“Visiting Yellowstone: Our First National Park” by Heather S. Cole.
VA Homeschoolers Voice, January-February 2019.
The cold, dark days of winter are the perfect time to plan an escape to somewhere warmer. For your 2019 adventures, let me humbly suggest someplace hot. Really hot. Like the middle of a supervolcano.
Last fall, our extended family spent two weeks in Wyoming, including a week in one of the world’s largest volcanic fields: Yellowstone National Park. We had spent several weeks prior to the trip learning about geysers, hot springs and fumaroles, but it did not come close to preparing us for the otherworldly experience of walking through a field of gurgling mud pots and technicolor hot springs. Or watching in amazement as a mama bison and her baby suddenly appeared out of a haze of sulphur-stinking clouds. Or peering eagerly through binoculars to watch a trio of grizzly bears make their way along a stream in search of the last wild berries of the season. It was truly the trip of a lifetime.
Yellowstone was founded as the world’s first national park in 1872. For decades, European explorers had been sharing tales of a land in the west where the earth trembled and roared like thunder, where springs boiled and spit water a hundred feet into the air. But it wasn’t until a 1871 U.S. Geological Survey expedition—accompanied by artist Thomas Moran and photographer William H. Jackson—returned with documentation of this strange land that efforts were made to preserve this unique place. Over the next century, Yellowstone became a proving ground for the changing ideas of what a national park should be: a playground for the wealthy? A recreation of some idyllic pre-industrial wilderness? Or something in-between? There are several books that detail the complicated history of the park—including the removal and reintroduction of wolves and the debate over the role of wildfire in the park. Empire of Shadows by George Black and Engineering Eden by Jordan Fisher Smith are my recommendations for adults; the National Geographic documentary Wolves: A Legend Returns to Yellowstone is great for all ages.
Things to See
The thermal features that have amazed visitors for centuries exist because the bulk of Yellowstone National Park sits on land that was subject to huge volcanic eruptions over the past two million years. Some 630,000 years ago, the center of this supervolcano collapsed, forming what is known as the Yellowstone Caldera: a 1500-square-mile crater that sits atop a bed of molten lava. It is the heat from this lava, combined with water and particular types of rock formations, that fuel the geysers, hot springs and other thermal features. Old Faithful is the most famous of Yellowstone’s geysers, but there are thousands of other thermal features throughout the park.
A highlight of our trip to Yellowstone was waiting for the eruption of the world’s largest geyser: Steamboat Geyser. Unlike Old Faithful, which erupts just about every 70 minutes, Steamboat has gone as long as 50 years between eruptions. Beginning in the spring of 2018, however, Steamboat started erupting every five to seven days. We happened by Steamboat on day five of it’s cycle and spent some time with a group of geyser gazers who had camped out in anticipation of the next eruption. We stopped by again on day six, with no luck. That cycle, Steamboat erupted in the early morning of day seven; we missed the actual eruption, but did see (and get drenched by) the jets of steam that the geyser was still sending into the air several hours later.
In addition to the amazing thermal features, folks go to Yellowstone to see the wildlife. And we certainly did. On our first morning in the park we saw bison, elk and moose—all close enough that we needed to remind the kids that we were required to stay at least 25 yards away. A few days later, a group of human-habituated female moose forced us to pack up and relocate our lunch when they wandered too close to our picnic table. And on our final day in the park, we finally encountered a Yellowstone traffic jam, courtesy of a herd of bison making their way from one side of the road to the other. We saw so much wildlife that one day, that when we saw a group of people by the side of the road with binoculars (a telltale sign that there is something interesting nearby), we weren’t going to bother to pull over until we overheard the magic word “bear.” It turned out that the wildlife watchers had spotted a mama grizzly bear and her two cubs—well worth a half-hour detour from our plans for the day.
Planning Your Trip
We went to Yellowstone in early September—the weather was pleasant during the day, but cool enough that we required hats and gloves in the early morning and after dark. Apparently the park is packed during the months of July and August; several rangers encouraged us to return to the park during the winter when wildlife are easiest to spot against a snowy background.
Although it is, in theory, possible to drive through the park in a day, you would only barely see the highlights of the park and one bison-caused traffic jam could derail your entire schedule. The 3,471-square-mile park is roughly divided into quadrants by park roads, and we tried to visit one quadrant each day, with repeat trips to the centrally-located Canyon Village area for special ranger programs and souvenir shopping. One week was enough time to see most of what we wanted to see, with the caveat that we did not have time to do any backcountry hiking or water activities. We also did not partake in any of the concessionaire-led programs or tours, nor did we eat at any of the restaurants in the park. (Although, had we been without kids, I definitely would have had a nice dinner at the Old Faithful Inn.)
There are lots of options for lodging in the park, from rustic camping to a modern hotel. We opted for an AirB&B in the town of West Yellowstone, Montana, just outside the western entrance to the park. It allowed us to cook our own meals and do laundry, while also having quick access to the park.
Regarding transportation: you absolutely need a personal vehicle to tour Yellowstone. We saw lots of tourbuses, but busses and RVs were not permitted on some of the smaller roads in the park (which had the best thermal features). We wanted to see several other sights in Wyoming, so we opted to fly into Denver International Airport and rented a car there to drive to Yellowstone. Salt Lake City, Utah, Jackson and Cody, Wyoming are also also options for airports. Or you could drive there from Virginia—in which case we want you to write about that trip for VaHomeschoolers Voice!
If you are like me and feel like your kids need some “book learning” to go with all their experiential education, I recommend you start with the official Yellowstone National Park website (nps.gov/yell). They have videos, fact sheets and activities that can be done at home before your trip. Once at Yellowstone, kids can complete both Junior Ranger and Young Scientist booklets to earn patches. If you want something more formal, the National Park Service’s “Teaching with Historic Places” website (nps.gov/subjects/teachingwithhistoricplaces) has several Yellowstone-related lesson plans and the Yellowstone Forever online bookstore (shop.yellowstone.org) has a wide selection of books about the park, including kids books.
Heather Cole is the mom of 10- and 11-year-old boys, neither of whom fell into any thermal features while in Yellowstone. She credits this to reading them the introductory chapter of Lee H. Whittlesey’s Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park.