This post may contain compensated links. Find more info in my disclosure.
This Labor Day we braved the cool temperatures (mid-20s at night!) and met friends for camping at Hebgen Lake, just outside of West Yellowstone. The boys and I drove down Friday early afternoon, set up camp, explored, read, and basically relaxed. After dinner and s’mores around one of my famous upside-down fires, my friend Erica joined us with her two daughters.
We stayed at the Lonesomehurst Campground on the South Fork Arm of the lake. There are 27 sites, five of which have electrical hookups. A public boat launch is located next to the campground. Sites are available between May 15 – September 15, weather permitting.
I just made the reservation the week before so I was surprised to get a site so easily. And the site we got (12) was great–right on the edge of the lake, in the trees, and only neighboring another site on one side.
The next day, Erica and I caravanned about 20 minutes to West Yellowstone and then into the park. It was a zoo! The traffic to get into the park was backed up through town and out Hwy 20. I guess Labor Day weekend is still too early to venture into Yellowstone. We zigzagged through the streets of West and found a quicker way into the park, but we still waited in line.
Make sure to check the Yellowstone Packing List before you go. And, consider bringing a travel water bottle with a filter.
Two Ribbons Trail
Despite the crowds, we were the only people at our first stop. Maybe because it’s just inside the park entrance, people blast past it, just happy to be moving. Two Ribbons is a short trail on a boardwalk along the Madison River. It’s perfect for non-hikers, folks with strollers, and even wheelchairs. We got a nice view of the river, plus a look at trees sprouted up after the 1988 fires mixed with older lodgepole pines.
Trailhead: Approximately 5 miles east of the West Entrance, no marked trailhead, look for wayside exhibits next to boardwalk in large pull-outs
Distance: Approximately 1.5 miles roundtrip
Madison Information Station
From the Two Ribbons Trail, we drove about five miles to Madison Junction and turned right into the Madison Information Center for a picnic lunch and bathroom break.
Also called the Junior Ranger Station, this small, Historic Landmark has skulls, horns, antlers, and pelts that kids (and adults) can touch and identify. There is also a felt board where you can match an animal with its name, and a Yellowstone Association bookstore. Of course, you can also work on a Junior Ranger badge here, but that wasn’t what we were there for.
Outside the station, the kids ran and jumped along the Madison River. When the weather is warm, this is a lovely place to wade and splash.
Not wanting to spend a lot of time in the car, we started the ten mile drive back to West Yellowstone and stopped for a walk at Harlequin Lake.
The trail starts out in a tunnel of short trees, germinated after the 1988 fires. It climbs a bit to a 10-acre lake, partially covered in lily pads. At the west end there is an active beaver lodge. This area is popular with birders, but we didn’t see a ton of birds, or the beaver. We also didn’t see anyone else on the trail. It pays to explore the less popular spots on a busy weekend.
Finn was a bit of a whiner on this one, but Anders, Eva, and Clara cranked up the hill to the lake, chatting all the way.
Trailhead: 1.5 miles west of Madison Junction, or 12 miles east of the West Yellowstone entrance. Parking is on the south side of the road, trailhead on the north side.
Distance: Approximately 1.0 mile roundtrip
The town of West Yellowstone was a bit nutty, but we wandered around a bit after our time in the park. Erica and I were thinking of hot chocolate for the kids (did I mention it was cool, rainy, gray, and windy?), but they saw a park and wanted to play. We hunkered down out of the wind behind a bathroom and let them go for it.
Back at the campsite, the kids played, we made dinner, and Erica and I took care of some Katabatic beer. Then we had another round of s’mores over the upside-down fire. Seriously, look this up, you will never make a fire the same way again.
Monument Geyser Basin
The next day we decided to drive home through the park. While it was no problem getting through the gates, we spent about an hour and a half driving the 20 miles to our trailhead. We got stuck in an elk jam (Really? Pull over, and don’t make hundreds of cars stop so you can see an elk), and then in a construction-related jam. Ugh.
But, the hike was great. All the kids were in a good mood and practically ran up the trail. And it’s a steep trail. When you get to the top, though, you are in a long, narrow thermal basin. There aren’t any active geysers anymore, but plenty of steam vents, cinter cones, and fumaroles. Plus, big views of the mountains and meadows to the north, and a canyon to the south.
The Park Service writes,
Although the basin has no active geysers, its “monuments” are made of siliceous sinter and appear very similar to the siliceous spires found on the floor of Yellowstone Lake. Scientists think that this basin’s structures formed from a hydrothermal system in a glacially dammed lake during the last stages of the Pinedale Glaciation.
Trailhead: 8.5 miles north of Madison Junction, or about 4.5 miles south of Norris Junction. Parking is on the south side of the Gibbon River Bridge.
Distance: 2.8 miles roundtrip
Difficulty: Moderate –short, but steep! Stay on the trail and out of the thermal area for your protection as well as the protection of the basin.
We figured we’d get one more walk in before driving home and stopped at Artists Paintpots. The kids were still raring to go (you just never know when they will be in the mood to walk), and ran down the flat trail and boardwalk.
This was the busiest place we stopped, but the pretty colors and mudpots more than made up for the tricky parking and throngs of people.
Clara had been itching to see mudpots, and we were all delighted to stare at the gurgling, burping mud for quite a while. It’s really mesmerizing.
Trailhead: 9.1 miles north of Madison Junction, or about 3.7 miles south of Norris Junction. Parking is at the end of a short spur road on the east side of the Grand Loop Road .
Distance: 1.2 mile lollipop
After Artists Paintpots it was time to head north and home. We stopped at the Mammoth Terrace Grill for ice cream, of course. Their huckleberry is really good.
Thanks for sharing your experience and tips. Looks like such a great pace to visit with kids to burn their excessive energy level off. My kids would love it. I will definitely remember your post when we visit the area! Thanks for sharing
Thanks. Hope you make it to Yellowstone soon!
Well done for the kids! Pacing up a steep hill, that’s hard work! I laughed out loud about the elk-jam haha! Who would have thought! We had a similar traffic jam happening a few days before the New Years 10 minutes away from our destination campsite and ended up sitting there for an hour. It’s the worst! But then the hiking is worth it isn’t it!?
The animal jams can just about drive me crazy! I guess they would be more interesting/fun if it wasn’t something that happened regularly :). But, definitely worth it to get to a great hiking trail.
Never been to Yellowstone but I’d love to visit all National Parks one day because they look amazing! This plan is great for a weekend and looks like you can do a lot of activities. Loved the picture of the kids on the hammock, such a good way to relax! Thanks a lot for all the tips 😉
You definitely need to get to Yellowstone if you want to visit National Parks!
The vistas of the lake and mountain where you first camped is beautiful and camping at night with kids sounds like a great idea. We love exploring the national parks but its always awesome if you have trails like of Two Ribbons Trail which is wheelchair accessible and easy walk. The Junior Ranger Station makes for a great learning for the kids they seem to have lot fun too. Artists Paintpots with colors and mud pots sounds interesting too
Hebgen Lake is a really pretty spot to camp! And it’s pretty quiet, which is nice, too.
Sounds like such a fun time and its great that the kids are so active and love the outdoors by the looks of things. The artists paintpots looks mesmerising no wonder it was so busy but I must admit I love empty hiking trials the most 😛
Life with kids is always better outdoors. We are lucky to have such a great spot to be outside!
National parks are truly a great way to spend a relaxing day in. The kids look like they had a blast! It is beautiful and awe-inspiring to be able to witness these natural marvels!
The kids (and mom) are always happier after a day outside!
A very thorough and very readable account of a few of the hikes around Yellowstone. I got to say though, that you and the kids must be pretty fit, I’m not sure if everyone would agree that all of the routes are "easy!" That being said, it’s really great to see some young folks out enjoying the great outdoors as, rather sadly, it really isn’t something you see a lot anymore. Lord, how old I sound!
Ha! You’ll be glad to know that most of us raising kids in Montana spend a lot of time outside.
Beautiful .almost as pretty as blue lake.