BY: ANDREA WILSON
Let’s keep it real and admit that traveling with younger kids to National Parks is not easy.It can also be over whelming to plan a trip that is kid-friendly. But with a little planning ahead,it is feasible and totally worth the memories!
With my family of five, which included three grade school-aged boys,we chose to venture to one of America’s most renowned national parks, Yellowstone. Since we were already in Montana, why not add on Glacier National Park? Most people combine the Grand Tetons with Yellowstone. For us, the draw to Glacier was to view the majestic landscape of the fast-disappearing glaciers.
We started our adventure the first week of June in Glacier at the very beginning of the busy summer season. As Glacier was still cold with snow still on the ground. The advantage was that it was not hot or too crowded. The negative is that the Going-to-the-Sun Road was not open all the way through the park, so we missed sights through Logan’s Pass. Even without seeing the entire park, it was still amazing views and hikes. With the tip of booking 5 months early, we scooped up lodging at some really ‘cool’ (my boys’ words, not mine) places on both the west and east sides of the Park. There truly is not a lot of lodging for families of 5 in the park.
When thinking about Yellowstone, there is so much to do! We really had to be choosy when selecting our itinerary due to the significant amount of driving required to cover the sites. Because we did so much hiking at Glacier, we decided to take it easy at Yellowstone and enjoy the unique and easily accessible (i.e., you can drive vs hike) geologic wonders and wildlife.
Here is a sample itinerary for hitting Glacier and Yellowstone National Park to help your trip planning. It can be modified for 10-12 days, but less days than that will squeeze your leisure time due to the necessary travel time by car
Day 1: Fly to Montana
You can fly into Bozeman to rent a car and return it to the same location. Alternatively, to save a day of driving, you can fly directly into Kalispell to hit West Glacier and fly out of Bozeman after doing Yellowstone Park but it will cost you a hefty car rental transfer fee. We stayed in Bozeman one night to prepare for the drive to Glacier the next day. Bozeman is a hip little town with a lot of good restaurants, shopping, and home to Montana State University. So, if you have some down time, it is a nice place to explore!
Day 2: Drive to West Glacier
It takes about 6 hours to drive to West Glacier so most of you day will be driving unless you get up super early. There is not really a good in-between place to visit to break up the drive.
Optional Day Trip: If you have an extra day, visit Whitefish. Whitefish is a quaint little resort town (population ~9k) with unique souvenir shops. Reservoir Trail is a great hike and view if you don’t want to drive too far from town. You can even stay in Kalispell and take a break with your wallet using points at a chain hotel, like Holiday Inn. There is not much ‘to see’ in Kalispell but it is a major city and a good stop for groceries, supplies, and to eat at the only Chick Fila in the entire state!
If you don’t have the time, book directly to stay near the entrance of West Glacier National Park. We loved our stay at Great Northern Resort. They do not have laundry facilities but are affordable cabins with a full kitchen and plenty of space to lounge. This is marginally important since there are not a ton of places close by to eat or buy groceries (10 – 15 mins drive). Right across the street there is an amazing Mexican restaurant called Las Casita and a very cool souvenir shop connected to it.
Day 3: West Glacier
Because the Going-to-sun Road was not full plowed we were only able to go to Avalanche Trail, but that was one of the best hikes. Beautiful views of water along the way, an interesting hike with lots of rocks to climb and a beautiful view at the top of Avalanche Lake.
Pro-tip: If you are unable to secure an entry admission pass for Going-to-the-Sun Road, you can still get into the park before 6 am, snag some primo parking and hit the hikes early without the traffic. We headed into the park by 5:45 am, hiked by 6:15 am, and finished hiking before lunch.
Optional Day Trip: If you have an extra day, visit Pole Bridge. You don’t need an entry pass to get into the park at Pole Bridge but you do need to drive an hour to get there. Stop by the Pole Bridge Mercantile and Bakery for some yummy baked goods. We enjoyed a hike around Bowman Lake.
Day 4: Drive to East Glacier
It is about a 2-3 hour drive to East Glacier. If you get a room inside the park, you will not have to worry about the park entry pass, as it comes with your reservation. We did not stay inside the park. We snagged a family size room at Many Glacier Hotel with an amazing view of Swift Current Lake. We enjoyed a 2-mile hike around the lake. For a more challenging hike, check out Grinnell Lake Trail. You can either take a boat ride (book it early!) to reduce the hiking distance by a mile or hike the 4 miles to the lake. We had to skip the hike due to rain. It rained for 3 days while we were there so bring your rain coat and rain pants, if you have it! On the way to Many Glacier, we stopped in Babb at Two Sister’s restaurant for a nice hot meal. Don’t forget to try their Huckleberry pie!
Another good lodging option is Glacier Park Lodge. It is a historical lodge and right across from the Amtrak train station.
Day 5: East Glacier
When you enter the East Glacier entrance on Going-to-the-Sun Road, there are many enjoyable hikes to waterfalls, each with a view of strikingly beautiful blueish green water. You can either hike all the waterfalls in one long 7-mile hike or break it up to fit your needs. Since we had grade school kiddos, we broke it up into smaller hikes, taking advantage of the many trail heads and parking lots. We started at St Mary Falls trailhead and hiked 1.2 miles to St Mary Falls. There is an option to continue to Virginia Falls another 1.9 miles from St Mary Falls. We then drove to Sun Point Nature Trail and hiked the 1.0 miles to Baring Falls. On the way back, we took a very short .5 mi extension to our hike on Sun Point Nature Trail, which was my absolute favorite view.
In the afternoon we headed to Two Medicine. We enjoyed a short hike on Paradise Point Trail (0.6 miles one way) and continued to Aster Falls (1.5 miles), where we had the good fortune of a moose sighting on the way!
Day 6: Drive to Yellowstone Park North entrance
Again, a 7-hour drive so budget time for travel. If you know you are flying home out of Bozeman, Gardiner is the closest place to stay near a park entrance, about 1 hour drive. We chose to stay at the Yellowstone Gateway Inn. It was an apartment style lodging that was affordable and less than a 5-minute drive to the park entrance. We liked staying here to use it as home base as we did not have to pack up every 2 days (and I could do laundry!). The bonus was that it had a kitchen and was located right across the street from the only grocery store in Gardiner. If you are on a budget, there are not many places to eat in Gardiner that will cost you less than $20 a person. It was nice to have a kitchen to heat up prepared grocery store food. We could also walk to the park visitor center, restaurants, and stores within 10 minutes. While you are there, treat yourself to the local brand ice cream Wilcoxson’s and, if you have time, check out a white-water rafting trip down the Yellowstone River!
Day 7: Take a scenic tour of the wildlife
We scheduled a tour with Yellowstone Wonders. Our tour guide, Mike Skelton, is top notch in service, knowledge, and experience. It was well worth the investment in having a guide drive you to the right spots at the best time of day to view wildlife. With his scopes and binoculars, we saw a side of Yellowstone wildlife you just can’t experience with the untrained naked eye. Mike tracked down views of more rarely seen animals such as wolves, goats, sheep, black bears, and grizzly bears – at a safe distance of course!
Day 8: Grand Prismatic Springs and Old Faithful
Grand Prismatic Springs is the largest hot springs in the United States and known for its beautiful colors. If you are staying in Gardiner, it will take a good 1.5 - 2 hours to drive to the south side of the park, so plan accordingly.
Pro Tip: To get the best view, go past the parking lot for the Grand Prismatic Springs and park at Fairy Falls trailhead. Hike the 1-mile trail to view the Grand Prismatic from the top.
You can’t visit Yellowstone without seeing the most infamous and predictable active geyser in Yellowstone, Old Faithful. Download the Yellowstone National Park app to check eruption predictions to make sure you get to see the action. Remember to check the app before entering the park as there is little to no cell reception throughout. When we were there, crowds started to gather 30 minutes before prediction times. Lather on the sunscreen while you wait, as Yellowstone is 8,000 ft above sea level!
Pro Tip: Park at Old Faithful Inn to avoid traffic. Stop for gas whenever you see a gas station as you never know when you will see another gas station.
Noteworthy optional things to see along the way to or from Old Faithful: Gibbons Falls, Firehole Canyon, Fountain Paint Pot, or Firehole Lake Drive
If you are feeling ambitious, drive out the south entrance of Yellowstone to Grand Teton National Park. It is about an hour drive to Colter Bay Visitor Center from Old Faithful. When you arrive, there is a nice walking path around the island and it’s a nice area to get your feet wet with a view of Jackson Lake!
Day 9: Mammoth Hot Springs
You may be tired of the car, so for an easy driving day from Gardiner, visit the park Headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs, a maze of boardwalk style touring of hot springs. We enjoyed these hot springs the most because the sulfur smell was less noticeable due to the open-air landscape. But hold onto your hat! We saw quite a few hats that flew into the hot spring area.
Pro Tip: If you arrive after 9am at Mammoth, look for a parking spot in the Upper Terrace area.
It is about a 2-3 hour morning activity, so afterwards, you can head to Norris Geyser Basin, do a hike of choice (if it’s not too hot), or take on more sight-seeing by car (Gibbons Falls, Firehole Canyon, Fountain Paint Pot, or Firehole Lake Drive).
Day 10: Canyon Village and Yellowstone Lake
Visiting Yellowstone Grand Canyon can be a bit of a drive from Gardiner (a little over an hour) but a must see. Hike the Upper Falls side via Uncle Tom’s Cabin trail to Artist Point (2.0 mile there and back in shade!). You can drive to Artist Point but you miss the various views of the waterfall and canyon. Look for the rainbow when viewing the waterfall!
Pack a lunch and find a picnic area by Yellowstone River. Bring water shoes and a towel so kids can play in the river on a hot day.
After lunch, you can hit the Lower Falls for a close-up view of the falls or take a drive to Lake Butte to see the best panoramic view of Yellowstone Lake.
Pro Tip: Bring lots of water as it is hot and required at such a high elevation!
Day 11: Fly home
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