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Road Trip: Horsing Around in Yellowstone and Other Family Highlights

When we decided on a summer road trip to introduce our kids to the nation’s oldest national park, my husband promised my 11-year-old daughter he would accompany her on a guided horse ride. Not me. The last time I was on a horse, at 13, I was thrown hard enough to crack a rib, and I gave up horses on the spot.
Yet, somehow, the Yellowstone horse-riding event became a family affair, enlarging to include my eager 8-year-old son, who’d never ridden before, and me, too wimpy to admit I’d rather, well, wimp out.
In the end, with my heart pumping the entire ride, the hardest thing I did was lift my horse’s head from clumps of grass as our group of twenty riders ambled along a dusty trail in evening light with stunning vistas unrolling before us. Higher heart rate notwithstanding, horse riding in Yellowstone offers views most visitors only see in picture books.
Established in 1872, Yellowstone is the nation’s most famous national park, and it’s busy with more than 3 million visitors annually. The majority arrive in summer. Read: crowds.
Yet for many families, summer is the only time they can visit. Don’t let the prospect of crowds deter you. Ninety percent of visitors stray less than a mile from their cars, and it takes very little effort to escape the hordes. Try a hike to get away from the main road (few visitors hike), and visit popular sights at off-peak times of day.
Perhaps more importantly, plan to book your accommodation early, several months in advance for camping and even earlier for motels. But call the park even if you’re not ahead of the game. You might get lucky. The lodging/camping staff are helpful, and they’re happy to help you plan your visit.
Wondering how to prioritize? Here are some of our family’s highlights:
Norris Geyser Basin: Yellowstone contains the world’s largest concentration of geysers, and you don’t have to visit Old Faithful to appreciate the underground cauldron. Norris is reputed to be the hottest geyser basin in North America, and offers an enjoyable mile-long boardwalk to stroll around Porcelain Basin, where you’ll see hissing steam vents, hot pools, and small geysers. Be sure to hold your little one’s hand so he doesn’t misstep!
Mount Washburn Lookout: Mount Washburn offers an easy 6-mile round-trip hike on a gravel trail that even our 8-year-old hiked with little complaint (and we saw younger visitors on the trail). The trail terminates at a large lookout that offers a 360-degree overlook of the park and onsite park rangers to answer questions. Highlight: panoramic views, sighting bighorn sheep, and carpets of wildflowers. 
Uncle Tom’s Trail: This trail, featuring 328 steps down to a viewing platform for the “Grand Canyon of Yellowstone” and a thundering waterfall, turned out to be a family favorite. Because the viewing platform is small, I recommend an early morning visit to beat the crowds. Back at the top, walk the canyon rim along the paved 1-mile path to Artist Point for stunning views of the waterfall and canyon. Few people seem to know about the trail—we encountered fewer than five along the way.     
Lamar Valley: We drove into the Lamar Valley, a premier wildlife viewing area of open grassland and meandering rivers, one evening after dinner hoping to see the pack of wolves that resides there. No wolf sightings (and few tourists), but we did encounter a bison walking down the centerline, which we passed with only inches to spare. It turned out to be the entertainment of the trip for our son, who enjoyed watching his sister panic as the car edged past (it was a little freaky). Whether you see wildlife or not, older kids will appreciate the beauty of Lamar Valley.
Old Faithful: We couldn’t miss Old Faithful, although my kids decided it was overrated (I didn’t). Old Faithful’s eruptions are predictable, about every 90 minutes—hence, the name—and there’s no avoiding the crowds. But while you’re there, don’t miss walking the boardwalks of the surrounding thermal area, which turned out to be more interesting to my kids. Old Faithful Inn’s lobby, with a 75-foot high ceiling and a massive stone fireplace, is also a must-visit. Not only is it a stunning building, the inn is one of the largest log structures in existence.
We allotted three and a half days for the park, but if you’re traveling with younger children, consider allowing more time or picking an area of interest to avoid too much driving. Yellowstone is big, more than 2.2 million acres, and animal viewing traffic jams can extend travel time considerably.
If you go:
Be sure to check the websites below for updates on scheduled park projects, area closures, and facility improvements during the summer 2012 season.

Joanna Nesbit lives in Bellingham, Washington and looks forward to road tripping every summer. Find her work at www.joannanesbit.com.