If you’ve heard anything about Yellowstone National Park, it is probably this: “It’s big!” – nearly 3,500 square miles to be exact.  So the question becomes: how do you see it all (you can’t) or at least prioritize?  That’s the question we faced when trying to plan our first trip there.

After a little research, we decided the best approach was a guided trip offered through the Yellowstone Association, a non-profit organization focusing on educating the public about the park’s history and heritage.  We signed up for a five-day, four-night program that included being chauffeured around the park’s attractions in a mini-bus (yay, no driving!).  The program is designed for families with kids between eight and twelve years old and there were twelve guests total in our group, including the four of us, our boys’ grandmother and her companion.  Though the trip was a bit pricey, it was a great way to experience Yellowstone for the first time.

The Arch

The program did not start until Monday evening, which allowed us to enjoy a long weekend at Silverwood Theme Park on our drive from the Pacific Northwest.  Given the park’s size, you aren’t able to experience everything – even through the Yellowstone Association.  There were a couple different tour options.  We went against the grain and chose the one that did not include a stop at Old Faithful.  Controversial, I know, but we decided the trip we chose had a lot of other things to offer, and not to be “punny”, but Old Faithful will always be there.

After entering Yellowstone at the park’s north entrance and passing under the enormous Roosevelt Arch (everything’s bigger in Yellowstone), a short drive led us to the Mammoth district.  Mammoth is basically a town, complete with a general store, museums, and lodging – all surrounding large, some would say “mammoth”, hot springs.  We found our accommodations – a cozy cabin with its own bathroom, two double beds and a little porch.  Not spacious, but clean, and who wants to be inside at Yellowstone anyway?  We checked in and made our way to the hotel’s lobby to meet the rest of our tour group, including our guide.

After some brief introductions, we loaded onto our small bus and headed out for a short drive to a cabin affectionately called the “classroom”.  There we got to know the rest of our group, which included a family of four from New York (dad, mom and two daughters) and a father and daughter from California – lots of “girl power” to balance out our two boys.  We also learned our itinerary for the week would include three focus areas: volcanic features (day 1), animals (day 2) and the Yellowstone canyon (day 3).  After a science-based orientation (they call it the classroom for a reason), we headed back to town, grabbed a quick bite and turned in early.  We had BIG plans for the next day – it is Yellowstone after all.

A Colorful Quiet Geyser

The next morning we met in the lobby around 8AM – no sleeping in on this vacation.  After loading in the bus we stopped by the classroom for a lesson on the volcanic features of the park before driving out to the Norris Geyser Basin – a literal “hot spot” of volcanic activity.  We’ve all heard of Old Faithful (water regularly spraying high in the air, yada-yada), but visiting the Basin allowed us to truly appreciate the volcanic history of Yellowstone Park.  There are more geysers there than just Old Faithful, and there’s more to Yellowstone than just geysers.  We spent our day studying geysers/hot springs, fumaroles (no, not funerals) and mud pots.

You Can Almost Smell the Sulfur

Most geysers don’t pack the punch of Old Faithful and, instead, simply bubble or have a weak spray.  Regardless, the heat and smells (sulfur/rotten eggs) coming from these features make them worth experiencing – and if you’re lucky you might see a gusher.  They’re also more colorful than you might expect due to the bacteria that can live in the springs despite the hostile environment caused by the harsh pH and heat.  In fact, our guide brought a temperature gun which allowed us to determine the temperature of the water in, around and some distance away from various springs.  The kids (and parents) were amazed to see that the spring water run-off was still over 140 degrees nearly 100 feet from the source.  Bottom line:  be careful where you go wading.

On second thought, you really should stay on the nicely maintained wooden walkways throughout the Basin.  This is especially true when it comes to fumaroles, or steam vents in the ground.  Unlike hot springs, fumaroles are so hot the water just steams out, often releasing a frightening, low howl as the pressure is continually released.  Fumaroles aren’t very big, maybe the size of your foot on average, but don’t step near them.  The fragile ground could give way, giving you a steam bath you won’t forget – or survive.  You will also want to stay out of the mudpots.  These look like the mud baths you might find at fancy spas, but don’t let that fool you.  These angry cousins of the fumarole are actually pools of rock melted by acid.  They bubble, burp and spit at you – not real inviting, but really cool,…or, I mean, hot.

A View of Norris Basin

Many of the volcanic features we saw, while impressive, were “stand alone” – a single pool of water from a spring, or an isolated fumerole.  That being said, the springs around which the Mammoth district is settled certainly live up to their name.  They are big and clustered together, creating a rounded stair-step-like structure as they grow higher, leaving behind beautiful colors and some of the youngest rock on earth.  At the end of the day, we returned to our cabin porch and put our feet up, watching as steam emerged from the Mammoth springs while the sun went down.  These volcanic features would be worth seeing in and of themselves, but the fact that these little glimpses of hell are set among gorgeous tree-rimmed valleys and painted canyons is one of the things that makes Yellowstone special.

The “Terraces” at Mammoth Hot Springs

Day Two was animal day, and it started even earlier.  For some reason they do not have the animals trained to sleep in, so we had to be “up with the buffalo” as they say.  We boarded our bus and headed to the Lamar Valley, where the deer and the antelope play, or at least the bison.  The scenery was gorgeous and as we drove into the valley we began seeing more and more little black dots known as bison.  As they got closer, I realized they are not the prettiest creatures, but still neat to see in the wild and, of course, big.

Bison Coming Over the Hill

At one point we saw a group of buses, cars, etc. emptied on the side of the road, a sure sign that there’s something to see.  We pulled over as well and learned that a bison carcass had been spotted in the area the day before and there was some hope that some wolf, uh…“activity” might be on display.   Despite the potentially distasteful setting, this would be a treat as spotting Yellowstone wolves is relatively uncommon.  We each broke out the Association provided scopes and binoculars, trying to see nature at its magnified rawest.  Unfortunately, we saw only ravens circling the area.

Please Stop for Bison Crossing

As we were preparing to return to our bus, a bison came sauntering over the hill behind us.  It was followed by a little bison, which was followed by another larger bison.  They made their way down the hill toward the road.  The first bison, we’ll call him Dad, slowly crossed to the center of the road, stopping traffic.  While he waited in the center, the little bison tentatively began making his way across.  The third bison, Mom, approached the road and waited.  Dad stood there in the center of the road, waiting for Junior.  Only once Junior had crossed did Dad continue on, followed by Mom.  This endearing scene made me laugh thoughtfully.  As we exited our bus earlier, every parent in our group had warned their child about the road: “be careful crossing”, “watch for cars”, “hold my hand”.  The bison family was no different; loving parents caring for their young –nature’s basics.  We’re all just animals, in a good way, at heart.

This theme was echoed during our drive back to Mammoth that evening.  Although we did not see any wolves, our guide was a great storyteller and taught us all about the history of the Yellowstone wolves – their localized extinction and ultimate reintroduction to the park.  Those lessons were fascinating, but what I remember most were the descriptions of wolf social behavior.  They’re just like people – innocent and carefree in youth, moody and independent in adolescence and, ultimately, loyal and caring adults.  Frankly, it was riveting in part because it sounded like a soap opera. Especially because some of the packs had names like Rose, Leopold, and Sunlight. Some of the more famous individual wolves were named Romeo, Casanova, and Big Brown.  It gave me a new appreciation for the animals and the scientists that study them.

There Are Wolves Out There Somewhere

The stories made a strong impression on my youngest son as well.  I think that was his favorite part of the entire trip.  After every stop that day, when we boarded our bus for the next drive, he was begging our guide to tell him another wolf story.  They never got old and, being out in their territory, you could almost picture the wolves running in packs across the hill – hunting for food, protecting their young.  While we did not actually see wolves that trip, those stories, in that setting, were the next best thing.

Our “Frontier” Cabin

Though the early morning and long miles made for a long day, the kids still had energy upon our return to our cabin.  It’s funny.  Here we were, in the middle of Yellowstone, surrounded by beautiful landscapes and interesting environment, and all the kids wanted to do was play hide and seek with each other around our cabins.  First I thought, we could have been anywhere – kids will be kids and, though we were all exhausted, they needed time to decompress from all the “new” and get back to basics.  But in hindsight, as I remember how their imagination and joy of simple pleasures seemed so natural, I think the ease of their play actually had a lot to do with the setting.  No TV, no iPods, no cliques – just five kids, outside, enjoying life and each other.  Very natural.

Day Three was all about the geology, waterfalls and canyons of Yellowstone.  On our drive to these scenic landmarks, we stopped occasionally if something caught our fancy, like nesting osprey or the stray buffalo wandering on the side of the road near the summit of a mountain – we’re still not sure what he was doing there.  We eventually made our way to a Yellowstone Falls viewpoint along a trail.  There was some pedestrian traffic, but it was surprisingly quiet.  From the viewpoint, we could see the blue-green falls in the distance, at the mouth of the canyon, itself full of color from the different types of rock and green trees peppering the landscape.  At that point, we each grabbed a piece of art paper and some colored pencil, crayons, or water colors.  Individually, we picked a quiet spot of dirt to sit, soak it all in and draw a picture.

Yellowstone Falls

In all honesty, this seemed weird at first.  I haven’t colored a picture in…well, it’s been a while, even including coloring with the boys when they were younger.  Now, here I was, trying to decide how seriously to take this…opportunity (?).  I’m sure the boys would want to see what I drew, so I figured I’d just start drawing and see what happened.  It became oddly quiet.  Passersby would come upon us, see us all drawing/painting, and silently move along without disturbing us.  I think we may have sat there for a half-hour or so, alone in our own world’s except for the occasional exchange of pencil or crayon.  When we were done, my picture was unremarkable (my lack of artistic experience showed), but I still remember the experience – the sunny canyon, slight breeze, and serene quiet.

We all travel places and look around quickly, doing our best to appreciate what we see before running off to the next attraction.  The drawing exercise forced me to slow down and really connect with my surroundings.  After all, you cannot draw something well after only a quick glance – you must slow down, take it in, study it, and try to reproduce it.  This magnifies the moment and strengthens the memory.  It was one of the best parts of the trip.

The last day began with a group breakfast.  To everyone’s delight, all the kids gathered at one end of the long table, enjoying their last morning together.  After eating we went to the Mammoth museum where the kids turned in “Junior Ranger” worksheets they’d completed showing everything they learned during the week.  In exchange, they were each awarded a Junior Ranger Badge from the local Ranger; pretty cool.  There are Junior Ranger programs offered at most National Parks!  We then headed out on a short hike to some hills just above Mammoth.  Along the way we came across some old elk bones that had been left after a kill some time before.  Rather than being grossed out, our newly anointed Junior Rangers were intrigued and began trying to identify the bones as if they were recently unearthed fossils.

Props Representing Things Learned

We continued on a little ways before reaching our stopping point, a makeshift cone-shaped structure constructed of branches.  Most Junior Rangers were a little reluctant to go inside; too many spider-webs.  The parents sat down on the grass outside the structure while our guide had a quick conference with the kids.  The guide and kids then presented the parents with a nice skit during which each child held a prop (ex: a wolf tooth, a pine cone) and described something he or she learned during about Yellowstone during the trip.  Each of us, parents included, then showed the rest of the group our artwork created the day before, explaining what we drew and why.  Though we experienced the week as a group, this was a nice way to learn how the trip impacted each of us as individuals, both the junior and “not so junior” rangers.

We then made our way back down to Mammoth and, after one last group picture, each family headed to its own vehicle and off to the next adventure.  Some headed down into Wyoming to see the Grand Tetons.  Others were off to other parts of Yellowstone they’d not yet seen (remember, it’s big).  Some hung around a few more days to enjoy a beer festival in Gardiner, the town just outside the north entrance of the park.  We headed back home to the Seattle area.  Though it was tough to leave, we were satisfied.  We are excited to return to the park on our own some day to spend more time on the areas that really interest us as a family.  We got a great taste of Yellowstone – learned a bit, saw a lot, and came back better than when we left.  I hope to feel the same after every trip because, though Yellowstone is big, the world is bigger, and we’ve got traveling to do.

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