Family-Friendly 3-Day Itinerary Exploring Montana’s Yellowstone Country
Like many Montanans, I’m not a huge fan of crowds, especially after having a baby last year. Visiting Montana’s Yellowstone Country during the springtime and showing our 1-year-old daughter this incredible destination gave our family the perfect, much-needed getaway and so many precious memories.
If you have young kids under 4 or 5 years of age, travel during the springtime is best. (Plus, when they’re not in school yet your travel isn’t limited to school and summer breaks.) This is the time of year when life is taking hold in Yellowstone as the bison, elk, deer, pronghorn and moose have babies and bears and wolves emerge from their dens with their young in tow. Bison jams are the norm instead of traffic jams, and there are no wait times—or very minimal ones—for all your meals. We found parking easily at every attraction, trailhead, restaurant and natural feature we wanted to see. Another springtime bonus is having more available lodging options and taking advantage of shoulder-season prices.
The lengthening spring days provide ample opportunity to adventure with sunlight from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. and the weather is still cooler. It’s nice not worrying about your kids overheating or getting sunburned. We enjoyed daytime highs in the 50s and 60s (Fahrenheit) with cool nights in the 30s and 40s. Keep this in mind when packing.
As the snowpack melts in Montana, more and more trails and roads open up each day and rivers and waterfalls are at their fullest, which makes for gorgeous scenery. You’ll still find some snow here and there this time of year, especially in shaded areas and higher elevations, which only adds to the beauty of the landscape as it turns from brown to green.
If your littles are in diapers or potty training, it is nice to be able to get to a restroom fairly quickly for diaper changes and to avoid an accident. Our daughter used the driving time to take her naps. We stuck to exploring the northern half of Yellowstone more thoroughly for three full days and, even with some road and attraction closures, we had very full days and wish we had more time.
Here is our spring family-friendly itinerary using Gardiner as a home base.
Day 1: Yellowstone National Park
Head south from Gardiner and explore the park.
- Stop at the Sheepeater Cliff Trail to see rock columns reminiscent of Iceland plus gorgeous river views. You can also hike for a half mile or so along the river.
- Stop at the Golden Gate to see a roadside waterfall and learn about the engineering marvel of this part of Yellowstone’s roads.
- Stop at Roaring Mountain for photos and to read about the geothermal activity underneath this mountain with steam vents.
- Stop at Gibbon Falls for a short walk to two overlooks for a stunning waterfall view.
- We stopped and got sandwiches to-go from Tumbleweed Cafe in Gardiner at the Madison Junction; they have nice bathrooms there as well as picnic tables.
- Artist Paintpots and Norris Geyser Basin were closed when we went in mid-May due to snow, but we got to see the Fountain Geyser and Grand Prismatic at peak time of the day instead and still easily found parking in the early afternoon.
- Head to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Only Artist Point on the South Rim and Inspiration Point and Grand View on the North Rim were open when we went, but we loved being able to enjoy this iconic part of Yellowstone without the crowds.
Day 2: Gardiner to Cooke City-Silver Gate
There is so much to see and do in one of the less-trafficked areas of Yellowstone!
Leave early this day if you are interested in watching wildlife. If you can handle it, wake up at 4 a.m. to be in the Lamar Valley by 5:30 or 6 a.m. for the sunrise—one of the best times for spotting wildlife before everyone else arrives in the park. Hopefully your kids will go back to sleep on the one-hour drive. If you know that won’t work for your family, head out when you can and hit the rest of the itinerary and maybe you can time your return trip to Gardiner going through the Lamar Valley closer to evening, which is another good time for animal sightings.
- Often called “The American Serengeti,” head to the Lamar Valley to look for bears, moose, wolves, elk, bison, pronghorn and more. This incredible part of Yellowstone National Park is best accessed via Montana’s gateway towns of Gardiner and Cooke City-Silver Gate. Slough Creek is where the wolf watchers usually set up in hopes of a wolf sighting. You can rent a wildlife viewing scope (as the wolves are over a mile away on the hillsides) or one of the regulars might let you have a look.
- Spend the late morning/early afternoon in the tiny, sister communities of Cooke City and Silver Gate. (Over Memorial Day weekend—weather depending—the gorgeous little outpost of Cooke City opens up access to the Beartooth Highway, one of the most scenic drives in the country.)
- While in town, check out the Yellowstone Trading Post to get your souvenirs (kids will like the little wildlife museum attached to the store) and grab something to eat. If you arrive in the afternoon, Wooka’s has some incredible tacos and the Log Cabin Cafe has a great reputation for providing an amazing breakfast, if you get into town before 11 a.m.
- Make sure to check out the Cooke City Museum to learn more about the town’s history. It’s very moving to learn about the families who survived in this mountain climate back in the late 1800s and early 1900s. There are artifacts and displays, friendly and helpful employees to answer your questions, tourism brochures and pamphlets as well as an outdoor area showing some of the town’s old cabins and mining equipment.
- While you are in the area, think about taking one of the four waterfall hikes in the immediate vicinity. Go chase as many as you can! We went to Sheep Creek Falls just outside of town and it was beautiful. (The other three hikes were not as easily accessed that early in the season, but also look into Woody, Silver and Bridal Falls if you have more time or if more of the snow has melted during your visit.)
- On your way out of town, Silver Gate has a nice little playground for your littles to stretch their legs or burn off some energy. Fuel up for the adventures ahead on the way back at the Stop The Car Trading Post for some quirky souvenirs or a delicious milkshake or smoothie for the road.
- There is more fun to be had on the drive home! On the way back to Gardiner we stopped at Tower Falls (it’s a short walk to the falls overlook, or you can head down toward the canyon/river if you want a longer, more challenging hike). Go see the 50-million-year-old petrified tree, take in stunning views at Calcite Springs Overlook (we saw a black bear with cubs here and across the canyon was a herd of bighorn sheep) and end the day with two more waterfalls! Wraith Falls is a 1-mile, out-and-back hike, and Undine Falls is only a short walk to the overlook. Tip: You can hike from Lava Creek to a different view of Undine Falls if you want to extend your hike into more than just a walk.
- Take in the sunset and walk the terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs. This part of the park is only 15 minutes from Gardiner, and the lighting later in the day really makes this otherworldly landscape even more beautiful. There was hardly anyone around when we were there; it was so cool to be able to photograph these Yellowstone icons minus the crowds.
Day 3: Just Beyond Gardiner
You can easily spend a full day within 25 minutes of Gardiner!
- Check out the small ghost town of Jardine, located in the hills above Gardiner. It’s a very scenic drive and you can see some of the remaining buildings and the cemetery of this late 1800s mining town. Tip: There are also hiking trails up there, like the North Fork Bear Creek Trailhead, and there is a stunning view of the town of Gardiner from above as you make your way back down the hills.
- Get your photo taken at the iconic Roosevelt Arch, the first entryway into the world’s first national park!
- Spend the evening at Yellowstone Hot Springs, just 10 minutes north of Gardiner, to relax and soak after all that hiking and exploring. My daughter loved this place! It is family friendly as the main pool is kept between 98 and 100 F. There is even a super shallow area in the main pool for littles. There is also a Kneipp Walk where you begin in a hot soak of 106 degrees F, then walk in alternating warm and cool water, go to the cold pool at 65 F for one minute and can repeat. Restrooms, showers and changing rooms are all provided. We lucked out with an epic sunset here as icing on the cake.
- Go souvenir shopping for those last-minute gifts at Yellowstone Sweets and Gifts or some of the other shops back in Gardiner.
- You might have some more time depending on how long you spend at the hot springs or in Jardine. We chose to spend this morning looking for wildlife again between Gardiner and Cooke City and see the things we missed on the other days. So you could also easily put Mammoth Hot Springs, Wraith Falls and Undine Falls on this day, as they are all less than 30 minutes from Gardiner.
We had all our meals in Gardiner aside from a lunch and snack in Cooke City-Silver Gate. More and more places were opening up each day, but here’s a quick summary of the ones we checked out during our visit.
- Wonderland Café: Some of the best poutine I’ve ever had, plus excellent elk chili mac ‘n’ cheese (with a little bit of a kick) and yummy chicken sandwiches.
- Outlaw’s Pizza: Pizzas, fried green beans, fried avocado, fried corn bites. We tried the Montanan pizza with beans and BBQ chicken, sounds different but tasted soooo good!
- Bear’s Brew: A little coffee stand on the way into Yellowstone from Gardiner. They have great coffee specials and the best homemade donut holes! Breakfast sandwiches and pastries also available to grab and go.
- The Corral: Lays claim to the best elk burger in Montana and we couldn’t argue after trying one! They also have bison and beef burgers, fries, and really good milk shakes that hit the spot.
- Cinnabear Bakery and Deli: This place has gorgeous views looking over the river and yummy crepes, pastries and coffee to get your day started or take to-go for a snack while exploring!
- Wooka’s Wild Eats (Cooke City): We had some incredible tacos here!