yellowstone national park

Getting out to Wyoming to visit one of America’s most famous parks was a huge undertaking for us this year. With the rapidly growing interest in national parks, reservations for activity passes or on-site lodging at popular places have to be reserved no less than 9 months in advance, sometimes earlier. When we planned out this trip and got up at 2am to book a suite at the Canyon Lodge, we had absolutely no idea that we’d be heading out west with our 8th family member aboard. I was inclined to postpone this massive 2-week/5-park extravaganza to next year, but Greg assured me we could stick with our timeline and make it work. We did, although this was easily the most memorable + challenging trip we’ve been on yet.

The unique blend of being physically and mentally demanding but also incredibly rewarding is hard to explain when someone asks “how was the trip?” I’ve been using the example of Old Faithful. We had front-row seats to a perfectly timed eruption of the world’s most famous geyser! It was amazing! But that exact moment was difficult. It was 40 degrees with a chilly wind, the viewing benches were soaked from the previous night’s rain, and we were struggling to keep our active toddler dry. A perfect scenario would have included cozy fur-trimmed parkas and frothy almond milk lattes, both of which were missing. Fortunately, the little details fade over time and leave us with only good memories.

We flew out to Rapid City, SD on a warm Sunday in August and spent four days exploring three national parks in the Dakotas, as well as Mount Rushmore and a few other significant sites. On Friday, we packed up early and left our rental house on the ND/MT border for the long drive into Yellowstone, stopping along the way for a windy picnic at Little Bighorn Canyon and a peek at the Little Bighorn Battlefield. By late afternoon, we passed the east entrance checkpoint and officially entered Yellowstone National Park! The first place we passed was Mud Volcano, a perfect taste of the overpowering sulphur smell and otherworldly steam vents which fill the park. We also quickly experienced the park’s other notable feature – traffic.

We checked in to our comfortable 2-bedroom suite at Canyon Lodge just in time for the familiar rush of Shabbat. The kids and I unpacked our cooler and sorted out all the suitcases while Greg ran down to the cafe with our challah bread (baked at home and frozen) to warm it up and order a few bowls of soup for dinner. We finally settled down to light candles and enjoy dinner in our room.

Our first full day in Yellowstone started with a chilly walk out to Artist Point, one of the park’s classically beautiful viewpoints located over the Yellowstone River (aptly named The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone). From there, we returned to the Mud Volcano region for a more thorough look at the steaming sulphur features, including our favorite, Dragon’s Mouth Spring. Areas like this are criss-crossed with wooden boardwalks, where you stroll along through the stench reading signs about how straying off the walkways could lead to death or severe injury, particularly for pets. It’s beautiful in a very unusual way. Even the parking lot has steam rising through the metal grates, a clear and somewhat unsettling reminder that we are on top of a supervolcano.

As the weather warmed up, we drove down to Sand Beach for a run around the black shore of Lake Yellowstone. For once, we had the place to ourselves. I’ve never been on black sand before and it was amazing! Next stop was the West Thumb Geyser Basin to see a wide assortment of geysers, pools, and springs in various sizes, colors and amounts of sulphurous smell. After lunch back at our lodge, we walked over to the Canyon Visitor Center for a park program about bison conservation. We headed out again later in the day to explore the Norris Basin, and then drove up through Dunraven Pass toward Mount Washburn on Grand Loop Road to watch the sunset from a scenic roadside pull-off. The children ate tangerines on the edge of a precipice as we watched the sun disappear over the mountains.

The next morning we left early to spend the day at Old Faithful. The distance isn’t very far, but traffic in Yellowstone routinely goes at a snail’s pace – and this morning was no exception, as halfway along our route someone spotted a deer in the forest and brought everyone on the one-lane road to a standstill while they took photos. It was so exciting to walk into the official “Old Faithful” Visitor Center! This lovely visitor center has a glass wall on the back overlooking the geysers, and scheduled eruption times are prominently posted. Although it can vary +/-5 minutes either way, the 9.01am Old Faithful eruption was exactly on schedule when we were there! As mentioned above, we joined a crowd of hundreds, somehow finding a front-row spot, to see the show. It’s almost like being at a horse race. You might sit, chat with people nearby, and take selfies, but as the moment approaches, you rise to your feet along with the entire crowd, and all at once everyone points their smartphones at the geyser to record giant white clouds of billowing steam spraying into the air.

We walked across to the the Old Faithful Snow Lodge to see about bike rentals (not available in advance which always requires more flexible planning) and were pleased to find that 6 bicycles + a bike trailer were ready for us to use! After a short rain delay, we headed out with our bikes and a map to explore the Upper Geyser Basin and Biscuit Basin. Part of the ride was weaving through people trudging along the boardwalk wishing they had thought to rent bikes, and part was speeding through a meadow all by ourselves. The berries did so well on this trail. I was honestly struggling to keep up with Eva!

Through some careful planning ahead of time, we managed to score a dinner reservation at the Old Faithful Inn, a national historic landmark over 120 years old and one of the world’s largest “log cabins.” It’s still in use as a hotel and restaurant! Dinner was a satisfying spread of salmon, mashed potatoes, and salad from the buffet. On the way back to Canyon Lodge after dinner, we stopped for a hike at Grand Prismatic Falls and a glimpse of this famously colorful geyser.

Monday morning we drove up to the Roosevelt Corral for an authentic stagecoach ride, complete with a faux “hold-up” where our phones were seized by “thieves” and then used to take souvenir photos of us. This ride was a last minute addition to our schedule and I’m so glad we went for it. Just an hour of bumping over the dusty trail gave us a new understanding of what travel was like in the Wild West days, and a real appreciation for the conveniences we have today! The older four kids rode on top of the stagecoach with Greg, and Rachel rode inside with me. It was so much fun. We had lunch afterward at Mammoth Hot Springs near the Palette Hot Spring and then started our last top-to-bottom tour of the park as we made our way south toward Grand Teton National Park.

These matching Yellowstone sweatshirts were a huge hit, by the way! They were perfect for the fall temperatures. I ordered them from Etsy a few weeks before our trip and paid a lot less than we would have in the overpriced park gift shops.

A few logistical notes: while we enjoyed our stay at Canyon Lodge, which is centrally located in the park and convenient to most of the main attractions, we didn’t realize until we got there that Canyon is made up of several different buildings. This meant that there was no front desk or lobby in our building, so something like requesting an extra blanket involved a trek down the lane to their main building. The food situation is also tricky for a large, gluten free, health conscious, mainly vegetarian family like ourselves. There are strict rules about not cooking in the rooms, and only a small mini fridge provided, but it’s just not feasible to eat every meal out at a restaurant. The lodge also doesn’t have reliable internet service. This was disappointing because at night we like to run through the next day’s itinerary and check all of our details to make sure they’re current. That said, our 2-bedroom suite was clean and it had plenty of space for all of us!

Yellowstone is a truly unique park, and while we didn’t see everything there, I think we had a great experience of what the park is known for. It has a real “wilderness” feel! Would I go back? Maybe one day but not with little kids.


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