This time, it was very cold outside and Mr. Em in Jerusalem and I had no desire to dip in again, so we watched the girls in one of the calmer pools until a lightening bolt lit up the sky. We all grabbed our stuff and ran one mile back to the car as the storm moved closer and closer with epic thunder and finally torrential rain. Made it to the car in just the knick of time and we recounted our close call over dinner in Gardiner. (While the restaurant at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel is perfectly fine, we were ready for something different).


Day 6: White Water Rafting and Farewell

On our last day, we checked out of hotel and headed to Wild West Rafting in Gardiner, for a two-hour whitewater rafting trip. Our guide was super cool and brought her dog along on the trip, during which was saw some river otters and a bald eagle being chased by a duo of osprey. I’m sure there were some great pics, but we were too cheap to splurge $75 for a photo of us going over some rapids.

After that, a pizza lunch and we headed to Bozeman to meet up with my husband’s cousin, a nature filmmaker. We returned our rental car and hung out at the Bozeman airport until our flight to Portland. In Portland, we waited with our nieces for their flight back to Detroit. They were a little nervous about flying as unaccompanied minors, but the crew at Alaska Airlines made them feel welcome and special, and the pilot even came over to talk to them before the flight.

So whew, our Yellowstone adventure was in the books. If you’ve been thinking about a trip to Yellowstone, I’d highly recommend it! The vibe of being in the park is tranquil and kind of magical, and there is just so much to see. I was a little worried it would be boring for two kids who love their shows and YouTube videos and don’t have much great outdoors experience, but I think they mostly loved it. Maybe they’re not itching to go on two hikes a day or anything, but I think we successfully forged some good quality time memories while exploring gorgeous Wyoming/a sliver of Montana.

To Yellowstone,

Em in Jerusalem

 

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