Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming/Montana/Idaho
"National parks are the best idea we ever had,” wrote American novelist and environmentalist Wallace Stegner. “Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
When President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill creating Yellowstone Park in 1872, it became the world’s first national park—and a boon to family explorers past and present. Now the National Park System includes 397 areas (58 designated as “national parks”), encompassing more than 84 million acres. But Yellowstone, whose two-million-plus remote and rugged acres encompass half of Earth’s geothermal features, stands as the first—an enduring testament to the mission statement etched on the giant stone Roosevelt Arch at the park’s North Entrance: “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”
“Yellowstone always gives me hope that this country is capable of protecting an area of the park’s size, because we did it at one point. Ask kids to imagine what would have happened if we hadn’t,” says David Gafney, a former Yellowstone interpretive ranger, a seasonal interpretive ranger, and author of Yellowstone, Grand Loop Drive Interpretive Road Guide. Spanning Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, “it’s a high volcanic plateau that is inspiring because of its size, wildness, and location. Kids can look in all directions and be surrounded by higher mountains, and everywhere they turn there is tremendous diversity—wildlife, geysers, and geothermals, a petrified forest, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.”
Because Yellowstone is so huge, Gafney suggests breaking up the visit into kid-captivating daily chunks, such as a day each for mammals, thermal features, and waterfalls. This is similar to the format followed by Yellowstone for Families, a three-day, small-group program offered by the nonprofit Yellowstone Association. The association also has naturalists for hire who can re-create some or all of the program’s activities for individual families.
“A lot of people think Yellowstone is only Old Faithful, wolves, and bison, and that’s all their kids get to see,” says the association’s Rebecca Kreklau. “Participating in a program created specifically for kids opens up the whole family’s perspective, and lets everyone experience everything that is out there without wearing them out. We go out wildlife-watching and have laser guns so kids can take temperatures of thermal features. We show younger kids how to track earthworms, and show older kids some of [painter] Thomas Moran’s work to help them see how his art helped to create this park.”