After a summer spent close to our New York home, my husband and I were excited to cross Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks off our bucket list when things finally reopened in summer 2021. So did 4.8 million other visitors, but as New Yorkers we are used to crowds. The bigger challenge was convincing our kids, two teens and a grade schooler, to go along with us on a 1,000-mile road trip with no WiFi.
Despite a record number of visitors, sparse food options, and a 10-year age gap making it difficult to find activities for everyone, it’s the stunning scenery and thrilling experiences that stand out one year later. Our family of five meandered through two states on a gigantic loop filled with majestic bison, raging rapids, jagged cliffs, and Camarasaurus fossils (not to mention several stops for huckleberry ice cream).
I was enamored by Jackson, Wyoming, before our plane even landed. The jagged cliffs of the Tetons looked close enough to touch as we descended to the tiny airport. I ran excitedly to the bear spray kiosk, then hopped into our rented Chevy Tahoe and headed to Grand Teton National Park’s Jenny Lake Visitor Center.
Just a few minutes into our first hike, Matt, who was ahead of us on the trail to the ferry dock, called back, “A black bear just crossed the path!” I gripped my can of bear spray tightly, but the massive bear sat in the shade of a tree maybe 25 feet off the trail, unimpressed by the crowd that soon gathered to ogle. Park rangers quickly moved everyone along, but the excitement was palpable, even in my typically-reserved teens. The steep, rocky trail to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point offered breathtaking views as a reward, and our only wildlife encounters on that side of the lake were super-friendly ground squirrels begging hikers for snacks and puffy rodents called pikas darting among boulders.
I usually stick to activities that we can all pursue, but I knew my teens would love the thrill of the via ferrata rock climbing course, so we split up the next morning. They took the gondola with my husband to meet their instructor for a half-day climbing session while I hit the much tamer ropes course with our 7-year-old, Sienna.
We proudly conquered kid-friendly obstacles while our thrill-seekers atop the mountain geared up for the challenging climbing course that included grasping iron rungs drilled into the granite rock face, climbing cable ladders, and crossing narrow suspension bridges. We reunited for lunch with a view at the top of Bridger Gondola, where they recapped their morning and showed off their scraped knees, calloused hands, and panic-inducing selfies.
That afternoon we were off to A-OK Corral for a 2-hour trail ride. Our group, with Sienna up front near the guide, ventured into the woods and up steep terrain. We stopped for some rest and a photo op at a scenic vista overlooking Bridger-Teton National Forest, and that family picture became my favorite of the whole trip. We spotted several bald eagles on the return trip to the ranch.
That evening I swore I was too tired to leave the fireplace at our condo in Teton Village, but the Perseid meteor shower beckoned. We headed to an empty field, where shooting stars streaked across the inky sky every few minutes and the Milky Way was visible to the naked eye, a treat for New Yorkers so used to light pollution that we often mistake helicopters for celestial events.
Groundhogs and a family of moose
The next morning, we drove through Grand Teton National Park, hitting up iconic spots like Schwabachers Landing, known for the towering cliffs reflecting in the peaceful stream below, and Mormon Row, a historic enclave dating back to the 1890s. The sky was a startling blue against the stark gray of the cliffs and vibrant green of the valley. I was compelled to annoy my children by taking far too many pictures of them until I discovered the playful groundhogs that live around the Moulton Barn and turned my lens toward them instead.
After a relaxing morning of scenic drives and breathtaking views, it was time for Lewis and Clark Expeditions to provide an adrenaline rush. Our half-day whitewater rafting trip on the Snake River didn’t disappoint, with rapids like Big Kahuna drenching us with 55-degree river water. This was one outing that left every family member, from age 7 to 45, grinning (and shivering).
The next morning it was time to pack up and move on to the next park, but not before pulling over along the aptly named Moose-Wilson Road. A crowd had gathered at an overlook, with binoculars pointed down at the still water below. Sure enough, two adult moose and a baby were wading and eating in the creek. I could have watched all day, but the kids grew antsy and we had more than 100 miles of driving (and what seemed like just as many scenic stops) ahead of us. After breathtaking overlooks at Oxbow Bend, Snake River Overlook, and Colter Bay, we finally crossed into Yellowstone National Park.
Springs, steam, and spray
I couldn’t have been more excited to arrive at our first geothermal feature: West Thumb Geyser Basin. This 0.75-mile boardwalk loop was the perfect introduction to the otherworldly smoking, steaming, bubbling—and smelly—landforms. I loved imagining early visitors cooking their freshly caught fish in the 170-degree Fishing Cone spring right beside the vast and frigid Yellowstone Lake.
Next, it was time to brave the crowds at Old Faithful. It was thrilling to watch the geyser shoot 180 feet into the air, but standing shoulder-to-shoulder felt more like we were in Times Square than a national park. Few people explore beyond the main viewing area, but we meandered along several miles of serene boardwalk. We marveled at the wildly spinning water of Daisy Geyser, dozens of colorful pools, and bubbling pits. We made obligatory stops at the gift shop and snack bar, but I could’ve walked among those surreal landforms for hours.
The next morning, Sienna took part in the Keeper Kids program at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. The educational program focused on keeping bears wild by safeguarding food and trash, and the highlight was hiding food and later watching the rescued bears forage for it.
After a hearty meal in town, we headed back into the park for more thermal features, including the infamous Grand Prismatic Spring, whose turquoise and orange hues are the most-photographed feature of Yellowstone. The long lines to park and disgusting bathrooms were forgotten when we took in the stunning colors. The boardwalks at Fountain Paint Pots offered dozens more cool landforms, but it was a hot day and only wading in the Firehole River could rejuvenate the kids.
We began the next morning at another site I had seen so often when planning and couldn’t wait to experience in person: Mammoth Hot Springs. This was our hottest day yet, and there wasn’t any shade on the winding boardwalks and stairs that wound through the beautiful, ever-changing stone formations. At some point Matt and Sienna returned to the car to wait it out in the air conditioning, but 14-year-old Hannah stayed with us, taking hundreds of photos of the white and rust-colored calcium carbonate terraces.
Next we drove south to Sheepeater Cliffs. There we climbed the boulders at the foot of the towering cliffs before hiking along the Yellowstone River, taking advantage of several wading spots. The trail was delightfully uncrowded, and we only left when our rumbling stomachs demanded it. We grabbed lunch and ice cream in Mammoth while a thunderstorm rolled through, then hiked to the suspension bridge above Hellroaring Creek. The steep switchbacks among stunning purple wildflowers led to the rushing river, and I wished we would have continued the hike all the way, but dusk was approaching.
Our final stop of the evening was Lamar Valley; the herds of bison roaming the grassy plains were hard to miss but the wolves remained elusive even when kind strangers offered to let us use their spotting scopes.
The next day was our last in Yellowstone, and included another park hot spot: the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, a stretch of river and the park’s most famous falls. We did the 328 steps into the canyon, amazed at the rushing water that had carved a colorful valley.
Digging for fossils
By this point in the trip the kids were fatigued, so a restful drive to Cody, Wyoming, was in order. A quick stop at Old Trail Town offered a cool history lesson. The dusty old buildings included Coffin School, named because the schoolmaster mortally wounded himself while cutting wood; a saloon; and several homes frequented by Buffalo Bill and Butch Cassidy.
At the Cody Rodeo that evening, our youngest joined in the kid-friendly events and declared that she too would ride one day. I can’t say I loved the rodeo (my first) and I was grateful her short-lived career goal was soon replaced with becoming a paleontologist.
Day 8 of our trip brought us to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis, where we took part in a half-day dinosaur dig on an active dig site. We had booked this as a surprise for dinosaur-obsessed Sienna, but it turned out to be a highlight for all of us. We ended the day hot and dusty but content after several hours of chipping away at the stone and uncovering Camarasaurus fossils. We were allowed to bring a few small bone fragments home, and the large neural arch that we uncovered was marked and left for professionals to finish excavating.
We drove to DuBois, Wyoming, where the jacuzzi at our final accommodation felt refreshing and a game of pool in town was a relaxing finale to the trip. The next day we returned to New York, where the WiFi was plentiful but the views were less spectacular.