As a high school graduation celebration, I let my daughter pick a summer trip for her brothers and me. Her heart was set on a fully working dude ranch in Montana. She envisioned us riding horses, wrangling cattle, and cleaning up all the animal poo that went with it. Moments like this make me question who her real mother is. A single mom with three kids, three dogs, and a covid cat, I clean up after other creatures every day. I don't want to pay someone, so I can continue to do this on vacation.
After talking it out more and her brother refusing to have anything to do with ranch work, she wanted to visit Yellowstone National Park. I've wanted to see Old Faithful since I was a kid, so it was a win-win.
The planning began, and the replanning started when the park had historical flooding this spring. It did take a fair amount of planning and research, but wow, this was the most unexpected magical family trip. Even sibling squabbling took a back seat to the beauty and awe of the nation's oldest national park. There was something for everyone, and I could probably write an entire book on this one incredible trip. But I know you are busy, so here is a short version as quickly as possible.
Where to Stay?
Stay in the park if you can get a spot before it fills. Yellowstone is overwhelmingly massive. We managed to cover so much of the park by splitting time between Canyon Lodge, very new/modern accommodations, and Old Faithful Inn, the oldest hotel in the park. However, be prepared not to have WIFI, cell signals, or air conditioning.
We saw bison right outside our door at Canyon Lodge. This location was a great base camp for exploring the park's east side, including the Canyon and Lake Yellowstone.
Old Faithful Inn is an architectural masterpiece as soon as you pull up to it. Old Faithful geyser is erupting right next to it, and the craftsmanship inside is breathtaking. I highly recommend the free walking tour of the property. Ask the tour guide about the headless bride in the treehouse.
This is a standard hotel just outside the park's west entrance. We spent one night here, about halfway through our trip, to enjoy the modern amenities such as air conditioning, WIFI, a swimming pool, and pizza delivery. We had a suite so the four of us could get some space. While we enjoyed the hotel amenities, we all missed being in the park's wilderness.
I kept this a surprise for the kiddos. For the last two nights of our trip, we stayed in a luxury-style tipi resort just outside the North Yellowstone entrance. The tipi was our favorite accommodation on the entire trip. Our days were filled with adventure, and in the evening, we enjoyed the complimentary campfire with smores, cozy blankets, and drinks for all ages. In addition, beautiful mountain and river views surround the property. My youngest quickly made a group of friends that kept him entertained, and after sharing hotel rooms with one bathroom, the spotless, modern, numerous bathrooms were amazing. Even though they were detached from the tipi, they were close by, and my daughter could take as long as she wanted without the rest of us pounding on the door for our turn.
Where to Eat?
There are many options in the park. Most are cafeteria-style dining with mediocre food with not much variety/selection. We struggled to try to find fresh fruits and veggies. However, there were barista-style coffee shops that were good. Thank goodness, I would not survive hikes with my children without my coffee fix.
The Old Faithful Inn has a beautiful, historic dining room. If you can't get a dinner reservation, they also offer a buffet-style breakfast that is easier to get into. There are general stores where you can pick up quick bites like sandwiches and cold drinks throughout the park. We each had a Brita water bottle and took advantage of all the convenient refill stations.
Located in Emigrant, it first opened in 1902 to service rail line passengers and is known for hosting cowboys, miners, and tourists. Although it's not a very big place, I was able to make a reservation for our last night of the trip. When the kids and I first walked into it, I was confused about the bar atmosphere as I thought it was family-friendly. We must have looked out of place because a bartender pointed out that the restaurant was on the other side of the building. After figuring out where to go, the boys and I enjoyed Montana steak dinners. My vegetarian daughter had an eggplant dish and delicious fried zucchini. After dinner, we wandered to the outdoor stage and dance floor with a live band playing. They have a list of show dates on their website. The locals were very friendly.
Where to Play?
I know this should be an obvious activity. The hiking was mainly flat and easy. Most tourists don't get very far on the trails, so we had many trails to ourselves. Get a trail map and ask the locals and workers questions to find the hidden gems.
We also enjoyed a guided fishing trip on the beautiful Lake Yellowstone. The fishing guide will fillet your fish for you to cook. This information would have been helpful to have in advance. There were grills nearby, but we did not have the right tools, not even a lighter. That didn't stop the boys from attempting to make fire. Their creativity in trying to cook fish was an entertaining highlight of the trip.
We did the Canyon Ranch horseback ride to satisfy my daughter's horse fix. Two hours on a horse was a bit long for most of us, but the guides had the best stories, and well, you're in Yellowstone beauty.
We had a cowboy dinner booked, but the company had to cancel because they were hosting a rodeo that night and suggested we attend that as an alternative. My daughter lit up when she heard the word rodeo and started planning which boots to wear. I was more skeptical but kept an open mind. The road to the rodeo is a narrow, dirt path up the side of a mountain. The rental Ford Escape was shaking, trying to make it, and I was praying another car wouldn't be trying to make its way down the mountain as we were going up. Once we found the right spot, the rodeo was a blast. It was mainly locals that were again very friendly. I thought my heart would stop watching the bull riders and how dangerous it was; the boys didn't see the same thing because they were asking how to become bull riders.
There are lots of options for rafting. I booked through the Flying Pig in Gardiner, MT. It was the kids' first time, so I was nervous about how they would like it. Instead of the all-day option, I booked 2 hours as an introduction. The kids loved it, thank goodness. We got to raft the Yellowstone River and see where the flooding was and the famous house we all saw floating on the news used to be. Utility hookups were still there, and pieces of the house were along the riverbank.
This time in the mountains just outside Gardiner and only an hour. It was beautiful, and now my daughter wants to move to Montana and become a horse wrangler and guide. That's a hard left from a neurosurgeon. I think we came to the compromise that maybe this could be an option in the summers off from college. I have learned we have different definitions of maybe. She has already contacted a tour company about a job.