Yellowstone National Park: Sharing My Itinerary and Tips for an Unforgettable Family Adventure

This past July, my family of four embarked on an epic summer adventure in Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park and Jackson Hole, WY.  If a trip to Yellowstone is on your bucket list, I urge you to go for it! Now is the perfect time to book a trip for next summer. Our family unanimously agreed that this was the best vacation EVER.  Around day two in the park, as we were all standing and silently taking in the awe-inspiring scenery, one of the kids said, “Mom, do you think that maybe we actually all died on the plane and now we’re in heaven together?”  My sincere response was, “I feel like that is a definite possibility.” 

Admittedly, planning this trip was a little overwhelming at first.  I had never been to this part of the country before and didn’t have a great grasp on the geography of the park or exactly what to expect once we got there.  I will tell you that Yellowstone National Park is enormous! I’m talking nearly 3,500 square miles of wilderness! I found it really helpful to use a few other people’s past trip itineraries to have a place to start from when planning our ideal trip so, I thought I do that here for any LCM readers interested in planning their own adventure. First, though, I’ll share some general information and a few basic tips to get you started. 

  1. BOOK EARLY! As in, like, now-ish if you’re hoping to go next summer.  The majority of Yellowstone is only accessible between May and October.  There are only nine hotels and five campgrounds within the park and they fill up quickly, sometimes a year in advance.  If you do end up booking later, don’t fret.  I know of several people who were able to snag lodging reservations a couple months out by diligently checking the website for cancellations every day.  Canyon Lodge has the most accommodations of all the hotels so that may be your best bet to start with.  
  2. BRING YOUR OWN RESUABLE WATER BOTTLES AND SNACKS.  Not only is this eco-friendly but it will also save you money not having to purchase water and snacks for a premium while in the park.  We stopped at a Wal-Mart somewhere in Idaho before entering the park and filled up a small cooler with snacks to bring out on the trails with us.  All of the hotels have water refill stations and you can also find them in various spots throughout the park. 
  3. GET OUT OF THE CAR.  I read a statistic somewhere that the vast majority of park goers never venture more than 150 feet beyond the main roads.  Due to the limited window of opportunity, expect the park to be crowded during the peak summer months.  Getting out and going on even a short hike will not only let you see more of the gorgeous sights Yellowstone has to offer, but you will get to experience a significant drop in the masses of fellow tourists. 
  4. TAKE WILDLIFE SAFETY RULES SERIOUSLY. There are several species of potentially dangerous animals in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons including bear, wolves, and wild cats. But, you are most likely (in fact, I’d say it’s 100% guaranteed) to encounter a Bison.  Bison are no joke, my friends.  These bad boys are HUGE and they’re everywhere and they are deceptively agile for their size.  The National Park Service recommends staying at least 75 feet away from wildlife for good reason. The rangers we met told us that there are wild animal related injuries every single year and there are almost always preventable.  Does anyone remember this news story that went viral last summer? We didn’t see it but we were in the park when that happened! (The little girl made a full recovery, just FYI). 
  5. EMBRACE THE CHANCE TO GO TECH FREE. None of the hotels within Yellowstone have TV’s in their rooms and there’s essentially no cell service or WIFI, save for a few coveted areas within a smattering of the lodges. After the first day of (I’m ashamed to admit) painful detox, it was actually unbelievably liberating to go without our phones and screens.  We were forced to just be and to have actual conversations and play actual board games at night with each other in the evenings. Those of you with tweens and teens especially will understand what a gift this was. Honestly, it was one of the best parts of the trip for me! I will admit, the one time we did miss having cell service was when trying to navigate the park and the trails.  GPS would have been SUPER helpful, for sure. Still, they have these old fashioned things made of paper called maps that you can use for free which, require a little more effort but work just as well. (Just don’t forget to take them with you-speaking from experience)!

Here is the day by day itinerary for our nine day vacation. Many adventurous souls will make this entire journey by car, which we were very tempted to do, but we opted to fly the majority of the way in order to maximize our time in the parks.  From here in Lake Country, it would take approximately 22 hours to drive straight through to Yellowstone without stopping.  Mount Rushmore is on the way so that’s a great option for those of you who are able to take more time off and make a long road trip out of it! Unfortunately, there are not many options when it comes to flying into Yellowstone. We had points to use on Southwest so the closest airport available was in Salt Lake City, Utah, nearly six hours away.  There is an airport in Jackson Hole, WY which would be significantly more convenient which, of course, means it’s significantly more expensive to fly there.  Despite the fact that no matter what route you choose, getting there is not especially easy, it is so worth it!

DAY ONE: We took an evening flight out of Milwaukee to Salt Lake City, Utah.  In SLC we rented a car (we opted for a larger SUV which I would definitely recommend) and spent the night in a hotel near the airport. 

DAY TWO:  From Salt Lake City we made the just under six hour drive through Utah and Idaho into Wyoming. We arrived Yellowstone National Park through the West Entrance. The scenic drive from Salt Lake City to Yellowstone is absolutely gorgeous and it will go quickly! We stopped in Idaho Falls and had a great lunch at Snake Bite Restaurant. Once in Yellowstone, we checked into Old Faithful Inn for the first of two nights there.  The Old Faithful Inn is a gorgeous inn, constructed in 1903. The multi-story open lobby is constructed of pine logs and is absolutely breathtaking.  

Make sure you go out to the rooftop deck to enjoy a cocktail and watch Old Faithful erupt.  Old Faithful erupts approximately every 90-100 minutes.  The front desk at the Inn will have an estimated time for the next eruption posted.  One of the perks of staying at the Inn is the convenience of being able to catch Old Faithful at off-peak times either early in the morning or in the evening.  Try to avoid midday as the crowds can get pretty intense. 

That first evening we were able to get a front row seat to Old Faithful and then walked right over to the Old Faithful Lodge for a cafeteria style dinner.  

DAY THREE: Day three was a hiking day, we ended up hiking over ten miles! We started with a hike around the Upper Geyser Basin which is right outside of the Old Faithful Inn. This hike is an easy one which takes you around a looping boardwalk past lots of geysers and hot springs. We opted to take the trail up to the top of the Old Faithful Overlook for some really pretty views.  After the morning hike, we grabbed some snacks and sandwiches from the shop inside the Old Faithful Inn lobby and packed them to eat at our next stop, the Fairy Falls Trailhead.  This trail is just a short ten minute or so drive from the Inn.  The hike to Fairy Falls is a relatively flat, out and back hike with a round trip of just under six miles.  Just past the start of the trail will be a detour to hike up to the overlook of the Grand Prismatic Spring which is a must do!  It’s something you really have to see to believe! 

Fairy Falls is just gorgeous and well worth the journey to get there.  Make sure you bring plenty of water with you, however, as there are no refill stations along the trail.  For other day hike options, just stop at the Old Faithful welcome center or the front desk and they will give you lots of suggestions and the latest updates on trail closures.  That night we had a great dinner at the more upscale Old Faithful Inn Dining Room. Make sure to make advanced dining reservations. 

DAY FOUR:  Today we hopped on a vintage 1975 Yellowstone bus and took an all-day guided tour of the park.  We opted for The Circle of Fire tour which, I would highly recommend.  Especially if you have only one or two days to spend in the park, this tour hits all of the major highlights.  Our guide, Micah was fantastic and we learned so much cool stuff. You will make several stops along the way to get out and explore a little more and take photos. We got to see lots of animals including a black bear sighting while driving through Hayden Valley, a stop at Artist Point to see the falls of The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Madison Junction, Lake Yellowstone, and Fountain Paint Pots.  It was really nice to relax on the bus and let someone else navigate the wilderness for us! After the tour, we loaded up our belongings and headed about ninety minutes north to stay at Canyon Lodge for the next two nights. 

DAY FIVE: We drove through Lamar Valley today which, we were told, is one of the best areas for wildlife viewing and it didn’t disappoint.  We saw herds and herds of bison, lots of elk, and even a badger! If you see a group of cars on the side of the road it means someone spotted something interesting so go ahead and follow suite and pull over too!  On one stop we walked down to a river bed and watched a massive bison cross the river-so cool!  Our next stop was lunch at Roosevelt Lodge for one of the best meals we had in the park.  They don’t take reservations for lunch but we didn’t wait long for a table.  We loved sitting out in the old rocking chairs on the porch checking out the gorgeous view while we waited.  Then it was on to the Mammoth area of the park right on the Montana boarder.  We had a swim suits packed for a dip in the Boiling River. This is a spot where a hot spring flows into the freezing cold Gardiner River and forms a pool of perfectly warm water.  The parking is very limited and we had to wait close to thirty minutes just to get a spot so be prepared for this.  It is worth it though, definitely one of the coolest things we did.  The water is flowing at a pretty good speed so be extra careful with young kids.  Swim shoes or waterproof sandals are a good idea for everyone as the river bottom is pretty rocky.  After a soak in the river, we decided to venture out of the park for dinner and crossed into Gardiner, Montana for pizza. 

DAY SIX: Today was our last day in Yellowstone.  We packed up and headed south out of Yellowstone and into Grand Teton National Park.  On the way out, we stopped and took a scenic cruise of Yellowstone Lake and then had lunch at the Lake Hotel Dining Room.  After lunch, we drove about ninety minutes south to Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park.  Jenny Lake is surrounded by the Grand Teton Mountains and the views are absolutely awe inspiring. The trail around the entire lake is about seven miles which I wish we would have had time to do. We were able to hike about half way around from the ranger station to Hidden Falls and then took the ferry back across the lake.  If you’d like to just go see the falls without hiking, you can take the ferry both ways as another option.  Keep in mind that the last ferry leaves the dock at 7pm-we nearly missed it and came very close to having to hike the last three miles around the lake in the dark with the bears! After Jenny Lake, we drove a bit further south into Jackson, WY were we would stay for the next three nights in a condo we found on VRBO. 

DAY SEVEN:  Today’s adventure took us into the Bridger Teton National Forest for a two hour morning horseback trail ride through the mountains in Jackson Hole, WY.  We had a great experience at Mill Iron Ranch. Our cowboy trail guide, Colby was super friendly and knowledgeable.  This was definitely a much harder workout than I realized but it was so much fun! That afternoon we had BBQ for lunch at Bubba’s in Jackson, bummed around downtown Jackson and did a little shopping, had some huckleberry ice cream, watched the gun fight show in town square, and then headed back to our condo for a simple dinner and board games.  

DAY EIGHT: On our last full day of adventure we braved the rapids of the Snake River and went whitewater rafting.  We did the Classic 8 Mile Expedition with Lewis & Clark River Expeditions. This is definitely not for the faint of heart but we all agreed that it was one of the best memories of the trip.  Kids as young as seven years old can participate and there’s no experience necessary.  There are other options including a scenic float tour for those who’d like a less adrenaline with their adventures as well as an option that includes a riverside steak cookout for dinner. On our last night, we had dinner at Gun Barrel Steak & Game in Jackson and tried bison and elk steak.  

 DAY NINE:  After an epic trip, it was finally time to leave the Wild West and head home.  We made the long drive back to the airport in Salt Lake City, making sure to find an In-N-Out Burger along the way, because you can’t leave the western U.S. without doing that! 

Thanks so much for letting me share this trip with you! My family will be talking about the memories we made forever and I’m so glad that we were able to go out and see this part of our beautiful country together before my kiddos are grown.  What was the best family trip you’ve taken?  If you’ve been to Yellowstone do you have any other suggestions for families planning this trip?  Leave your suggestions in the comments below!  

Jennifer Hocevar
My name is Jen and I am so excited to be one of the new contributors to Lake Country Mom! I live in Oconomowoc with my husband and our two busy kids. My son, Zach is 13 and in 8th grade and my daughter, Addison is 11 and in 5th grade. Most evenings and weekends you will find me tooling around Lake Country in my minivan driving kids to various sports and activities. My husband and I swear we used to do things on weekends that did not involve youth sports at one point in our lives but, for the life of us, we can’t remember what they were. If I do have free time, I love to write and dream of publishing a novel someday. I also love traveling and am a sucker for any DIY craft that lets me use my glue gun. I adore living here in Lake Country and can’t wait to share some of my adventures with you! // Follow along on Instagram // Follow Filling up My Cup blog 

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