As the National Park Service celebrates 100 years of preserving the natural wonders of our beautiful country, two of our employees tell their stories of recent visits to national parks. Jennifer planned for two years and traveled with her family spending 9-days exploring the Yellowstone area, while Kristin traveled to the Grand Canyon on a last minute trip with a friend. You can read Kristin’s story here. Below is Jennifer’s story…
The following post is written by Jennifer, a seasoned travel specialist from the Boscov’s Travel Camp Hill office. Jennifer and her family traveled to Yellowstone in August 2016.
Remember me? I’m the one who wrote about the best age to take your kids to Disney. My answer in the end was ‘soon, very soon.” And that’s because waiting for a certain age wasn’t always an advantage to the memories you can make.
I started planning this trip to Yellowstone 2-years ago, initially for a client, and then for my own family. I thought that this scientifically rich, geological park was only for big kids … oh, wait I’m getting ahead of myself!
We were planning a week in Yellowstone and vicinity. I know many see Yellowstone as a stop on the way between two points in a cross-country jaunt, but with three kids, days on end in the car sounded more like purgatory than a vacation. We decided to take it slow. The “plan” involved four nights in Yellowstone National Park at some of their iconic lodges, thus the reason for the two year head start. These reservations can be made May 1 the year before so if you want to sleep under the roof of the Old Faithful Inn you are going to need to start early!
When it came time to buy airfare the “plan” took a left turn. Fortunately, I’m a professional. Air was just pricing out of range for our original plan of flying into Jackson and staying 3-nights there. So I searched, mapped and settled on flying in to Bozeman, Montana and staying 4-nights in Gardiner, Montana just outside the Northwest gate (because it was less expensive to stay an additional night than to fly back after 7-nights).
Day 1 – Fly into Bozeman Montana and drive to Gardiner. Accommodations: 4-nights at the Yellowstone Gateway Inn
Day 2 – No plans
Day 3 – Wildlife tour
Day 4 – No plans
Day 5 – Make our move to the Old Faithful Inn for 2-nights via a fishing trip on Lake Yellowstone
Day 6 – Twilight on the Firehole tour
Day 7 – Move to Mammoth Hotel (originally for 2-nights).
Day 8 – Horseback back ride to Old West dinner cookout
Day 9 – Depart for home
Day 1 – A delayed initial flight left us wondering if we would even make our connection (thankfully we did!). We went big with the car rental and took a brand new Suburban. From Bozeman with a 2-hour drive before us, we were in awe of the notorious “Big Sky”. It was spectacular. We arrived in Gardiner and were greeted by Trevor at the Yellowstone Gateway Inn. He showed us to our room in this quaint motel and gave us great recommendations for dining. The motel itself was older, but with a lot up updates it was comfortable, clean and by comparison modern. Our first meal at The Raven was in modest surroundings but the food was great. My oldest ordered duck (he was creating his own adventure), my husband had the elk lasagna (because where do you ever see that on the menu?) and I went with the local fish … you get the idea, we all ate well.
Day 2 – We had breakfast at the hotel and then we were off to explore Yellowstone with no set plans. We stopped at the Visitor’s Center in Mammoth and I excitedly signed us up for the junior ranger program, which lasted for about 10 minutes in the car before the youngest found it to be unacceptable! I was the disappointed one. It’s a great program at many national parks and I encourage families to give it a go – it just didn’t suit my kids. The park roads are pretty straightforward; basically two intersecting loops. We ended up doing the upper loop in the car with a stop at Canyon for lunch and a hike. Then we drove up to Tower and across back to Mammoth. I cooked dinner this night and we just walked around town and enjoyed the sites.
Day 3 – This was our crack of dawn tour to wake-up to wildlife at the Mammoth Springs hotel not far from Gardiner. We met our driver at 6:15AM and headed to Roosevelt to pick up the rest of our group. Our guide was knowledgeable and showed us a wolf den, plenty of bison and pronghorns, osprey and a bear and her cub. He took us all the way across the Lamar Valley in the iconic Yellow buses that Yellowstone is known for and we spent the rest of the day seeking wildlife. We explored the Norris Geyser basin at my urging and were transfixed by this living, breathing display of the earth as a living being.
This guy was right outside of our hotel room door.
Tonight we ate at one of Gardiner’s most recommended restaurants called the Lighthouse and it looked like a place from a small New England town. It had a great back-end story and even better food. Who knew that Gardiner, Montana would turn out to be a foodie town?!
Day 4 – Today was a day without a previous plan and it turned out to be one of the faves! We booked an afternoon whitewater rafting trip and then headed down to Yellowstone’s Boiling River for a swim. The Boiling River is really just an intersection where a thermal feature enters the Gardner River (yes, Gardner River outside of Gardiner, MT). This was like playing Goldilocks and the three bears – trying to find the sweet spot that wasn’t too cold and wasn’t too hot! We had a great time and met and talked to lots of people. It was one of those experiences that connects you to your destination and the people around you. This was something the kids really wanted to do again, but we didn’t make it back this trip.
The rafting was perfect for us. It was our first time and we used Montana Whitewater. There are several rafting companies in town, but I’m happy that we used them. They took great pictures of us (for purchase) and were quite knowledgeable about the area. I’ve seen rougher white water rafting, and I am pleased it wasn’t. It was a great introduction especially for my youngest who can get nervous and our guide Kevin was a calm presence for her. She wanted to go zip-lining after rafting, but that will have to wait for another time.
This night we ate at the Cowboy’s Lodge and Grill. It was a BBQ joint, very casual and tasty. The atmosphere was nice, but this is a tourist town and these eateries aren’t inexpensive so be prepared.
We wandered around Gardiner tonight, enjoyed ice cream and then saw this sunset that almost rendered us all speechless.
Day 5 – Time to pack up and leave Gardiner and the Yellowstone Inn. We made our way to the marina on Lake Yellowstone where we went fishing. We picked up our fishing licenses, met our guide Dean and headed for a picnic lunch. We cast into Lake Yellowstone trolling for Lake Trout and Cutthroat Trout. The Lake Trout are non-native and are a must keep or kill whereas the Cutthroat must be released. We almost set Dean’s record catching 25 fish … we were only off by 2. We took a few trout to Lake Lodge Cafeteria on a bag of ice and let the chef cook them up for us. They were delicious!
We made it to the Old Faithful Inn while it was still light out and saw a little bit of Old Faithful from the second floor viewing area before heading in for the night. The Lodge is an icon of National Park accommodations. For a family of five, we chose a two-bedroom in the main lodge which meant dormitory style bathrooms … my spoiled family was unprepared!
Day 6 – Today we headed to Grand Teton National Park. The drive was a couple of hours and the kids caught up on some sleep. On the drive we were in awe of the beauty of Jackson Lake and the Teton mountains surrounding it. Photos don’t do it justice.
We decided to do an easy hike and I checked in with a ranger at the Colter Bay Visitor center for easy hiking suggestions. He suggested Leigh Lake. The lake area was really crowded with kayakers, other hikers and just many enjoying the area … we felt a little unprepared for all that we would see to do when we only had a short time (mental note is to return someday to this place). We took a wrong turn on our hike and ended up on the String Lake Loop which was a more challenging hike. We ran into hikers along the way that assured us we would come back around. The trail was marked, I just made the mistake of following the children instead of leading them but it turned into a happy accident. I think we all discovered the meaning of “Rocky Mountain High” when the euphoria of the hike settled in. The view of the lake and the mountains was so close now. The wildflowers and the laughter of my own family just made this experience one of the best days of our trip. It was an unexpected memory created and one we won’t forget.
Off to find food … we just missed lunch time at the Jenny Lake Lodge and were advised to head down to Moose for a bite. We thought we were going to eat at the grill but they too were about to close, which sent us to Dornan’s Pizza Pasta Company. First: let me say delicious, second: quiet because it was the first wi-fi we had seen in days. I found out very early in the trip that carbs are a necessity to help avoid altitude sickness so this is no place to be focused on a low-carb diet … maybe that added to the enjoyment.
Time to return to Old Faithful for another yellow bus tour – Twilight on the Firehole. We had already walked the Norris Geyser Basin so we were delighted to have the tour only hit new locations and Fountain Paint Pots. We were also fortunate to have another spectacular guide, Paul, who was full of information about the geysers, hot springs and the history of the park. He peeled back the soft top roof of the yellow bus on the last part of our trip, gave us all blankets and we could watch as the stars emerged.
Each time we went on a tour or activity that guide became my daughter’s new favorite. She still talks about Paul.
We got back late, but just in time for dinner at Old Faithful in the dining room. Some of us had the buffet and some of us ordered from the menu. Remember that adventurous son I mentioned earlier? He order the grilled quail in a cherry glaze. He was continuing his culinary adventure!
Day 7 – Time to pack up and move. This was a little hard on the group but with traffic and construction on the park roads, it was certainly easier to be in certain locations from a touring standpoint. We headed north to Mammoth Hot Springs and the Mammoth Hotel. Originally the plan was to stay here 2-nights, but I dropped the last night to stay closer to the airport for our early flight back out of Bozeman. We walked the Upper Geyser Basin by the Lodge and watched Old Faithful again.
We attempted to have lunch at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, but no lunch was being served in the restaurant so we ate one last time at the Old Faithful dining room for lunch and headed to the car for our drive north. On Day 1 of exploration, we had driven down a small one-way side road called the Firehole Canyon loop and saw that there was a swimming hole there. This became a request by the two youngest so we ended up stopping and pulling bathing suits out for them and their dad to test out the water. The oldest and I opted to stay dry, but there was still plenty to enjoy.
We checked into the Mammoth Hot Springs and saw the finest accommodations that Yellowstone has to offer because if you want your whole family of five in one room you have to book the suite and there are only two. It came with snacks, drinks, robes and it’s the only room type that also has a TV – so we did take advantage of it while we cleaned up, napped a little and got ready for dinner.
Our last big dinner was at the Mammoth hotel dining room where three of us ordered the bison steaks. All in all, it was a very nice and comfortable dining experience. After, we turned in for a good nights rest in posh surroundings so that we could spend our last full day exploring the parks.
Day 8 – We were finally going to walk the terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs. This was our 7th day being inside the park, but it was still amazing.
I had charted out some possible hikes, but we ended up going horseback riding followed by a cookout. Also, we drove to see the petrified tree as there just wasn’t enough time to hike to the petrified forest (yet another reason to return). We did a couple of hikes behind the Roosevelt Lodge before heading over to the stables to saddle up.
This horseback riding was a really big deal because my youngest, Claire, is terrified of horses. She did it, the first leg with a lot of support from Kelsey – our friendly wrangler. She made it to the cookout and she was so proud. Now let me tell you about this cookout! It was a steak dinner and it was also one of the best dinners we had all week!
With Claire in the wagon on the ride back, we were much more focused on the scenery of the ride, the buffalo on the fields around us, the vistas – it was breathtaking. It took some of the sting out of the fact that riding a horse isn’t all that comfortable when you’re not used to it. We were on horse trails and this was the only way to see the park the way we were seeing it. That made it pretty special.
When the trail ride was over, we climbed into the car and headed back for Bozeman. The sun was setting as we made out last drive back to Mammoth, back to the northwestern gate and through Gardiner and then into the darkness to our destination.
We would only be sleeping at the hotel for 4 hours before we had to be up. Not our best nights sleep, but our last in Montana.
So when I was asked to write about my trip (or I offered) I had all these ideas of things to “talk” about. Of course I wanted to tell you what we did, but I also wanted to let you know what we would do differently. I think we did this trip just right for our family. Does that mean this was the best trip ever? For us it was. In fact, those were my husband’s exact words! But would I do it differently next time? Sure, because we already did this trip. I want to go back and spend more time hiking. There was a hike that was closed just above the Grand Prismatic spring called The Fairy Falls Trailhead. This is a must for next time. I want to hike and spend more time in Grand Teton and get all the way down to (or arrive in) Jackson Hole. I want to spend more time at the visitor’s centers and do some Ranger talks! There are compromises when planning family trips. I would do two rooms next time since the kids would be older (or not with us) since it would save money and give us more accommodation choices inside the parks.
I also want folks to know that as a travel planner myself I understand that my ideal trip isn’t necessarily your ideal trip. I want to help folks plan what’s best for them. I think the best travel planners get that. The only “formula” to travel planning is to get to know your client and their needs, ask the right questions, talk about it.
I met a family (because I like to strike up random conversations with people and find out about their story) at lunch on our first day in the park. We were at the diner in the Gift Shop in the Canyon area. It was counter style so I was sitting next to the family. They had come in from all over. It was her husband’s family. I think she said he was one of 7, and his parents, and dozens upon dozens of little ones. They were camping. Did I mention it was 90 degrees the day we arrived and then snowed about 24 hours later (in the upper elevations)? This sounded terrible to me! But they were grabbing lunch indoors and they would be cooking over the campfire later – spaghetti for that group! They were wet and muddy but they were together in a phenomenal place. They were making memories. I don’t know if the youngest in the group would remember Old Faithful or the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone but I know they will remember being with their cousins, aunts and uncles and grandparents. I know they will remember, because I remember a trip very much like it myself from childhood. It’s bits and pieces and I know when I talk to my mom about it we remember very different things, but I remember.
I hope to help plan many more trips for myself and for my clients that are the things memories are made of.
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