I love the idea of a road trip. It isn’t something people do that often in the UK, since it is such a small country and the main roads are really congested. With so many places here to explore and big open roads, I can’t wait to get out and explore. Perhaps it is a little unrealistic to expect it to be plain sailing with a three kids and a dog in tow, but I’m always eager for a challenge. A few years ago we took a road trip to Curlew lake for our first family camping holiday, which was a really successful trip. Why not take the plunge and go for the long haul?
Close to 700 miles seems an awfully long way to drive so we broke up the journey with a camping trip with friends in Eastern Washington and an overnight stay in Missoula.
We have camping packing down to a fine art. We decided not to take the kayak on this trip but everything else in the picture was loaded into the Suburban. Our tent is an Alaknak with an added vestibule. It has plenty of room for our family of five to walk around inside and is quick and easy to put up. We sleep on camping cots and pack a camping kitchen but to be honest on this trip we didn’t use it a lot. The best time to see wildlife is early morning and evening so we rarely got back to the campsite before it was dark. I was told it was cold at night so packed plenty of warm clothes. We didn’t need many warm weather clothes at Yellowstone. Yellowstone is mountainous territory so has considerably cooler temperatures than surrounding regions, we mostly wore long trousers and layers.
On the Road
After our weekend camping we headed through Eastern Washington( I saw tumbleweed for the first time) towards Spokane where we took a lunch break. We then crossed the State line into Idaho. To keep ourselves amused, we accepted a friend’s challenge to spot licence plates from different states. This was the perfect challenge for a trip like this. Yellowstone is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country, so there were plenty to find. We managed to find 45 of the 50 states by the end of our trip.
We then crossed another state line into Montana. There were lots of roads like this,
They don’t call it the blue sky state for nothing.
For our overnight stop we had pre-booked a cabin at KOA Missoula. I was really impressed with how neat and clean this KOA was. There were floral displays everywhere and a man who ventured out every morning to water and feed them. The staff were really friendly and the shop well stocked. Ice cream was served in the evening (much to the delight of the girls) and breakfast in the morning. The girls enjoyed a dip in the pool before it got too dark.
Travelling to West Yellowstone
The next leg of the journey, through Montana was really beautiful. We stopped for lunch along the way and then another rest break (conveniently at a consignment/antique store) made the journey around six hours. Arriving at West Yellowstone KOA, the girls headed off to the indoor pool while Dad put up the tent.
Tips for Camping in Yellowstone
Tips for Camping at Yellowstone
- Our first concern regarding camping was that we were in grizzly bear country. The owners at the campsite assured us that they rarely see any wildlife on site except for foxes, but to keep any food locked in the car to be safe. We also had a bear proof food container which was almost human proof too.
- Even in the height of the summer, Yellowstone gets pretty cold at night often reaching below 0 degrees centigrade. My advice would be to get good quality winter grade sleeping bags, lots of layers and hats for night-time. We also bought a camping gas heater and with this on we were warm enough. If you have very young children or are not seasoned campers I would recommend staying in a cabin or RV. Campfires are permitted at West Yellowstone KOA.
- During the daytime, campsites are pretty quiet as all the guests are out exploring. The pool and hot tub was very busy in the evenings when people returned. We chose to stay at the campsite and use the facilities in the morning when it was quiet and head out after lunch. This gave us plenty of time to drive to the best places to view wildlife in the evenings.
How Easy is a Yellowstone Trip with a Dog?
- Dogs are permitted in Yellowstone but there are a number of restrictions. Dogs are not allowed on any of the trails or boardwalks or on the roadside.
- We were fortunate to have cooler, cloudy days so that we could leave the dog in the car when visiting big attractions like Old Faithful. On warmer days we took the trails and boardwalks in shifts. I went with the younger children and then my husband and my eldest went when we got back.
- Yellowstone is huge and a lot of the sites you can see from the road, particularly the wildlife. I think we would probably had a different experience if we had used the trails more but it is perfectly reasonable to take a dog and do the trip in the car.
The Sights of Yellowstone
Day 1. Artists Paintpots – We underestimated quite how big Yellowstone is and how much there is to see. On the first day we headed to artists paintpots, passing a few smaller sights on the way. We took it in turns to walk the trail and boardwalks around the hydrothermal basin, so we could leave the dog in the car. Artist paintpots is full of coloured pools and mudpots that bubble like a witches cauldron, perfect for making up fantasy stories for little ones. Yellowstone wildlife greeted us for the first time in the guise of a chipmunk and a coyote walking out of the woods past the car.
For the rest of our stay we decided we should plan the things we really wanted to see and work out a manageable route. This was our list and route.
Day 2-Old Faithful – The times that Old Faithful is likely to erupt can be found on an app. The signal in the park is very poor, so once you get in you may find that it doesn’t work but the times can also be found in the shop. Next to Old Faithful is a display of photography and old cameras. This was fun to visit. At the shop we picked up Yellowstone Jack – a very cute friend to carry around and include in your pictures. He can then be tagged on Instagram to win prizes. The girls thought this was great fun. If geysers are your thing, there is a whole trail of different geysers around old faithful, but by this point we were a bit geysered out.
Day 3–Wildlife spotting Our main destination for day 3 was the Hayden Valley, a good place to spot wildlife. Along the way we stopped to see an Elk, walking along the edge of the river. At the Old Faithful gift shop we bought a book,”Who Pooped in the Park”. The book is a children’s guide to animal tracks and scat that might be found in the park. The girls were fascinated and walked around the meadow trying to identify all the different types of poop.
We also stopped to admire many of the views and arrived at the valley at dusk. We saw a whole herd of Bison, some walk along the road but mostly you watch them coming out to graze as daylight falls.
We spotted a group of people looking out over the valley, so stopped to see what they could see. They had set up very powerful scopes and showed us a pack of wolves, too far in the distance for the naked eye to see. We were hoping to see a bear but unfortunately not this time although we were assured there was one travelling down the hill.
Day 4- Waterfalls .Our first destination was Canyon Village, where we stopped at the store before heading to view the Lower Falls. The view was spectacular and you could clearly see the yellow rocks that give Yellowstone its name. Even the little ones were absorbed in a few moments of quiet contemplation.
The girls amused themselves by climbing the rocks, travelling in different ways around a tree.
Our next destination was the Lower Falls, a short distance away. We were a little cautious when we saw bear warning signs but the girls soon found a tree trunk to amuse them.
There is a longer walkway that takes you above the falls but it was a little late in the day to try that. When we left it was beginning to get dark. We saw a sign for Artist’s Point but debated whether it was too late to stop. We decided to take a quick look and I’m so glad we did. This was the biggest surprise of the trip, the view was so stunning that it almost didn’t seem real. The whole trip was memorable and full of new experiences but I think this is the view that will remain imprinted in my memory forever. It left me lost for words. I can clearly imagine sitting there for hours writing or painting, it certainly lives up to its name.
I could have stayed here forever. The little ones thought the view was amazing too and they studied the rock faces with the binoculars.
Day 4 Final Day – The Quest to Find more Wildlife
We decided to cut our stay at West Yellowstone KOA short and booked a cabin in Deer Lodge, Montana, for a slightly warmer night and to shorten the journey home the next day. After packing up and letting the girls choose homemade fudge from the campground store, we headed back to the park for the last time. After 3 days of spotting bison, the girls were really keen to find different wildlife. Our first discovery was a mountain goat sitting in a ditch along the side of the road.
We climbed the high ground to reach the Loire Valley. The views as we climbed were magnificent and we stopped many times to take photographs.
We were really keen to see bears, and stopped to use the binoculars to see if the dots in the distance might be bears, but sadly just bison.
Our intention had been to drive some of the valley to spot wildlife and then turn around to exit the park. After driving for some time we realised we had driven the whole valley and reached an exit to the park in a little town called Silvergate, where we stopped for a drink at a small café.
I overheard the owners saying that they had been visited by a bear on recent nights and often it could be seen on the hill in front of us foraging for wild strawberries. We sat staring at the hill, but didn’t see any wildlife.
The lady told us that in the park there was a dead Bison near the old ranger station and you could often see bears feasting on the carcass.
As we headed back into the park it began to rain and as we looked to the side we were greeted by the most magnificent full rainbow, one of the most amazing sights I have ever seen.
The rain soon stopped and we carried on until we saw crowds of people along the side of the road. The people pointed out the location of the Bison carcass and invited us to look through their scopes. You could clearly see a pack of wolves feasting on the carcass. The girls thought this was really cool.
Finally we travelled to the exit of the park at Mammoth Springs. Mammoth village was a pleasant surprise. It houses the parks headquarters, hotel, lodges and a historic fort. Deer were grazing everywhere and I wish we’d had time to get out and explore. This will definitely be our first destination if we return to Yellowstone.
Points to consider when visiting Yellowstone with children
- Expect a lot of driving. The park is vast and getting to the main attractions often involves a few hours drive.
- Pack snacks and drinks. There are places to eat at Old Faithful, Mammoth Springs, Canyon, Grant Village and Yellowstone Lake but they may take a while to get too and are often busy. If you travel to see wildlife in the evening as we did it will be dark by the time you leave and more difficult to find food. There are plenty of restrooms throughout the park.
- A lot of the wildlife is far off in the distance – the Loire Valley has lots of bison for close up wildlife, or Mammoth Springs for deer. If you want to see wildlife in the distance invest in a scope (a good pair of binoculars helps but you will only see wildlife clearly with a scope).
- Go to a visitor centre on your first day, here you can pick up junior ranger activity booklet to keep the children occupied during their stay. The stores also have some great books for nature-based activities, facts and figures and things to spot on your journey.
We stopped overnight at Deer Lodge KOA – a small KOA perfect for an overnight stop. Our final stop was Couer D’Alene in Idaho, where we stopped for lunch, a play in the park and a swim at the beach before heading home.
Alta Lake State Park to Spokane – 3-4 hours (with a short stop at Grand Coulee dam)
Spokane to Missoula 3- 4 hours (overnight stop)
Missoula to West Yellowstone approx. 5 hours ( we also stopped twice; for lunch at the Smiley Moose Deli in Bozeman and to browse antique shops between Bozeman and West Yellowstone, I can’t remember exactly where ).
Mammoth Springs to Deer Lodge KOA approx. 3 hours (overnight stop).
Deer Lodge KOA to Couer D’Alene 3-4 hours.
Couer D’Alene to Eastside Seattle – 4-5 hours. (one short food stop).
The children on this trip were aged 12, 7 and 5. The trip was taken during late August.
Photographs by Michael Mcclary