Yellowstone National Park is a bucket list vacation for many families. Why? Because there are so many great things to do in Yellowstone with kids!
From epic wildlife spotting opportunities to geysers, waterfalls, and so much more, we have put together a comprehensive guide filled with amazing activities and attractions you won’t want to miss on your Yellowstone family vacation.
Since Yellowstone’s weather is harsh most of the year, the bulk of visitation occurs from late May through early September. This condensed season can definitely lead to crowds, but if you start your days early and try to arrive at major attractions by 9am each day (or after dinner), you will be able to enjoy these special spots without the massive traffic jams.
This is much easier to do if you are staying inside the park, and I highly encourage you to do so whenever possible. Lodging and campgrounds book up many months in advance, so book your trip ASAP. You can always cancel or adjust it later if you need to. Planning a trip to Yellowstone takes time and there are plenty of resources to help you iron out the details.
If you are staying outside of the park, especially in crowded West Yellowstone, you will want to try get inside the park entrance by 7:30 each day. If you wait until 9 or 10, expect to sit in miles and miles of standstill traffic.
The other perk of being an early riser is that you are able to pack more into each day at Yellowstone, because there really are so many amazing things to do.
Things to do in Yellowstone with Kids- Geyser Basins
One of the biggest draws to Yellowstone National Park is that it is home to more geysers, springs, and other hydrothermal features than anywhere else in the world. This is because Yellowstone National Park sits atop a massive caldera, also known as a super volcano.
Thankfully, the super volcano hasn’t erupted for over 70,000 years, but it is still very much active and alive. Discovering the beauty and volatility of the region is truly one of the best things to do in Yellowstone with kids.
1. West Thumb Geyser Basin
West Thumb Geyser Basin is the first major attraction you will reach if you enter Yellowstone National Park from the south. It is located near Grant Village, on the shores of Yellowstone Lake.
West Thumb Geyser Basin is one of several active geyser basins within the park, but each geyser basin has something special to offer visitors, so they are all worth visiting.
The reason why this basin is special is because it is on the shore of Yellowstone Lake, and some of the geothermal features are actually in the lake! One example is Fishing Cone, a hot spring near the shore that fisherman once used to boil fish they caught inside the lake. Note: this practice is dangerous and now illegal.
There are several other impossibly blue hot springs and fumaroles you can enjoy from the safety of the boardwalk which traverses this area. The entire boardwalk trail is about a mile in length and goes in a loop.
There are a few geysers in this area, but they don’t erupt very often.
2. Mud Volcano
Mud Volcano is located between the Canyon area and Lake Yellowstone, just south of the Hayden Valley. This is a very active geothermal area with features that are quite different from what you will encounter in West Thumb Geyser Basin.
Highlights include gurgling and boisterous mud pots and the steaming and roaring depths of Dragon’s Mouth Spring. A 0.6-mile boardwalk loop will take you past all the action.
Keep your eyes out for bison which frequent this area and often decide to plop themselves down right next to (or on) the boardwalk. If this happens, do not get within 25 yards of the bison. Simply go around the other side of the loop.
Remember, bison make look docile but they are actually very fast and injure park visitors that get too close every year.
3. Old Faithful and Upper Geyser Basin
The most famous geyser in the world, Old Faithful, is definitely a sight to see. No matter the crowds, it is still incredibly impressive when Old Faithful goes off.
You will see people sitting on the benches around Old Faithful, patiently waiting in the heat to see the action. I highly suggest finding some shade within view of the geyser and then walking closer once Old Faithful erupts.
Beyond Old Faithful, there is so much to see in Upper Geyser Basin. There are several other geysers which erupt a semi-regular basis, like Riverside Geyser, Grand Geyser, and Castle Geyser.
There are also several springs, fumaroles, pools, and other geysers to enjoy as you walk through this large geyser basin that is found along the Firehole River.
If you take the full route past the dozens of features it will be about five miles in total. But it is easy to make your walk as long or as short as you would like. There is so much to see and enjoy along the way that planning for a half day at this basin is reasonable.
The good news is that Upper Geyser Basin is stroller friendly if you are traveling with kiddos with little legs. It can be crowded, especially near Old Faithful, but the crowds thin out the further you walk from the famed geyser.
Be sure to keep your eyes out for bison while exploring the area. They are known to hang out near the river and thermal features.
4. Midway Geyser Basin and Grand Prismatic Spring
Midway Geyser Basin is small but mighty. It nowhere near as big as Upper Geyser Basin but it is still worth visiting to view the largest hot spring in Yellowstone, Grand Prismatic Spring.
Grand Prismatic Spring can be 330 feet in diameter and over 120 feet deep. Yeah, it’s big! It is also incredibly beautiful. The various colors are caused by micro-organisms that live in different water temperatures.
You can also view Grand Prismatic Spring from above by hiking to the overlook on the way to Fairy Falls. It is about 0.6 miles from the Fairy Falls parking lot.
Learn more about Grand Prismatic Spring to make the most out of your visit.
5. Lower Geyser Basin and the Fountain Paint Pot
Lower Geyser Basin is the largest geyser basin in Yellowstone National Park and has a few different access points.
The Fountain Paint Pots area is the most visited, thanks in part to its proximity to the main road.
This area has a variety of geysers (usually one or two are going off) and hot springs, as well the bubbling mud of many colors at Fountain Paint Pots. There is a 0.5-mile boardwalk that lead visitors around this area.
The Firehole Lake area is accessed via a one-way loop road. It is known for having several thermal features near the lake and nearby creeks.
The most famous is Great Fountain Geyser. It is one of only six geysers in the park which have predicted times posted at the Old Faithful Visitor Center and on the park’s app. Great Fountain Geyser usually erupts 2-3 times a day and can shoot water up to 150 feet in the air.
There are several other groups of thermal features throughout five mile by two mile area which are accessed through spur roads and trails. Here is a map of the full Lower Geyser Basin area.
6. Artists Paint Pots
There is something so satisfying about watching and listening to a pot of mud gurgle and splatter. I can’t really explain it. It just is.
The Artist Paint Pots are accessed via a trail that leads you about a half mile from the parking area, through a portion of the forest that is is currently recovering from the devastating fire of 1988. It is really cool to see the reforestation take place.
In addition to the paint pots, there are also some springs and steam vents in this area.
7. Norris Geyser Basin and Steamboat Geyser
Norris Geyser Basin is the oldest and hottest of Yellowstone’s geyser basin. It has been active for over 100,000 years!
It is also one of the most popular spots in Yellowstone, thanks in part to its proximity to the gateway town of West Yellowstone. During the summer months, the large parking lot can fill up by 10am.
The biggest attraction is Steamboat Geyser, which is the tallest geyser in the the world. It sprays up to 300 feet in the air when it erupts, but the eruptions are unpredictable so you never know if you are going to be lucky enough to see it.
The geyser does have minor eruptions more frequently. These eruptions shoot water 10-40 feet in the air and are still great to watch.
There is a 1.5-mile boardwalk that encircles the Back Basin portion of Norris where Steamboat Geyser is located. There are several other geysers, rapidly boiling springs, and colorful thermal features to enjoy along the path.
The other section of Norris Geyser Basin to explore is Porcelain Basin, which is devoid of trees due to the volatile, acidic nature of the surrounding area. It gets its name from the milky white hue that some of the springs give off.
Things to do in Yellowstone with Kids on the Water
1. Boat Yellowstone Lake
Most people only view the largest freshwater alpine lake in North America from the shore, but this 136 square mile lake begs to be explored from the water!
During the summer months, boat tours and boat rentals can be found at the Bridge Bay Marina, located just down the road from Lake Village and the historic Lake Yellowstone Hotel.
Basic eighteen foot motor boats are available to rent at the marina. My family took a boat out for a ride around Stevenson Island and past Lake Yellowstone Hotel and had a blast. We don’t fish much, but evidently the trout fishing is excellent.
If you would rather leave the captaining to someone else, opt for the boat tour. Passengers board the Lake Queen for a one-hour guided tour of Yellowstone Lake. The tour includes history, opportunities to spot wildlife, and even a chance to see a shipwreck!
One thing I wish we did was kayak Yellowstone Lake. Geyser Kayak Tours takes kayakers out on tours of the waters near West Thumb Geyser Basin. It looks like a really neat way to explore the lake and learn about the geothermal features.
Trekaroo Tip: The wind tends to pick up in the afternoon and make things choppy, so it is usually best to enjoy your boating in the morning.
2. Swim in a River Warmed by Geothermal Features
Most of Yellowstone’s lakes and rivers are downright freezing. The average water temperature in Yellowstone Lake is a frigid 41 degrees! Area rivers and lakes are also very chilly no matter the season.
There are, however, two spots where warm spring water mixes with river water to make for a more pleasant water experience.
The Boiling River Swim Area is located up near Mammoth Hot Springs where the Boiling River flows into the Gardner River. It is a 0.5-mile walk from the parking lot to this designated swimming spot.
It is open from 6am to 8pm from early July through mid-September, depending on river levels. Note: this spot was closed in 2021 due to an archaeological discovery.
The other spot is the Firehole Swim Area just south of the Madison Junction. It usually opens up mid-summer once the river flow is lower, but can sometimes be closed the entire season.
Looking to have a picnic after your swim? Check out these great picnicking spots in Yellowstone.
3. Go Fly Fishing
Fly fishing is allowed in Yellowstone’s rivers and streams. Yellowstone cutthroat trout are commonly found on the eastern side of the park while rainbow and brown trout are more common on the west side.
The fly fishing season is from the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend through the first Sunday in November. A Yellowstone fly fishing permit is required for fishermen over 16.
There are several authorized outfitters that are happy to take guests on guided fly fishing trips. They range from half-day excursions to multi-day trips.
Wildlife Viewing in Yellowstone with Kids
Hayden Valley Wildlife Viewing
There are two valleys in Yellowstone National Park that are known for their great wildlife viewing opportunities- Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley.
The Lamar Valley is located in the northeast portion of the park, further away from the hustle and bustle of the Grand Loop. Hayden Valley is conveniently located between the Canyon and the Lake areas.
While the Lamar Valley has gotten much of the attention in recent years, thanks to its wolf viewing opportunities and large herds, my family has actually had great success spotting wildlife in the Hayden Valley.
We have seen massive herds of bison with lots of babies. We have witnessed a bear catch a fish in the river and then gallop (at about 30mph!) across the valley and into the shelter of the woods.
And we have seen wolves. Yes, the white whale of Yellowstone National Park wildlife viewing can be found in the Hayden Valley. There is a pack of wolves known to frequent the area and we saw them stalk prey and swim on the river two nights in a row on our most recent trip.
If you want to spot wolves, it does take quite a bit of patience, and decent binoculars or scopes definitely help. We watched people stop at overlooks, wait about five minutes for a wolf to appear, and then move on.
However, we waited about 90 minutes around dusk, and then our patience was rewarded by the thrill of seeing wolves, one of the most endangered mammals in the United States, in their natural habitat. It was definitely a highlight of our trip.
Wildlife Viewing in the Lamar Valley
Lamar Valley has become quite famous in the past couple decades, primarily because it is known as one the best spot in the US to spot wolves.
Since the Lamar Valley is located in the northeastern portion of the park, east of the Tower Junction, it requires a bit of driving to access. But your drive will be worth the effort because you will be rewarded with herds of bison, pronghorn, and deer. You may also spot coyotes, bears, and those famed wolves.
There are several places to pull out alongside the road, so find a spot and be patient- you never know what you might see! Also be prepared for wildlife traffic jams when something like a bear or wolf is spotted, or there is a herd close to the road.
Just like in the Hayden Valley, the best time to see wildlife is at dusk and dawn. Binoculars and scopes will definitely aid you efforts, especially when trying to view the predators.
Things to do in Yellowstone with Kids- Waterfalls and the Grand Canyon
1. Walk Along the Rim of Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is one of the major attractions of Yellowstone National Park.
The steep walls of this canyon look like they were hand painted. The impressive upper and lower Yellowstone Falls rival waterfalls around the world in terms of beauty. It truly is a special place.
Since the walls of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone are so steep, the only way to get down into the bottom of the canyon is via a strenuous, 10-mile hike. For this reason, the best way to experience the canyon is via various overlooks and rim trails.
There are hiking trails and viewpoints that can be accessed by either taking South Rim Drive or North Rim Drive. The parking lots along the canyon tend to fill up quickly, so I highly suggest visiting before 9am or after 7pm, when crowds are lighter and the lighting is better.
North Rim Drive is a one-way route which will take you past several nice viewpoints before looping you back into the main Canyon hub where you will find lodging, camping, stores, and dining.
South Rim Drive is a two-way road that is just a little bit further south of the North Rim turnoff. Take time to explore both routes and enjoy the different perspectives each offers.
The South Rim Trail is a great route with wonderful views. I suggest taking the route from Artist Point to the Upper Falls Overlook and back. It is about two miles round trip and considered to be an easy trail.
The North Rim Trail is also nice route. Take the route from Grandview to Inspiration Point because it is furthest from the road and therefore less traveled so you will have to share the trail with fewer people. It is about 1.3 miles in each direction.
2. Take the Switchbacks to the Brink of the Lower Yellowstone Falls
One of the coolest short trails in all of Yellowstone is the 0.7-mile jaunt down to the brink of Lower Yellowstone Falls. This is one of the things to do in Yellowstone with kids that will really wow them.
The trail is a series of switchbacks that can be quite steep, but the chance to stand at the precipice of a major waterfall is worth the huffing and puffing on the way back up.
You can visit the brink of the upper falls as well, but it isn’t quite as impressive as the lower falls. Still, it is worth seeing and the walk from the parking lot is significantly shorter.
See a Roadside Waterfall
One of the great things about Yellowstone is that many of its biggest and best attractions are either right alongside the road or a short walk from the road. Here are six waterfalls you won’t want to miss while driving around Yellowstone National Park.
3. Kepler Cascades
Location: Between West Thumb and Old Faithful
This waterfall is an easy stop when driving between the Lake/West Thumb area and Old Faithful. You basically park your car, walk a couple yards to the overlook, and enjoy this waterfall on the Firehole River which cascades 150 feet.
4. Gibbon Falls
Location: Between Madison and Norris
It is hard to miss Gibbon Falls when driving between Madison and Norris. This beautiful waterfall has a decent sized parking lot and people are always coming and going so it shouldn’t be too hard to find a spot with a short wait.
From the lot, follow the paved walkway to the viewpoint (maybe 100 yards) to get a full view of the 84-foot cascade on the Gibbon River.
5. Tower Fall
Location: Near the Tower- Roosevelt Junction
Tower Fall is another easily accessible waterfall from a parking lot alongside the road. It is just a 100-yard walk from where your park to the the viewing point for this impressive 132-foot waterfall.
There used to be a trail down to the base of the waterfall but it was destroyed by rock and mud slides. You can walk a portion of the way to the base but the last third is barricaded off.
6. Virginia Cascade
Location: Between Norris and Canyon
There aren’t very many attractions on the road that cuts between Norris and Canyon, but there is Virginia Cascade. This waterfall is actually located off a one-way, scenic drive spur road.
This waterfall is best viewed in the afternoon when the light is better. Be sure to find a safe pullout so you don’t block traffic.
7. Firehole Falls
Location: Firehole Canyon Drive near Madison
Firehole Canyon Drive is a one-way road that follows the Firehole River near the Madison Junction. Most people head here to swim in the Firehole River and check out the 40-foot Firehole Falls. There is a small parking lot near the falls.
8. Undine Falls
Location: Four miles east Mammoth Hot Springs
Undine Falls can be viewed via a short walk from the parking lot to the viewing area. It is a three-level cascade plunging 60 feet. There is also a 0.8-mile trail which will take you to the upper falls.
More Things to do in Yellowstone with Kids
1. Mammoth Hot Springs
Up in the northwestern corner of Yellowstone National Park is Mammoth Hot Springs, a beautiful set of travertine hot springs that are unlike those found in other areas of the park. They were created by deposits of calcium carbonate that formed cascading columns.
There is a a boardwalk that will take you to the upper and lower portions of Mammoth Hot Springs or you can drive and park in the different areas. During the summer these lots can be full for most of the day, so I suggest finding a spot and walking the 1.75-mile boardwalk trail.
Elk are almost always spotted in the area around Mammoth Hot Springs. It is very common to see a herd just hanging out in the grassy area alongside the road.
In additions to the hot springs, you will want to make time to check out Fort Yellowstone which was used by the US Army when they were sent to protect the park from vandalism and poachers in the late 1800s.
2. Take a Family Photo Under the Roosevelt Arch
You will also want to make time to stop by the Roosevelt Arch which is over 50 feet tall and serves as the northern entrance to the park. It is was originally built to welcome tourists coming by train to visit the park at the turn of the 20th century.
3. Go Horseback Riding
There are two places within Yellowstone National Park with stables offering horseback rides to those ages eight and up. Both locations offer one hour and two hour rides.
One stable is located in the Canyon area of the park. Riders will cross a meadow and enter a forest area as they follow Cascade Creek and eventually reach Cascade Canyon.
The Roosevelt ride has entirely different scenery. Riders will cross sagebrush and streams on horseback to reach a wooded hillside. They will enjoy views of landmarks with names like Hellroaring Mountain and Pleasant Valley.
4. Take a Stagecoach Ride to an Old West Cookout
The northern portion of Yellowstone National Park near the Tower-Roosevelt area is filled with classic Western scenery. Rolling hills dotted with sagebrush conjure up visions of the Old West.
Head over to the Roosevelt Corral and go for a stagecoach ride across the plateau. The stagecoach is an especially great option for families with kids too young to horseback ride.
Or up your cowboy ante even more and take the stagecoach to the Old West Dinner Cookout held most summer evenings. Keep an eye out for bison, pronghorn antelope, and elk along the way. Then, fill up your plate with steak, baked beans, corn muffins, and other classic chuckwagon dinner items.
5. Take a Hike
Most national parks are great hiking destinations, Yellowstone included. Many Yellowstone hikes are on boardwalks to protect delicate and dangerous thermal features, but there are plenty of traditional hiking trails that you won’t want to miss.
One of my favorite hikes in Yellowstone National Park is to Fairy Falls. This 4.8-mile hike goes past the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook and through a forest (with almost no elevation gain) until it reaches the base of Fairy Falls which cascades 200 feet into the creek below.
If you add another 1.5 miles (round trip) to your hike you can continue on to Imperial Geyser, which erupts regularly. There are several other thermal features near Imperial Geyser and it is fun to see them in a more natural setting without throngs of people or boardwalks.
Other popular hikes include the many boardwalk trails mentioned in our geyser basin section of this article, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone rim trails, the hike to Trout Lake, and the popular climb up to the top of Mount Washburn.
6. Peruse the Gift Shops and General Stores
One of the highlights of our Yellowstone trip was searching for that perfect souvenir at all the different gifts shops and general stores spread out across the park.
While there are many of the same t-shirts and coffee mugs at the shops, we also found that many of the stores had unique items and specialties. My family’s favorite stores were in the Canyon area.
The Canyon General Store has a large supply of gifts and the best grocery options in my opinion. We also really liked the Yellowstone Adventures store next to the General Store. It has a nice variety of outdoor equipment and apparel.
It is no surprise that the Old Faithful area had lots of great shopping options as well as Grant Village, another major park hub. Still, even the smaller shops around the park are fun to peak in. You never know what kind of treasures you might discover!