All the parks have ranger programs for children and adults, and some will even take the kids off your hands for an hour or two; but for an in-depth learning vacation, consider joining a field institute or camp. Park educational institutes offer outdoor seminars and multiday programs for adults or families on subjects such as art, science, and outdoor skills. For any of these opportunities, you must plan well ahead.
Yellowstone National Park
Albright Visitor Center, Mammoth Hot Springs (tel. 307/344-2263). Summer daily 8am-7pm; winter daily 9am-5pm. Open year-round.
Housed in a stone building in historic Fort Yellowstone, this large center contains a rich two-story museum. Highlights include the art and photographs that first revealed Yellowstone to the world and led to the park's creation. It's worth up to an hour of your day. Films on park history show all day.
Canyon Village Visitor Center (tel. 307/242-2550). Summer daily 8am-7pm; fall daily 9am-6pm. Closed Oct to mid-May.
The center has a fascinating little museum on buffalo, with large dioramas, videos, and other presentations that children will find interesting.
Fishing Bridge Visitor Center, North side of Yellowstone Lake (tel. 307/242-2450). Summer daily 8am-7pm; fall daily 9am-6pm. Closed Oct to mid-May.
The two-room museum on the natural history of Yellowstone Lake and its animals isn't that exciting, but the stone-and-timber building is a wonderful architectural piece. The lakeside site is a nice place to play. Go to the ranger stations at the Lake and Bridge Bay areas for backcountry permits.
Grant Village Visitor Center, on Yellowstone Lake at the southern end of the lower loop (tel. 307/242-2650). Summer daily 8am-7pm; fall daily 9am-6pm. Closed Oct to mid-May.
The center contains an exhibit on the great fire of 1988 and the natural history of forest fires in general, an explanation of the big areas of standing deadwood you have passed on the road. Most of it is well oriented to children. There's a slide show on the same theme.
Old Faithful Visitor Center (tel. 307/545-2750). Summer 8am-7pm; fall and winter 9am-5pm. Closed Nov to mid-Dec and mid-Mar to mid-Apr.
The estimated times of upcoming geyser eruptions are posted on the wall of this utilitarian center, and you can see a seismograph, a film on newly discovered life forms in the park, and the plans for a needed replacement center. For backcountry permits, go to the combination ranger station and clinic across the west parking lot.
The Norris Geyser Basin Museum (tel. 307/344-2812) is open daily late May to early October from 10am to 5pm.
The museum occupies two rooms in a log building above the basin. Interesting graphic placards explain how the geothermal features work and will hold your attention for up to half an hour. A roving ranger answers questions.
Museum of the National Park Ranger, Norris at the Norris Campground (tel. 307/344-7353). Free admission. Summer daily 9am-6pm; fall daily 9am-5pm. Closed Oct to mid-May.
This is a charming, relaxing museum of great interest to children. The displays tell the history of the Park Service and how early rangers lived, with uniforms and mock-ups of rooms. The changes in the parks are an interesting window on the changes in society. Best of all, the museum occupies a beautiful old log building by a creek where retired rangers spin yarns about the old days for anyone who asks.
In West Yellowstone
This tourist town isn't worth sacrificing time in the park to visit, but these sites are of interest if you are already in the area.
Grizzly Discovery Center, Canyon St. (tel. 800/257-2570 or 406/646-7001; www.grizzlydiscoveryctr.com). Admission $8.50 adults, $4 children 5-12, free for children under 5. Year-round daily 8am-dusk.
You're not likely to see grizzlies or wolves in the park, but you can see them here in a nicely landscaped area, like a tiny zoo. The staff did a good job of holding the kids' interest while telling them about the animals and their rescue. A small museum area also is well pitched for kids. The huge gift shop helps support the not-for-profit operation.
Yellowstone Historic Center, Yellowstone Ave. and Canyon St. (tel. 406/646-1100; www.yellowstonehistoriccenter.org). Admission $6 adults, $4 children 3-17, $15 families. Summer daily 9am-9pm; fall daily 9am-7pm. Closed Oct-May 15.
This museum in West Yellowstone's old railroad depot opened in 2001. It's the work of a community group seeking to preserve the buildings surrounding the 1908 railroad link to West Yellowstone. Besides the pioneer-era displays, the museum offers free tours around town in a 1938 touring car.
Yellowstone IMAX Theater, 101 Canyon St. (tel. 406/646-4100). Admission $8 adults, $6 children 3-12, free for children under 3. Summer daily 9am-9pm; winter daily noon-10pm; shows hourly on the hour.
Like IMAX theaters that have cropped up outside several of the Western parks, this facility shows a movie about Yellowstone on a huge screen. The film is mostly scenery and wildlife, but it also tells about early park history, the area's geology, and the workings of geysers. It's well done and entertaining to children, but expensive for less than an hour. The lobby contains fast-food outlets.The visitor centers sell $3 Junior Ranger newspapers for ages 5 to 7 and ages 8 to 12. After completing the workbook questions, doing outdoor activities, attending ranger programs, and turning in the newspapers with various signatures, kids get a patch. Take a good look at the newspaper before getting into this, because it's likely to take quite of a bit of your and your child's time and may be difficult if you don't cover a large portion of the park. You'll also need quiet time to do writing activities; if you can't finish while at the park, it's okay to do some of it on the way home and mail in the worksheets for your patch. The winter program costs includes a "Snow Pack" of equipment you check out for use in the field for science activities, such as hand lenses and thermometers. It is available from Old Faithful or Mammoth visitor center; at Mammoth, kids can also borrow snowshoes for the program.
The park newspaper lists ranger programs all over the park, mostly near the most popular natural features. They start every hour or 2 all day during the height of the summer season. These programs are walks and lectures, not activities or lessons, and are primarily aimed at adults. In the evening during the summer, campfire talks and slide shows are offered every night at many of the campgrounds and some other sites; the exact list of locations depends on annual Park Service budgets.A branch of the nonprofit Yellowstone Association, P.O. Box 117, Yellowstone National Park (tel. 307/344-2293; www.yellowstoneassociation.org), the Yellowstone Institute offers highly regarded educational programs using the park as a classroom. The unique Yellowstone for Families program lets families join in an educational experience for 4 days, a sort of science camp that includes grown-ups. Led by experienced rangers, groups of 13 or fewer kids and parents join daily for hiking, painting, science experiments (measuring the temperature of thermal features, for example), a fire ecology scavenger hunt, games, and so on. It's fun, you get to do it together, and you pay very little: around $550 for adults, $350 for children, including lodging at Mammoth or Grant village, breakfast and lunch, transportation in the park, and the all-day program itself. Two versions are offered every week of the summer, one with hikes of 3 to 5 miles and the other with hikes under 3 miles. The educational program is designed for ages 8 to 12, but other ages can be accommodated. Reserve early, because they always book up.
Grand Teton National Park
Less than a mile north of the Moose Visitor Center on the park road, a spur leads to Menor's Ferry Historic Site, an early homestead and Snake River ferry, which was an important crossing until a bridge was built in 1927 (you also can park at the Dornans complex and take the restored ferry across). It's well worth a stop. Follow the free Park Service guide from building to building, getting a feeling for self-sufficient life here before the automobile. From late May through September, an old-fashioned general store operates with a clerk in costume (hours normally daily 9am-4:30pm). Buy a candy stick from a jar, just as children did a century ago, and see how simple a store was back then. You can also see a display of carriages and ride on the restored ferry, pulled across the river with ropes when river conditions permit, starting in mid-July. Don't miss Maude Noble's Cabin, site of an important early meeting to create the park, which now holds a fascinating display of historic photographs. Nearby, take a look at an old log church, the Chapel of the Transfiguration.
South of Moran Junction on U.S. 89, the Cunningham Homestead, another early homestead ranch, has just a single cabin still standing and takes a lot of imagination to picture. My children were enthralled, however, by the modern irrigation ditches that cross the property.
National Museum of Wildlife Art, on U.S. 89, just north of Jackson (tel. 800/313-9553 or 307/733-5771; www.wildlifeart.org). Admission $8 adults, $7 students, free for children under 6, $16 families. Summer daily 9am-5pm; spring and fall Mon-Sat 9am-5pm, Sun 1-5pm; winter daily 9am-5pm.
Families should not miss this stunning museum. The award-winning sandstone building melds into the cliffs above the Elk Refuge. Inside, galleries contain an arrestingly displayed collection of wildlife art in various styles, from a masterpiece Haida totem pole to hyper-realistic images of big game. There are also a kids' area, a cafe for light meals, an auditorium for films, and a schedule of programs. In the winter, sleigh rides among the elk start from here.
Rangers lead the Young Naturalist Program for children ages 8 to 12 every summer afternoon from 1:30 to 3pm at the Moose and Colter Bay visitor centers. Sign up in advance to assure a space and to be ready with what you need to bring along, then leave the children for their learning experience. Children of any age can win a Young Naturalist patch, similar to the Junior Ranger patch at other parks, by completing a four-page newspaper workbook called The Grand Adventure and attending ranger programs -- the Young Naturalist program or any two other ranger programs -- and paying $1 at a visitor center. The workbook is pitched to grade-school children and makes good use of the park to teach about nature-it's not just busy work. You can get the workbook from a visitor center or download it (www.nps.gov/grte; click "For Kids," then "More Information" near the bottom of the page). First and second graders will likely need help.
The Park Service offers a full schedule of ranger-led programs, including talks, walks, wildlife viewing, and tours of the Indian Arts Museum at the Colter Bay Visitor Center. Some programs require reservations and fees. There are also campfire talks and slide shows. Check the park newspaper or pick up a weekly calendar at a visitor center.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Moraine Park Museum, Bear Lake Rd. No phone. Free admission. Mid-Apr to mid-Oct daily 9am-4:30pm. Closed mid-Oct to mid-Apr.
This museum explains the creation of the landscape. It covers geology, glaciers, thunderstorms, and other forces in a creative, engaging way that will interest visitors at every level. In one of many interactive exhibits, a glacier really moves, showing how it works. Downstairs is a good little bookstore with a kids' section and gifts.
Holzwarth Historic Site (Never Summer Ranch), Trail Ridge Rd., just south of Timber Creek Campground. No phone. Free admission. Mid-June to Labor Day daily 10am-4pm. Closed early Sept to mid-June.
A 1/2-mile off the road, the restored buildings of an old dude ranch remain open for inspection and hold original furniture and equipment. Guides lead tours, and a brochure describes self-guided walks.The Junior Ranger program is one of the best in the park system. The kid-sized 26-page Junior Ranger Log Book is free at the visitor centers. After finishing it, attending a ranger program, talking to people, handing out stickers about not feeding animals, and collecting 10 pieces of trash, children get a plastic badge that looks like the ones real rangers wear. Rangers make a big deal with the award, announcing it over the public address system. The material is fun and well thought out and doesn't require parents to drive all over the park, as some programs do. There's even a field guide where kids can check off plants, animals, and birds they see. Children 6 to 11 or so should enjoy the activities; younger kids will need help reading the booklet.
The weekly schedule of ranger programs published in the park newspaper usually includes activities specifically for children ages 6 to 12 during the summer. Rangers teach about insects, birds, fire, and other natural-history topics with stories, puppets, games, and the like. Generally, parents have to chaperone their kids.
The Rocky Mountain Nature Association (tel. 800/816-7662 or 970/586-0108; www.rmna.org) offers more in-depth programs for children as young as 6 or as old as 18. Most are half-day outings, cost only $15, and don't require prior reservations. Participants do arts and crafts or learn about nature or Native American ways. A few more demanding programs, for teens, last all day and do need advance registration.
During the summer, the park offers a long list of ranger programs daily on a range of nature, history, and outdoor topics, including many guided hikes. Evening programs take place at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center and all the campgrounds except Longs Peak. A schedule appears in the park newspaper.
In addition to its children's programs, mentioned in the previous section, the Rocky Mountain Nature Association offers an extensive program of seminars and outings aimed primarily at adults but also accessible, in some cases, to teens and families. They cover natural history, art, outdoor skills, and other topics, and last from a half-day to a week. On summer weekends, there are many choices, and even a few in later fall and early spring.
The YMCA of the Rockies owns a large conference center and family resort on the east side of the park. It offers a day camp for children from potty-trained 3-year-olds through high school, with an amazing variety of outdoor activities. One-day sessions start at $22. Call ahead, because the sessions (especially overnights) book up. Check lodging availability online at www.ymcarockies.org, or contact Estes Park Center, YMCA of the Rockies, Estes Park, CO 80511-2550 (tel. 970/586-3341, ext. 1010).