Yellowstone National Park is in a category of nature superlatives all by itself. It is one of only five places on earth with spectacular geysers, hot pools, and paint pots. AND it has a powerful presence of megafauna—grizzly bears, wolves, bison, and elk. This combination rightfully earns the park the title “one of the seven natural wonders of the world.”
My Nature Grannie self naturally wanted to share the park with our two grandchildren. How do you help two city kids experience modern Yellowstone in three days?
Step #1—secure lodging. Most of the accommodations within the park were already full by last November when I launched this search. We settled on staying in a cottage on the Yellowstone River in Gardiner, MT at the north boundary of the park.
Step #2—Understand that driving through gorgeous scenery does not especially thrill children. Christina and I could drive for days on the backroads of the west and be completely mesmerized. Not so much our grandchildren. I planned days with lots of short stops and exciting things to see like geysers and big animals.
Step #3—Help them understand that nature is not a theme park. The animals are not “cued up” to provide sightings for us. We have to keep our eyes open, work together, and trust how things unfold.
What actually happened?
Jaden (14), Sasha (8), Christina and I left Great Falls, Montana and the wonderful Baldwin Family reunion (https://peerspirit.com/bones-to-the-ground/) and drove south to Gardiner, MT.
The next morning, we four got up early and headed to Old Faithful, a long drive through the park. Joining with other visitors we oohed and aahed as the geyser erupted skyward about 130-140 feet—within 10 minutes of its predicted time. It felt important to begin our journey with one of the most famous of the park’s volcanic features. Sitting in the company of some 500 strangers all focused on this miracle of nature was inspiring. After the 3-and-a-half-minute eruption, everyone clapped.
We continued our day of geyser awe by walking the boardwalk of the upper geyser basin.
The noticeable thing about the weather that day was wind and sun. Sasha and Christina walked arm in arm to literally help our youngest member keep from being knocked off the boardwalk in a gust of wind.
Jaden and I were wandering behind them when he made two observations that clued me into his attentiveness. First, he and I had stopped to look at a particularly large geyser cone that was listed as “erupting irregularly.”
“What would happen to all of us walking on this boardwalk if one of those unpredictable geysers went off in this wind?” asked Jaden. I asked him what he thought, and we agreed that there would be a mass exit in the opposite direction that could get pretty chaotic.
Wildflowers were growing in abundance alongside the boardwalk. After a while, Jaden asked, “Is this plant yarrow?”
“How do you know what yarrow is?” I asked a bit incredulously.
“It’s one of the plants we collect for our medicine bag in Red Dead Redemption.” Background: Christina and I understand something about this favorite video game of Jaden’s and actually partly conceived the idea of showing him the “real” old west because of his fascination with the virtual west of this popular game.
In a landscape of superlatives, it can be something tiny that connects us to that which matters. In that brief exchange I believe he saw the connection between “real” life and the fantasy world of his video game.
Always, always when in Yellowstone we were looking for wildlife. In this shot we found three bull elks grazing very close to the roadside near Old Faithful.
On our wildlife day driving through the Lamar Valley in the northeast part of the park we found ourselves in the middle of a “buffalo jam”. Huge thrill for all of us and a reminder of what the west once looked like. Yellowstone has the largest concentration of “conservation bison” in North America with a herd numbering near 5,000.
Activity, activity, activity. Young people remind us to be active and engaged. The day we rode horses into the Yellowstone high country was a highlight for all four of us. Christina and I, who both owned horses as teens, felt like we had never ridden in such stunning country. And Sasha and Jaden for whom this was a first rode beautifully during our two- hour adventure. Afterwards back in our cabin, Sasha said, “When we are with you, we do lots of firsts!”
“Yes, we do, and you were very brave today,” said Christina.
Another fun activity for all four of us was soaking where the “Boiling River” flows into the Gardiner River. The walking trail to this unconventional swimming hole is easy and straight forward but the actual immersion into the soaking place requires walking through cold, fast-moving, knee-high water over slick rocks to find a safe place to sit. White hands helped brown hands. English speakers helped Chinese and Spanish speakers, older folks reached for the steadiness and strength of teenagers. All were looking for a place where the really hot water from the underground thermal feature flowed directly into the Gardiner River creating a mixing place of warm water. We were all “in it together”. Once again, a community experience of nature.
Becoming a junior ranger, our 8-year-old, needed the help of her family. She was required to attend a ranger talk, recall information from different educational exhibits, participate in an “animal Olympics”, and pledge to be a part of caring for the earth. We spent some real time meeting those requirements that, of course, informed the rest of us.
It was such a privilege to spend concentrated time with our grandchildren, to be a part of helping them know and love the earth. I miss their curiosity and fresh perspectives and their ever-present reminder to make things relevant.
We know their lives are heading into territories we can’t imagine. They will be faced with huge challenges. We hope every time we are together increases their sense of wonder, resilience, and trust in the earth itself.