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Who needs special-effect theme-park rides when you can get the real thing at Yellowstone National Park? You'll see boiling hot water blast out of the ground, share the road with grizzly bears and bison, and visit a lake that makes its own rainstorms. Talk about a hot spot!
This huge swath of untamed wilderness, almost the size of Wyoming State, aims to please even the squirmiest travelers in your group. Watch their eyes grow big when the ground beneath them begins to gurgle, gush, and vent, when they spot a moose, elk, wolf, or buffalo in the wild -- just a few feet away.
Yellowstone is so big and packed with natural attractions, your biggest challenge will be plotting a route to see it all. Pick one part of the park to explore each day -- or half-day. Your family's feet will thank you for it! Here are our favorites in each of five park districts:
You'll have to elbow your way through large crowds to see Old Faithful, located in the park's Geyser Country. But it's worth the hassle. Imagine the look on your kids' faces when hot water suddenly shoots hundreds of feet into the air.
Although this area is home to many geysers, Old Faithful is the one everybody comes to see. It spits steaming water into the sky every 81 minutes. You could set your watch by it. And don't worry about a no-show. Old Faithful has rarely missed a "performance" in more than 120 years.
Equally spectacular is lesser-known Steamboat, the world's tallest geyser. Located in Norris Geyser Basin -- the hottest, oldest, and most active of Yellowstone's thermal zones -- Steamboat can be fairly unpredictable. But when it blows, it really blows; eruptions can reach 400 feet and last up to 12 hours.
Don't miss a walk along the steamy Midway Geyser Basin boardwalk to Yellowstone's largest hot spring, Grand Prismatic Spring. This 370-foot-diameter, deep blue pool is ringed with yellow-and orange-colored bacteria, giving it a cool prism effect.
Mammoth Hot Springs is the main attraction in this neck of the woods. Each day, mineral-laden hot water from deep within the earth pushes to the surface and builds up layers of terraced stone. Up to two tons of new limestone are deposited daily at this sight. Quite a spectacle to see!
When you're done at the springs, put on your bathing suits and jump into the Boiling River. Hot and cold water mix in pools along the Gardner River's edge to create a relaxing bath with large clouds of steam. Daytime bathing only!
Geography trivia: Stand on the 45th parallel! A sign here marks the imaginary line circling the globe between the equator and North Pole. (You'll find it where the north entrance park road meets Gardner River.)
This is home of Yellowstone Lake, the largest natural freshwater lake in the U.S. above 7,000 feet. The lake sits in a large, 136-square-mile volcanic crater. It's so huge, it makes its own weather; clouds form over the water during the day, turning to showers at night.
Swimming in the lake is not recommended since the water rarely exceeds 66 degrees F. Park officials recommend taking guided boat tours or charters to explore the sights and sounds of the lake.
Just north of Lake Country is 20-mile-long Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The Yellowstone River descends into the Canyon over two major waterfalls, the Upper Falls and Lower Falls, the latter of which is almost twice the height of Niagara Falls.
Nearby Hayden Valley is the best place to see grizzly bears, bison, coyotes, and elk. Pack your binoculars; bird life is abundant here.You may spot sandhill cranes, ducks, geese, pelicans, and bald eagles. A word of caution: Do not approach, call, or feed any wildlife. Observe the animals from your car.
The 132-foot Tower Fall, with its volcanic pinnacles, is a favorite natural feature of Roosevelt Country. At nearby Bannock Ford Trail, you can travel in the footsteps of Native Americans, early European visitors, and miners, who used the trail as a major travel and trading route.
While in Roosevelt, pay a visit to Yellowstone's petrified forests, also known as "forests of stone." You'll see well-preserved samples of ancient plants and trees that were buried and fossilized by volcanic eruptions.
At the end of the day, bring your appetite to an Old West Dinner Cookout at the Roosevelt Lodge. The hearty dinner includes steak, corn, coleslaw, cornbread muffins, homemade Roosevelt beans, apple cobbler, and more.
At or near each of Yellowstone's five entrances are some historic, fun, and quirky places that shouldn't be missed:
Type of trip: Sightseeing, swimming, hiking, winter sports, fishing
Best ages: All ages
Ideal trip length: 3-4 days minimum to see the entire park
Distance: Billings, MT (129 miles), Salt Lake City, UT (390 miles), Cheyenne, WY (462 miles)
Best time to go: Summer
Weather: 76/37 degrees in summer. Weather in Yellowstone is very unpredictable and storms can develop suddenly. Always bring extra clothing or dress in layers.
Lodging: Each Yellowstone "country" has its own accommodations, including hotels, cabins, lodges, and campgrounds.
Squirm factor: None to a little, depending on how much territory you cover each day.
Yellowstone National Park. Access via five major roads in peak season (summer): U.S. 89 North from Gardiner, MT; U.S. 20 West from West Yellowstone, MT; U.S. 89 South from Jackson, WY; U.S. 16 East from Cody, WY; and U.S. 212 Northeast from Silver Gate, MT. For more directions call 307-344-7381.
Lodging. Make sure to make reservations well in advance, especially for summer visits. For more information, contact Yellowstone National Park Lodges (Xanterra), 307-344-7311.
Outlaw's Pizza, Outpost Mall, Hwy 89, Gardiner, MT, 406-848-7733. Savor a slice surrounded by great art and memorabilia from Montana's Wild West days.
Yellowstone Mine Restaurant, Hwy 89, Gardiner, MT, 406-848-7336. Enjoy some of the best steaks, seafood, and prime rib in the state while relaxing by the fire in this "gold mine" atmosphere.
Best souvenirs: What better way to remember your trip than to bring home a furry, 18-inch bison stuffed animal. Kids will also love the erupting geyser pen.Annual events:
Traffic alert: Most roads and entrances to Yellowstone are closed in winter. Spring and fall storms may cause restrictions or temporary closures on some roads. Motorcoach tours are highly recommended and are easily accessible from park lodging and at the Gardiner, MT entrance.
After a few days in the park, the whole family will be ready for some Wild West fun, and pampering too, at Chico Hot Springs, 34 miles north of the park's Gardiner, MT entrance. Drop the kids off at the pool while you enjoy a full-body massage in their spa!
At Chico, you can spend the day riding in the Wild, Wild West, challenging the rapids of Yellowstone River, hiking the Absoraka Beartooth Mountains, or getting some fresh air biking along a backcountry road. Winter visitors can catch some great powder at Chico's Bridger Bowl.
Chico Hot Springs Resort. #1 Chico Rd., Pray, MT, 800-HOT-WADA.
Reviewed April 2004.