Load up the station wagon -- it's almost spring and that means your next family vacation is just around the corner and a trip to a national park may be the perfect way to bring the entire clan together for an outdoor adventure. Depending on the ages and interests of your children there are a variety of different activities available at the world's first national park -- Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park (tel. 866/439-7375; www.travelyellowstone.com) -- from boating to hiking, stage coach rides to wildlife encounters and everything in between. What kid (of any age) wouldn't be in awe of the gushing Old Faithful as it blows its stack up to 180 feet?
If you have small children and toddlers in tow, you need something that is going to keep their attention but not completely exhaust them. Before you go, visit the special "just for kids" section of the Yellowstone website (www.nps.gov/yell/forkids/index.htm) for activities, games, scavenger hunts and puzzles to download and get kids of all ages excited about their trip.
Another way to pique their interest is to encourage your kids to be involved in the Junior Ranger Program, which is open to children aged five to 12. The goal of the program is to introduce children to the natural wonders of Yellowstone and let them know how they can help preserve the park for the future. To become a Junior Ranger, families pay a $3 fee for the 12-page activity paper, which children complete and get reviewed by a park ranger at any visitor center, before being awarded an official Yellowstone Junior Ranger patch. Children also get to attend a ranger-led program, hike on a park trail, and complete activities on various park resources, issues, and concepts such as geothermal geology, park wildlife and fire ecology.
Yellowstone National Park's Old West Dinner Cookout takes place in Pleasant Valley, a large meadow about three miles from Roosevelt Lodge. Half the fun is actually getting there by covered wagons drawn by two horses on a half-hour ride. Guests are seated together at open-air picnic tables with dinner served buffet while being entertained by a cowboy singer. Children under five ride free on the wagon and eat for free (if they share off a parent's plate). Child rate applies for children under five who will have their own plate. Children 11 and under must be accompanied by someone 18 years or older. The cookouts take place daily from June 7 to August 15, 2008 at 4:45pm and from August 16 to August 31, 2008 at 3:45pm. Adults pay $55 each and children five to 11 are $45 each. Children four years of age and under are free on the wagon cookout. For the slightly older kids, a one-hour horse ride to the cookout is enough to build their appetites and the 30-minute return won't leave them saddle sore. Minimum age required to ride is eight years old and is 48" (four feet) tall. And for the larger adults, no one over 240 pounds please. Adults pay $66 and children over eight pay $56 for the riding option.
For families with children eight to12 years old who are after a learning experience, an adventure awaits you. Led by a Yellowstone Association Institute (tel. 307/344-5566; www.yellowstoneassociation.org) naturalist guide, your family can explore canyons, waterfalls, geyser basins and enjoy activities together including animal tracking, wildlife watching, photography, painting, and hiking. The learning and lodging course is offered this summer from June 13 through August 18, 2008 with two classes per week. Stay four nights at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and receive breakfast and lunch daily, informative classes and excursions, a welcome gift and in-park transportation for $1,988 plus tax for a family two adults and two children. A similar program but staying at Grant Village is priced at $2,068 plus tax for a family of four.
The Yellowstone interpretive bus/van "Circle of Fire" tour operates daily from May 17 to September 20, 2008 with pick-ups from Canyon Lodge, Fishing Bridge RV Park, Lake Hotel, Bridge Bay Campground, Old Faithful Inn and Grant Village. This tour travels along the lower portion of Yellowstone's figure eight road system. The major sights include the Upper and Lower Geyser Basins, Yellowstone Lake, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, and Norris Geyser Basin. The adult price is $55, $27.50 for children and kids under eight are free.
The four-day/five-night Total Yellowstone package lets you and your family (kids aged eight plus) sample a variety of activities and different hotels in Yellowstone this summer. The package begins in the evening at Old Faithful Snow Lodge with dinner and evening orientation. The following day, after a "Great Geysers" breakfast, take long walks through the upper geyser basin with a guide and enjoy lunch and dinner at Old Faithful Inn. On day two, eat a "Lakes, Rivers and Waterfalls" breakfast at Snow Lodge, then take a bus tour of the east side, a one-hour lake tour on board the Lake Queen, have lunch at Lake Hotel, continue touring before settling down to a dinner at Canyon and a two-hour Old Yellow Bus tour. Day three is the "Critters and Cowboys" box breakfast, wildlife watching in Lamar Valley, lunch at Roosevelt Lodge, an afternoon stagecoach or one-hour horse ride, and dinner at Mammoth. Day four starts with the "West Side Story" breakfast at Mammoth, a bus tour of the west side, a box lunch, dinner at Old Faithful Snow Lodge and a private campfire program after dinner. Depart after breakfast on the fifth day. This package is priced at $1,229 per adult and $619 for children aged eight to 11 and includes four-nights lodging meals, tours, guides, a special gift per person and a memento photo CD. The package is available every Sunday from June 8 to August 24, 2008.
With nine different in-park accommodation options plus five individual camp grounds, you are sure to find one that fits your budget and family's needs. The summer season begins in May (various dates depending on the property) and closes in September/October 2008. A budget cabin at Mammoth Hot Springs with accommodation for four (without a private bathroom) is priced from $77 per night mid-week. An Old House room without bath at Old Faithful Inn for four people is priced from $96 per night. A Western cabin with bath that sleeps four at Canyon Inn is priced from $150. Campsites for up to six people are priced at $17 plus tax per night (except at Fishing Bridge RV Park, which is $35 plus tax for up to four people).
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