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This last weekend my family headed to Island Park, ID to visit with my sister and do the Big Springs float. We had our life jackets ready, and headed out early on Saturday to go rent a raft and launch on the river. We arrived only to find that it was so busy that there was often over an hour plus wait just to get on the shuttle to go to the launch site. OUCH! We were looking at a 3-4 hour wait for a raft (because we had not brought our own). So, thankfully, our kids have learned to be flexible. Instead we went back and changed and decided to head to Yellowstone National Park.
We left my sister’s home around 11:30 am and planned on being back by 7 pm. the West Yellowstone park entrance is about 30 minutes from her house. That left us approximately 6 1/2 hours to explore the park. Was it going to even be worth it to go? Well, we knew we didn’t come all this way to sit in the tent trailer for the entire day. So we were going to give it a go and see how much we could fit in.
While we haven’t spent much time in Yellowstone with the kids (we haven’t been since before the twins were born), Mike and I had made several trips there in our pre-kid days and so thankfully we knew the park pretty well. We also brainstormed with my sister about the best route as she knows the park really well. We loaded up a cooler to make lunch and headed to the park with just an idea of what we wanted to accomplish. And guess what we had a great time! And we did most of what we wanted. So here is what we did in Yellowstone in just over 6 hours, and after I will give some more tips for those of you who might have a little more time to spend in the park.
Our 6 Hours in Yellowstone
We entered Yellowstone through the west entrance in West Yellowstone, Montana. I love this entrance because it has great access to the lower loop of the park, which is what most people tend to want to visit. The lower loop contains Old Faithful, Yellowstone Lake, the Mud Pots, and the Lower and Upper Falls as well as Yellowstone Canyon. These areas are the must-hit spots for those wanting to hit the iconic/touristy spots in the park.
When we entered the park, we paid the entrance fee. General prices are $30 for a 7-day pass, $50 for a 7-day pass that includes Grand Teton National Park or $60 for a annual pass to JUST Yellowstone National Park. In my opinion, if you will be planning a visit to any other National Park within the year, it may be a good idea to spend $80 and get a National Park Pass good to all National Parks for one year.
The park ranger at the entrance gave us a map, a newspaper with news, tips and other info, and a flyer reminding visitors that animals are dangerous and you should not approach. Even though I know the park layout pretty well, it was good to have the map to make sure we knew what attraction we would hit up next.
We drove into the park and headed straight for Old Faithful. On the way we saw one lone elk in a field. I was honestly shocked to see even one as it was now noon and quite warm. So we were pretty excited to see that elk.
Once we parked at Old Faithful we quickly made some lunch and fed the kids. By the time we were all fed and ready to get going, it was after 2 pm. We headed to the bathrooms and gift shop area. While in the Gift Shop we asked the cashier when they expected Old Faithful to erupt next. He looked and said 2:40. We checked our watches and it was 2:35. He reminded us that the eruption times can be off 10 minutes either way, but he could see people were still waiting for the eruption across the way.
So we picked up the twins and booked it over. We barely made it to the sign and board walk to see Old Faithful start going off. Definitely glad we made that eruption because we would have been waiting another 90 minutes for an eruption.
After Old Faithful we headed back to our car and loaded up. We headed out down towards the south entrance of the park and followed the road around to drive along the side of Yellowstone Lake.
Our next stop was Artist Point. The drive to Artist Point was beautiful though we did hit some crazy rain and hail storms that we would keep catching up with us through out the day. We did not have any ponchos or jackets with us due to the change in plans, so thankfully we were never caught outside in the rain more than a few moments.
Artist Point is a gorgeous view of the Lower Falls and Yellowstone Canyon. This is a great spot for pictures. Many view points are accessible to those in wheelchairs or to take a stroller, but if you want to go to the highest view point/overlook, you will have to reach it via stairs, twenty-four of them (the Goof counted, I did not verify). If you are able to make it up, I highly suggest it. It is a gorgeous view, not just of the falls, but of the canyon. If you are not able to, do not worry. There are several views of the falls in the more accessible area.
After we finished at Artist’s Point we had to head back to the car and do some diaper changes. The joy of traveling with twin toddlers. We decided our next stop was going to be the brink of the Upper Falls.
It only takes a few minutes to get to the brink of the Upper Falls from Artist’s Point. What I love about visiting this spot is that you get to stand right at the top of the waterfall where it goes over the edge. You do have to go down a lot of stairs to get there. Which means you have to go up a lot of stairs on the way back up. And only one side has railings in a lot of places.
We got down to the brink of the falls and immediately it started to rain. So we snapped a quick pictures, showed the kids the waterfall and booked it up the stairs. We got to the top and decided to let the twins walk (we carried them up the stairs) only to have one decide to walk SOOOO SLOW! Needless to say, he and I got kind of wet.
At this point we decided to drive to the Canyon visitor center to get some ice cream and check out the exhibit there. There is about a 20-30 minute drive to get to the Canyon Visitor Center from the Brink of the Upper Falls, but it is a prime area to see bison.
During the peak of summer weather, you are less likely to see herds of bison. It is just too hot for them. But if you keep your eyes open you may see a few stray bison roaming the plains and crossing the river. We were able to see 4. Not a lot, but enough to make the Goof happy.
We got to Canyon and headed over to the Yellowstone General Store for some ice cream. Yes, we made a point to stop and get some ice cream in Yellowstone. They have some seriously yummy ice cream!
After ice cream we spent some time in the visitor’s center. They have an exhibit about Yellowstone and how it is a dormant volcano. It is very educational and filled with some cool displays.
After we finished up at Canyon, the rain once again caught up with us. By this time it was time to start heading back toward West Yellowstone. We headed back and were out of the park by 6:30.
How To Make The Most Of A Short Visit
When you are trying to make the most of a short visit to Yellowstone it can be a bit stressful. After all Yellowstone National Park is fairly large, and many of the major attractions are spread out. So how can you maximize your small amount of time to fit the most in? Here are some suggestions:
- Choose one loop to explore. The main roads in Yellowstone look like a figure 8 if it were drawn by a preschooler. There are five entrances. The North and North East entrance both lead into the top loop on the figure 8. The other three entrances lead into the lower loop. Each loop has several popular tourist attractions, though the lower loop includes all of the ones we visited (but both the Lower and Upper falls are close to the upper loop). Sticking to one loop can help you get in a lot of attractions in a short amount of time.
- Decide where you want to stop ahead of time. If you can, look up the park map before your visit. But if you are doing a last minute visit like us,you may not have that option. As soon as you get your park map, be sure to look it over and decide the most important stops. Try to take into account crowd size. Our family chose not to stop at the hot springs, paint pots or geysers because of crowds. If you are there during peak season on a weekend, you sometimes may not even be able to find a parking spot at the roadside attractions.
- Old Faithful Tips. If you are heading to Old Faithful, you can spend a lot of time looking for parking. Here is a tip: head to the west parking lot. They mark one entrance to this lot as parking for the grill and diner, but it is open to everyone. (The other entrance to this lot is marked “West Parking”) It usually has a lot of open spots, and in all honesty, is quite a bit closer to the viewing area. Also, you can check out expected eruption times at most park entrances. Remember that the times can be 10 minutes off one way or the other. The geyser erupts approximately every 90 minutes.
- Bring lunch and dinner and eat in the car. Having a prepacked meal, or quickly making sandwiches while you wait for Old Faithful or between attractions. It will save you both time and money compared to eating at some of the dining options in the park.
If you can, I would definitely spend a couple of days in Yellowstone. Especially if you enjoy hiking. But it is possible to do a lot in a few hours.