Yellowstone National Park was the world’s first National Park and is one of the most famous parks in the United States. The vast park covers over 2 million acres and has over 900 miles of trails to explore. Here are the best things to do in Yellowstone with kids for a 3-day family vacation. We visited Yellowstone when our kids were 4 and 6 years old on our American Northwest family road trip in the fall of 2021.
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Why is Yellowstone National Park so Famous?
Yellowstone National Park is famous for the largest group of hydrothermal features in the world, including the renowned Old Faithful geyser, and many hot springs with rainbow-like colors.
The unique geologic features of Yellowstone were created by a supervolcano. After huge volcanic eruptions more than 600,000 years ago, the center of the volcano collapsed, forming a large basin, that encompasses most of today’s park. The heat from that volcano continues to fuel the geysers, hot springs, fumaroles, and mudpots in the park today.
Yellowstone is also famous for the various species of wildlife that can be routinely spotted in the park. Wild herds of bison (American Buffalo) cross the park roads, as well as herds of elk. Grizzly bears, black bears, trumpeter swans, mountain lions, wolves, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, and moose all can be seen within the park.
How to Get to Yellowstone National Park with Kids
Yellowstone National Park is largely in Wyoming, although parts of the park extend into Idaho and Montana. There are many ways to get to this park, but all of them ultimately involve driving. There are five entrances and exits in all cardinal directions, but distances across the park are vast, so plan ahead where you want to spend your time.
There are several regional airports that will get you close to Yellowstone National Park for your family vacation.
The Jackson Hole Regional Airport gives you access to both Grand Teton and Yellowstone. It is about a 1-hour drive from Yellowstone’s south entrance.
The Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport near Bozeman, MT gives you access to both Yellowstone and Glacier National Park. It is about 1 1/2 hours from the north entrance to Yellowstone.
For larger airports, check out Salt Lake City, or Denver, and plan a road trip from there.
You can drive into Yellowstone from the south directly from Grand Teton National Park, as the two parks touch. Total drive time from Jackson WY to the South Entrance of Yellowstone Park is 1 hr 20 mins. However, from the south entrance of the park to the Old Faithful area, is an additional hour.
You can drive into the park from the North Entrance, leaving Gardiner MT, and reach the Mammoth Hot Springs area in just 20 minutes.
The West Entrance brings you from Ashton, Idaho to the Old Faithful area in just under 2 hours.
The Northeast Entrance lands you in the Tower-Roosevelt area from Red Lodge, Montana, in about 2 and a half hours.
The East Entrance is about an hour from Cody WY, but then you have another half hour to Fishing Bridge Museum and Visitor Center at the north end of Yellowstone Lake.
When is the Best Time to Visit Yellowstone National Park with Kids?
Yellowstone’s peak season is during June, July, and August, which is also when you will find peak crowds. Some trails are closed for snow until around Mid-June. Visiting in September and October means fewer crowds and fewer mosquitos. During this time you can expect high temperatures in the low 60s, with cold nights. Avoid spring in Yellowstone, as this is called “mud season”.
We visited Yellowstone as a family in mid-September and the park was absolutely packed. There were lines to get into parking lots, and lines for the limited food options. We didn’t notice any bugs, but we did have frost every morning. We started each day with hats, gloves, and warm jackets, and peeled off layers as the day warmed up.
How Much Do I Need to Plan Ahead?
We advise booking lodging in advance. Some popular lodging options in Yellowstone book up a year or more in advance, so the sooner you can reserve rooms the better. If you would like to have dinner at one of the nicer lodges in the park, you should make reservations as soon as possible as well.
Download maps and apps ahead of time. The National Parks Yellowstone App is designed to be downloaded so that you can use it without cell service. Do not expect wifi or cell service in much of the park.
Planning ahead is one of our top family travel tips- you can check out the other tips at 21 Family Travel Tips for 2021: Best Tips for Travel with Kids.
How Much Does Yellowstone Park Cost?
The fee to enter Yellowstone National Park is $35- that is good for your full car and lasts for seven days (as of 2021). If you will be combining this visit with other National Parks, be sure to get an America the Beautiful Pass– this annual pass costs $80 and gets you unlimited access to National Parks for one year. This pass covers entrance fees, it does not cover tour fees or lodging fees.
4th graders (and 5th Graders in 2021) also get a free annual park pass for their families.
Look for Junior Ranger packets in the visitor centers. Yellowstone is one of the few parks that charge for the packets- but they are also some of the most fun! The kids complete the packets and return them to be sworn in as Junior Rangers complete with a fun Junior Ranger patch.
You may also want to get a family National Park Passport Book to stamp at each park you visit.
What to Bring to Yellowstone National Park
Plan for changeable weather: Bring jackets and rain gear. Snowstorms can blow in unexpectedly even in June or later.
Bear Spray: Stay back from wildlife, and don’t let the kids run ahead on a trail. If you won’t need it for other parts of your trip, donate it to the park rangers on your way out of the park. Use your judgment- if you are staying on heavily trafficked trails, this may not be necessary. You can rent bear spray in the Canyon Village section of the park.
The wind can be brutal: Be careful with hats. Either leave them in the car or make sure to have a chin strap. Hats are notorious for blowing off into geysers or hot springs.
Binoculars: You’ll want to check out the wildlife without getting too close.
A full tank of gas: You’ll be driving long distances, and don’t want to run out of gas. There are a few gas stations within Yellowstone to fill up as needed.
Yellowstone with Kids: Itinerary for 3 Days and 2 Nights
You could easily spend a week exploring this park as a family. Here are our suggestions for exploring Yellowstone with kids when you have 3 days and 2 nights. This park is huge. You’ll want to plan your time carefully as there are many different sections to the park, and drive times between the sections are often over an hour. You will want to carefully consider your lodging choice to reduce the drive times. We stayed in the Lake Village section of the park, so began each morning there.
Most of the trails in the park are either boardwalks or paved, so they are generally stroller friendly. There are some stairs, particularly in the Mammoth Terraces.
Day 1: Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic
For your first day, focus on the Old Faithful section of the park. This is where you’ll see the highest concentration of geysers, and colorful hot springs. There is a lot to see here, we had a hard time fitting it into one day after driving from Grand Teton. You’ll want to either split it into two days or plan to sleep in the park the night before to get an earlier start to your day.
Drive into the park and head straight to the Old Faithful area of the park. This is a very busy part of the park, but there is also a lot of parking available.
Start at the Visitor Center to get Junior Ranger packets and to ask any questions you may have. There are detailed trail maps available at the gift store for 50 cents. There is also a large map of the Upper Geyser Basin, which may help you plan. I like to take pictures of maps like these for reference when we are on the trail.
Behind the Visitors Center, you’ll find Old Faithful, the most famous geyser in the park.
Anticipated eruption times for the largest geysers are posted on whiteboards in multiple locations including outside the Old Faithful Inn, Visitor Center, and Lodge. If you are waiting for Old Faithful to erupt, check out the lobby and gift shop of the Old Faithful Lodge. We arrived close enough to lunch that we grabbed food from the cafeteria in the Inn and took it outside to the benches to wait for the eruption.
You can also tell when the geyser is going to erupt based on the size of the crowd assembled. Right before the appointed time, the crowds are massive all around the viewing area.
We ended up seeing Old Faithful erupt three times during our time in this area of the park- it’s worth noting that the eruptions are different every time- some are more powerful, sending higher plumes of steam into the air, some are longer but less powerful.
Upper Geyser Basin Trails
After watching the famous geyser, head to the Upper Geyser Basin trails. If you do the shortest loop that goes around Old Faithful, you’ll find one of our favorite hot springs- Blue Star Spring, which has an almost gem-like blue color. For a more extensive trail, with the Old Faithful Lodge to your back, head to the right and cross the river. You’ll be on a boardwalk with a series of geysers and hot springs that follows flat ground for about a mile before ending at Morning Glory Pool, a famous hot spring with intense colors that resembles its namesake flower.
Rather than retrace your steps, you can walk back to the Old Faithful area along the road. You’ll have the option of a short side trail to see Daisy Geyser and Punch Bowl Spring.
This trail is not difficult, but when we were there it was largely overcast, and the wind was strong, we were all worn out after walking the full trail in both directions.
Midway Geyser Basin
Drive north toward Madison, to reach the Midway Geyser Basin. This area is extremely popular, and you may need to wait for a parking spot. Here you will find Excelsior Geyser, the largest geyser in the park. It’s huge and very pretty.
You’ll also find Grand Prismatic Spring, which you will see pictures of throughout the park. From this viewpoint, you can’t see much of Grand Prismatic- the steam coming off of it obscures all but the edges. Look for elk and moose tracks in the mud here. Look up the hill in front of you and you will see people on a rock outcropping- this is the Grand Prismatic Overlook, and the best view of the spring.
Fairy Falls Trailhead
Driving north, just before the turn-off for Midway Geyser Basin is the Fairy Falls Trailhead on the left. It is marked on the right-hand side, but the sign is easy to miss. From here you can hike up to the Grand Prismatic Overlook.
The hike to Grand Prismatic Overlook is 1.2 miles (total for there and back) and overlooks the Grand Prismatic Spring and the Midway Geyser Basin. Or you can continue to Fairy Falls, for a total of 1.6 miles each way.
Head to your lodging and relax, it’s been a long day!
Day 2: Mud Pots, Wildlife, and Grand Canyon
For Day 2, explore the Hayden Valley and then head up to the Canyon Village section of the park. If you have time, continue on to Mammoth Springs, the farthest north section of the park, or save this area for Day 3.
Mud Volcano and Dragon’s Mouth
Start your day by exploring the Mud Volcano area. Follow the boardwalk in a clockwise direction. This ensures that your walk will be less steep, and you’ll end with Dragon’s Mouth Spring, which was also our favorite feature in this area.
The morning we visited the boardwalk was covered in frost. This area is full of mudpots- bubbling lakes of hot mud, as well as fumaroles, their drier cousins. These are sulphuric caldrons, so there is a bit of a smell, but not too strong.
Drive to Hayden Valley between Yellowstone Lake and Canyon Village- you will find this area marked in yellow on the park map. Although we were told that this 20-mile stretch often gets congested with traffic, we didn’t have any trouble driving through. There are consistently herds of wild bison here- either on hillsides around you, or crossing the road and causing cars to stop nearby. The males tend to stay solitary, while the females and calves travel together.
We also saw a grey wolf in this area, so keep your eyes peeled!
Stop for lunch in Canyon Village, then head south to the South Rim Trail. Drive to the end to see Artist’s Point, where you’ll get a great view of Lower Falls from an easy overlook. If you feel like hiking, there is a one-mile hike out to Point Sublime that leaves from there.
Drive back up the South Rim Trail to the trailhead for Uncle Tom’s trail. The stairs on Uncle Tom’s Trail are currently closed, but you can easily see Upper Falls from the lookout just off the parking lot. If you’d like additional views of Upper Falls, you can hike the Brink of Upper Falls Trail on the north side of the river.
Alternatively, drive out early to the Lamar Valley to hopefully see bison, elk, and more. Turn around at the Pebble Creek pull-off. Pack a lunch or plan to eat at the Roosevelt Lodge (closed after labor day). You can also grab sandwiches at the Tower General Store (or ice cream), then visit the Tower Fall viewpoint just 100 yards away. From here, head south to the Grand Canyon section of the park.
*Please note that the road between Canyon Village and Roosevelt is scheduled to be closed until May of 2022. This includes the Tower General Store and Tower Falls Trail. We skipped this area, as it’s a long way around with the road closed.
Mammoth Hot Springs
This was the area of the park I was most excited to see- we had planned to save this for Day 3, and found ourselves with more time than we anticipated on Day 2. We found this area… disappointing. We visited in mid-September and the terraces were largely dry.
To access the Mammoth Hot Springs area from Canyon Village, drive east to Norris, then north. In Mammoth Village, you will find a General Store as well as the Terrace Grill. We ate lunch from the Grill (takeaway only) at the picnic tables across the street. The food was truly terrible- we overheard a gentleman at a nearby picnic table remark dryly “cold pizza would have been better”. The Mammoth area was packed with people- cars were everywhere and parking was tight.
The Mammoth Terraces are travertine formations that form when water bubbles up through buried limestone. They are constantly changing. The lower terraces are covered in boardwalks that you can walk around. The upper terraces are surrounded by a driving loop. I’ve seen pictures of this area that are just amazing, so my guess is they are best visited earlier in the season.
Day 3: Last Looks and Exit
Check out of your lodging and head toward your chosen park exit. This is your chance to stop at any lookouts, features, or hikes you’ve skipped over the last two days.
If you haven’t stopped at Roaring Mountain between Norris and Mammoth, try to check out this quick viewpoint in the early morning. It appears that the mountain “roars” a lot more in the morning than in the late afternoon.
We exited the park at the North Entrance, past Mammoth Hot Springs, heading toward Gardiner MT. From there we continued up through Montana, and on to Glacier National Park.
What About Moose or Bear?
I really wanted to see moose in Yellowstone National Park, but no luck this time around! They can sometimes be spotted in the Willow Park area between Norris and Mammoth. We did see a black bear cub cross the road when driving in this area. There are both black bears and grizzly bears in the park.
Lodging Options in Yellowstone Park with Kids
There are many lodging options in Yellowstone Park if you book early. When we made our reservations, the cottages at the Yellowstone Lake Hotel were the only mid-range option still available. If we were to return, I would not stay in that section of the park again.
The Cottages at the Yellowstone Lake Hotel were simple- placed behind the main lodge, next to employee parking. The windows are small, and there was no refrigerator in the room, making it difficult to store picnic supplies. This area was also extremely windy. There is a terrific general store in this area, complete with a fireplace.
I would recommend one or two nights in the Old Faithful Area, and then one night in the Canyon Village area. Canyon Village seemed to have the most amenities and is very centrally located in relation to the other areas of the park. The Canyon Lodge also has outside tables, though there were only serving Lodge guests there when we visited.
Where to Eat in Yellowstone Park with Kids
Food is limited in Yellowstone, so if you can, plan to bring picnic supplies with you. In the Lake Village area, the only dining option was the Lake Hotel Dining room, which did not have outdoor seating, and at 6 pm had a two-hour wait for a table.
In the Mammoth area, the only lunch food available were pre-made sandwiches at the General Store, or the Terrace Grill, which had a line out the door. We do not recommend the food at the Grill.
We got lunch one day from the Old Faithful Lodge cafeteria- it had a good variety though some of the stations were closed when we visited. We ended up with a mix of burgers and barbeque.
What Can I Do at Yellowstone National Park Other than Hike?
There is a lot to do at Yellowstone with kids other than hiking. Depending on their age, you can drive around the various lookout points, or take on one of the more athletic options below!
You can rent bikes from the Snow Lodge in the Old Faithful area of the park. These can only be ridden on designated paths and trails. You can rent for one hour, a half-day, or a full day.
You can take a horseback ride through Yellowstone. Departing from either the Canyon Village or Roosevelt areas of the park, rides are 1 or 2 hours, with a minimum age of 8 years old.
Old West Dinner Cookout
Those 8 years and older can ride a horse out to an Old West Cookout. Either 1 or 2 hours, the ride is followed by dinner in the Roosevelt area including a campfire and cobbler for dessert. Younger kids or those who prefer a gentler ride can take a 35-40 minute stagecoach ride out to the cookout.
There You Have it!
The best way to navigate this huge national park in three days! Yellowstone with kids is a lot of fun but be prepared for changeable weather and long drives. We loved seeing wild bison up close and exploring some of the crazy geologic features of the park.