Backpacking with Kids in Yellowstone National Park

by Sandra Foyt on February 15, 2012

in Outdoors with Kids, Travel Essays

Boy goes backpacking in Yellowstone National Park.How many times have I heard,“I’ll wait until the kids are older to travel?” Many parents limit their choice of destination, or travel altogether, fearing that it might be too difficult.

In a recent CNN Go post, Elaine Ee lists 5 family travel rules that she claims will “make everyone’s travel experience — particularly yours — a whole lot easier.” I won’t even list the rules; forget the rules. I have a problem with the pursuit of travel that is easy.

Backpacking in Yellowstone National Park

My son will soon celebrate his thirteenth birthday, but not a week goes by without reference to his tenth birthday back in the summer of 2009.

mother and son backpacking Yellowstone National Park

After reading Tim Cahill’s Lost in My Own Backyard, I had gotten it into my head that I wanted to discover the pristine side of Yellowstone National Park that most visitors never see. I would take my children on a 3-day adventure into the wild.

Because of the timing of our summer-long road trip, the backpacking trip would coincide with my son’s tenth birthday – a fact that did not escape notice. It took a great deal of cajoling, and the early birthday gifting of a Nintendo DS, to achieve grudging acceptance.

Gaining his consent wasn’t the only hurdle. Friends politely suggested that I was crazy. The park service insisted that I sit through a video telling me what to do in the very likely event of encountering a Grizzly Bear. And I had to get over my own feeling of inadequacy as I had never gone backpacking without my husband, and none too often with him either.

Sapphire Pool - Yellowstone National Park

Hiking the Mystic Falls Loop

Parking the car at Biscuit Basin, site of Yellowstone’s most exquisitely beautiful hot spring – Sapphire Pool, the kids and I set off on an unforgettable adventure.

Mystic Falls - Yellowstone National Park

As we passed our first scenic lookout at Mystic Falls, I wondered if this was a foolhardy decision. The hike itself was grueling, requiring us to climb over boulders and downed logs, all the while on high alert for any and all signs of Grizzlies. I carried a jumbo-sized canister of bear mace at the ready, and our gear was liberally festooned with enough bells to alert the wildlife of several states, let alone the Grizzlies of Yellowstone.  But to us, every broken branch and bison patty looked like Grizzly; while scent of ursus arctos horribilis  permeated every floral note and waft of pine. Never mind stopping to eat or eliminate.Kids climbing over fallen trees in Yellowstone National Park.

Big sister laughing over brother's fall - Yellowstone backpacking trip.

We made camp that first night early enough to enjoy the evening. Athough it was hard work to set up camp – gathering wood, cooking over a bonfire, and hauling packs 25 feet up in the air to protect them from bears – there were no complaints. Both kids were excited to take on the challenge of setting up camp. There was no prouder moment than when my 13-year-old daughter managed to get that rope up and over the cross-pole – after we had each given it our best shot, over and over again.

Bear-proofing backpacks - Yellowstone National Park

Hauling wood for the campfire on backpaking trip in  Yellowstone National Park.

My kids and I would have gladly stayed another day in our private Eden, munching on berries off the bush and playing in the pool at the base of a little waterfall.

Backcountry waterfall - Yellowstone National Park

We liked this campsite so much, in fact, that we ended up getting a late start the next morning. With 13 miles to hike up and over mountain trails until the next campsite, that spelled trouble. Pouring rain and the sodden realization that we should’ve packed waterproof pants didn’t make things any easier. Even stunning views along Little Firehole Meadows during a brief break from the rain couldn’t be appreciated as we had to keep trudging on.

Little Firehole Meadows - Yellowstone National Park

By the time we limped into camp, all we could do was to pop up the tents and bear-proof the backpacks, before slumbering off in leaky tents. Alex didn’t even stay awake long enough to open the dehydrated birthday cake that we had carried just for this special occasion.

The next morning dawned, damp and dreary; and we were grateful to only have a couple of miles of hiking left to exit the trail. Stopping only for raindrop-splattered photos at Fairy Falls,

Fairy Falls - Yellowstone National Park

And a bird’s eye view of the Grand Prismatic Spring, we hightailed it out of the bush.

Grand Prismatic Spring- Yellowstone National Park

Asked about his Yellowstone Birthday, my son will tell you, “That was terrible. I had to walk endless miles in the pouring rain with an oversized backpack – no party, no cake. It was torture.”

But you know, when he recounts his tale of woe, yet again, he can barely keep his lips from tugging upward in a poorly suppressed smile. He says, “My birthday sucked,” with a twinkle in his eyes and a lift of the chin. It’s a look that says, yes, I can do anything.

And what about those pesky rules of travel?

Did you bother to read those silly rules of travel? Here, I’ll give you the quick version so you don’t have to. Five Rules of Family Travel: 1.) The younger the child, the bigger the suitcase; 2.) The younger the child, the harder it is to get over jet lag; 3.) Travel to a destination that serves French fries 4.) You can’t have too much inflight entertainment for young children 5.) Strollers are as much a bane as a boon.

Ridiculous, right?

Don’t believe me, yet? Take a look at what these family travel experts have to say:

Go Do It!

Visit Plan Your Visit to find out what you need to know for a backpacking trip in Yellowstone National Park; and be sure to check out Minimizing the Dangers of a Bear Encounter. The site even lists recommended tour guides if you would rather not attempt the adventure trip on your own.

April 7, 2012 – This post is linked in Green Global Travel’s Nature Travel Blog Carnival.

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| Sandra Foyt is a storyteller, photographer, and road trip junkie. A veteran of six cross-country road trips, she drove Route 66, the Lincoln Highway, the fossil freeway, the extraterrestrial highway, and even “the loneliest road in America.” Find her on, an award-winning destination guide to extraordinary travel in and from Northeast USA, on her portfolio site at, and in freelance gigs on Family Travel 411, Minitime, Huffington Post, and Matador Network. Email:, Twitter @SandraFoyt.

Marina K. Villatoro February 15, 2012 at 11:33 am

You can tell the hike and the challenges your kids did, gave them bursts of confidence. I know that is what traveling with kids is all about. Openness and confidence in themselves!

Jessica February 15, 2012 at 4:53 pm

That looks like such a memorable trip and you can tell they are proud of their accomplishments by the looks on their faces! What a great story!
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Corinne @ Have Baby Will Travel February 15, 2012 at 9:06 pm

Don’t you hate the idea that some new parents might read that article and be put off traveling with their kids?
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Susan February 15, 2012 at 10:53 pm

Loved your post, especially the pics of your son who looks totally exhausted beside you and the one of him on the ground by the log. 🙂 You’re absolutely right…those tough trips and adventures, the ones you doubt you’ll ever survive and wish with ALL your might would come to a close sooner rather than later, THOSE are the things that bind us together as families. And if everyone believed the garbage talked about in that CNNGo article, no one would get off their couches and explore the amazing world around us. I’m sure you’re glad your son’s 10th birthday “sucked”. It will make for fun stories to share for years to come. All without a smile, of course! 🙂
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Lisa Wood February 16, 2012 at 7:19 am

Oh wow – how brave you were! I love reading every minute of your story…i was half expecting to read about a bear sneak up on you! You were amazing to take your son away into the National Park, and your son was so cool to go on his Birthday! That is what travelling is all about – exploring the unknown.

I still shake my head over the CNNGO article – it was so rude beside being so wrong!

Hope that others are now keen to travel after reading about your hike!

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backpackandgear February 16, 2012 at 8:39 am

Fantastic trip. Sorry you had gotten caught in the rain on your sons birthday. Sounds like you did all the right things to protect you from bears. A 3 day backpacking trip in Yellowstone is quite an accomplishment. Could you use a bear canister instead? Or would 3 days of food be too much? I went to Yellowstone but did not really hike. I just looked at the sites, animals and attractions. If I get back that way I will do a nice day hike at least and bring along my bear spray (I believe Yellowstone is where I purchased it). Joe from Backpack and Gear
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Sandra Foyt February 16, 2012 at 12:39 pm

Hi Joe, we had a bear canister that I purchased at REI, as well as special Ziplocs that are guaranteed to keep food & cosmetic scents under lock and key. But Yellowstone requires that you use those high poles when camping in the backcountry.

lisa Shusterman February 16, 2012 at 3:52 pm

You go girl. What a great gift for you and the kids. All of you have more confidence which transfers to everything you will do in life. Your daughter learned (as well as you) that a man is not required to live life to its fullest.

Claudia Looi February 16, 2012 at 4:13 pm

That looks like an amazing trip. What a great way to cultivate persistence and endurance, at the same time creating special memories for your children. Bravo to families like yours, Sandra who thinks ‘outside the box’.

Rajasthan tour packages February 17, 2012 at 6:16 am

It looks like a adventure tour. Waterfall is what attract the most.

Susan Verbeeck February 18, 2012 at 10:04 am

What an adventure ! You are braver than me..we just watched the movie “The Edge” that featured a blood thirsty grizzly in Alaska ! You just know that your son really loved it all. It’s those tough experiences that we learn from too ( and you’ve got all those gorgeous photos to remember it by). Now I really want to go to Yellowstone ( and will surely arm ourselves with bear mace !) We actually get black bear here in our backyard!! They are beautiful, but I make sure my kids make lots of noise in advance when they go out to play in the woods.
And being out in nature is one of life’s best educations !
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Susan (5 Minutes for Mom) February 21, 2012 at 4:59 pm

Wow! That is amazing and funny. I love the photos!
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Amy Whitley March 20, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Love this post so much I pinned it and tweeted it everywhere! I love backpacking with kids, and my hat’s off to you for doing it solo (without another adult). Although I’ve met your kids; they rock. 🙂 And now I feel better about my 10 year old spending more than one birthday on the road. At least he’s never been trekking 13 miles in the rain on his big day!
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Mara March 20, 2013 at 1:05 pm

I don’t know that I would have the guts to do this (although I’d have to do it solo like you did because my husband hates camping and is phobic of bears). I love this story very much and am going to save it as inspiration. Maybe I *can* do some backpacking with my kids some day. And their birthdays are in the spring, so no worries about summertime hikes and celebrations!

Lisa Goodmurphy March 20, 2013 at 4:27 pm

Wow – what an adventure! Like Mara’s husband, I don’t camp and I’m phobic of bears so I have to live these adventures vicariously through people like you. That was definitely a birthday that your son will never forget! We always travel on my birthday and I like it that way but my kids would be much more reluctant to celebrate their birthdays away from home – your son was a good sport to spend his hiking for miles in the rain.
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Michaela March 20, 2013 at 7:05 pm

Loved that story! I’m sure that his 10th will turn into a tale of adventure and fun as he gets older. Soon, he’ll be planning his own camping trips. 🙂

I had my first camping trip recently. It started raining after we’d set up camp. It was so bad that I was sure the wind would blow our tent away. Luckily, it held up and we stayed mostly dry!
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Charli l Wanderlusters March 23, 2013 at 4:27 am

What a happy group of campers. We visited Yellowstone during our road trip around the west coast of the USA and fell in love with the lush environment. I applaud you for teaching your sons the value of forging their own path through the wilderness of life.

Just One Boomer (Suzanne) April 8, 2013 at 11:27 pm

I do think you were brave— mostly because of the grizzley thing. The only multi day hike my husband and I ever did was in New Zealand —- no bears nor snakes, leaving one to be able to enjoy the scenery.
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Debbie Beardsley @ European Travelista April 9, 2013 at 2:05 pm

I enjoyed going on this hike through Yellowstone with you! Yellowstone is an amazing place that I have been fortunate enough to spend quite a bit of time at. IMO camping and kids go hand in hand. I smiled reading about your son complaining about spending his birthday hiking. It reminded me of all the complaining I would as we set off, yet again (we went to Yellowstone camping every summer), to camp so my dad could fish! Being the only girl, this just didn’t seem fair. Now, those vacations are some of my favorites and Yellowstone is one of my favorite places to be!
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Linda April 15, 2013 at 2:22 pm

Delightful post! My kids are grown up now and I would have given anything to have this memory! Sadly I was married to a very unadventurous man & we never even went camping. First time I went was when my grown up son took me a year and a half ago! Not to be the last though! Creating great memories is the best thing we can do for our kids!
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Traveling Ted April 22, 2013 at 2:07 pm

That takes a lot of bravery to take your kids into the wilderness of Yellowstone, but ironically, I think you are safer there than camping in the car campgrounds. The bears in the backcountry are more wild and do not see people as a food source. As long as you take precautions like you did with hanging food and the bells you should be fine. Looks beautiful back there.
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