My parents in Japan requested a trip down memory lane to Yellowstone National Park this summer. We visited Yellowstone nearly 40 years ago, when I was five years old, my brother two years old. They wanted to see the park again, this time with my 10-year old along for the ride. This summer seemed like the perfect opportunity. And what a trip it was! We were warned about crowds and traffic jams during high season, but the sights were well worth the headaches. Here are some highlights and tips from our experience. All photos taken by my 10-year old.
The Strangest Alien Landscape
The two things I remember vividly from my first trip to Yellowstone were its vast, strange landscape and the inescapable smell of sulfur. 40 years later, the landscape is no less alien or pungent. The color of water in Yellowstone is unreal, featuring all colors of the rainbow — cyan to electric blue, chili red, orange, mustard yellow. The colors come from microorganisms that live in the pools. The ground around you is constantly steaming, bubbling, or occasionally spewing water up to 20 feet high. It is the strangest alien landscape, also like a zoo for geological features. You can drive from one feature to the next and get a good overview of the park without much hiking, which is great for families traveling with very young kids and/or seniors. We saw many multigenerational families enjoying Yellowstone together, as we did.
Yellowstone is a dangerous place!
As you pay your park fee and enter the park, park rangers will give you a map and guide. This guide is super handy! It lists the top sights to see in Yellowstone and helped us prioritize what to see. The one thing they really wants you to know is that YELLOWSTONE IS A DANGEROUS PLACE. It really is. Bisons and elks roam the park freely, and while they look perfectly docile, it’s our responsibility to stay at least 25 yards away. Park rangers will block paths to even popular exhibit paths if there is wildlife. We didn’t do any backcountry hiking, but rangers recommended bear spray. Judging from the many bear and wolf encounters they told, it didn’t seem like an uncommon occurrence.
Oh, and those beautiful volcanic pools that look so inviting? Not only are they boiling hot, the PH in some of the pools are like battery acid. Yikes. (If you want to take home a collection of horrific deaths in Yellowstone over the years, there is a book called Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park sold at gift shops.)
If you want to stay inside the park, book your reservations early
Nearly one year before our trip, my parents called regularly to make sure I got reservations in Yellowstone. It’s a good idea to book early, because most rooms in Yellowstone get booked by tour groups. We stayed at the famous Old Faithful Inn for two nights and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins for a night. Staying inside the park has its advantages. Early morning walks rewarded us with amazing scenery as the sun crested above the hills. And no crowds!
Expect crowds and traffic
Yellowstone National Park is a popular destination for obvious reasons, so crowds and traffic are to be expected. It wasn’t too bad, though, when we visited after Independence Day. People do stop their cars randomly to take photos of wildlife though, so beware when driving. Parking could get tricky sometimes, but at most sightseeing locations, cars come and go. These aren’t the kind of locations where people leave their cars to go on long hikes. If you want to avoid crowds and take photos without being rushed, visit popular sightseeing locations early in the morning.
Let kids take photos
We’ve had our 10-year old take photos with one of our digital cameras on every trip. Yellowstone is extremely photogenic and easy to take great photos. Photo books full of pictures taken by the kids make great gifts to grandparents too!
I wish I had some photos to share from my trip 40 years ago, but alas, those photos are in Japan with my family, and they don’t have a scanner. It was fun to talk to my parents about what we remembered. Much of the scenery has remained the same, though accommodations have modernized.
We visited Glacier National Park after visiting Yellowstone, which was another beautiful park, but we only drove through Going-To-The-Sun Road. This trip inspired us to visit more national parks. We hope to visit Zion, Bryce, and Grand Canyon National Parks next year.