National Park to Park Highway Victory Lap – Yellowstone National Park

I know I said Glacier National Park was our last stop on our National Park to Park Highway tour, but the drive from Glacier down to Utah would’ve been incomplete without a victory lap in the Nation’s first National Park – Yellowstone.

Although Yellowstone gets the credit as being the first National Park, Yosemite Valley was actually the first area set aside by the federal government for the protection of the land for the enjoyment of the people.

On our previous visit to Yellowstone we saw Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone Lake and the Grand Prismatic Geyser Basin but we never got to one of my favorite spots – The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. It felt poetic to end our National Park to Park Highway trip in the first official National Park.

On our National Park to Park Highway journey we traveled over 7,000 miles in just over six weeks. We traversed mountains, deserts, plains, boring interstates, big cities, remote forests and just about every habitat in between. We endured scorching heat, freezing cold, rain, and wind, but luckily most of our days were sunny. We spent over 200 hours in our truck, the rest of the time in the outdoors (and a few rented rooms).

After seeing the deepest canyon in the world, the deepest lake and tallest sand dune in North America, rare animals, endangered glaciers and more beautiful vistas that we could count, you’d think we’d be hiking to Yellowstone Falls with our fists in the air, We Are the Champions playing on the soundtrack. In actuality, we limped along in our grubbiest clothes, grateful to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Me and Baby L hiking in our pajamas – the only cleanish clothes we had left.

Planning a grand adventure is often more fun than executing it. Don’t get me wrong. I’d travel the National Park to Park Highway again in a heartbeat, but six weeks living on the road with three small children doesn’t count as a vacation in my book. An experience, yes. Vacation, not so much.

“When we get back I’m gonna need some alone time and then we should go on a date,” Mountain Dad said on one of the many long drives between beautiful places. I completely agreed. Being nonstop with our kids meant we were always on. Always within earshot of their tantrums, on guard to keep them safe, preparing food, beds, clothes, and taking them on bathroom runs. I love those little monkeys, but I felt ready for a break.

That’s what makes this trip so wonderful. Now that I’m home I can look back at the photos and remember with awe that we DID that. We accomplished a great family goal – to travel the National Park to Park Highway. My kids got to see the glaciers in Glacier National Park before they all disappeared. Big E had experiences he vowed to tell his grand kids about. Little G learned to ride a bike at the Grand Canyon. Baby L crawled over terrain meant for mountain goats (She took her first steps four days after we returned). We had experiences we would never forget, despite the grubby clothes, extra work and long hours in the car.

We may not have had We Are The Champions playing as we hiked the Yellowstone Falls trail, but there was music in the air when we finally arrived home. The moment we pulled into our driveway, we heard the wafting notes of the finale of the Music Man welcoming us back. Our neighbor, Sundance Mountain Resort, puts on an outdoor summer musical every year and it was just our luck to arrive home as the final overture sounded. It was as if they knew we needed a proper welcome home.

Each of the National Parks we visited on the National Park to Park Highway tour.

Now that we’re home, real life is back with a vengeance. School, work, home and real life responsibilities vie for attention. At times I wish it we could just pack into the truck and take off again, leaving all of it behind. I know every adventure takes time and effort, including the adventure of rearing outdoors loving kids.

Get Off the Beaten Path in Yellowstone

For most of the parks we visit on the National Park to Park Highway I will be posting our top ten picks of kids activities, but Yellowstone is a special case. The first National Park is so huge and so popular (especially on Independence Day weekend when we visited) that instead of a top ten list I decided to share some off-the-beaten-path adventures with you instead. As always, follow @mountainmomtots on instagram for daily updates and to see what park we’re visiting right now.
First some tips:
If you’re traveling to Yellowstone save your gas money and choose just one area a day to focus on in the park. Whether it’s Old Faithful, Mammoth or Canyon areas, it’s more fun to get out and explore than hurry back to your car.
Get out of your car and onto a hiking trail. There’s a statistic out there that more than 90% of visitors to Yellowstone never go farther than a boardwalk, road or visitors center. Even if it’s just half a mile off the road, you can find solitude and nature away from the crowds.
Try less well known areas like the ones we visited here:

Firehole Lake Drive – Between Old Faithful and Madison Junction
This short, one way drive off the main road offers great geyser and hot springs viewing, not to mention a surprise spring. The features are similar to other geothermal areas in the park but the crowds are minimal.
Bike off of Fountain Flat Drive –Between Old Faithful and Madison Junction
Fountain Flat Drive is a short road that dead ends at the trail head for a primitive bike trail and hiking area. This gravel bike path is flat and easy to maneuver (except when your son gets a flat tire in the parking lot). Features to see along the 9 mile path include Ojo Caliente Spring, Goose Lake, Sentinel Meadow Trail, Fairy Falls Trail, and the Firehole River Crossing.
Ojo Caliente – 0.3 miles from the end of Fountain Flat Drive
We loved this little hidden hot spring not only for its secluded, off the beaten path location, but also because the hot water empties into the Firehole River. Touching water in the hot springs is not allowed (not to mention its a terrible idea) but you can swim in the river downstream from the spring. Can I just say, it was like sitting in a hot tub in the most beautiful place on earth.
Junior Ranger Station  – Madison Junction
We loved this little gift shop and information station. The hands on exhibits of animal furs, skulls, antlers and horns are great for little (and big) explorers plus you can look for wildlife with their spotting scope. Stay for a ranger talk which happen every half hour throughout the day and enjoy the beautiful views.
Beaver Ponds Trail – Mammoth
Because the Mammoth area of the park is so much further north than the rest of the park fewer people are on the roads to get there so pull over at some scenic overlooks. Once you’re at Mammoth try hiking to the Beaver Ponds Trail to get a view of the hot springs from behind.
Swim the Boiling River – Mammoth
This is a popular swim spot since the hot springs empty into the river. It is not off-the-beaten path but it is still worth visiting, especially if you can catch a glimpse of elk munching across the river like we did.
Do you have any favorite off-the-beaten-path locations in Yellowstone? Share them here.

What is Home?

We are in the midst of our long anticipated National Park to Park Highway tour. Being away from home on this extended adventure has brought up the question “What is home?” Many phrases talk about it – Home sweet home, There’s no place like home, Home is where the heart is – but what is it?
Is home a feeling or a place? As we’ve been traveling from park to park this last week Little G will often say things like “When we get home can I go to Eden’s house?” or “When we get home can we watch Kung Fu Panda?”
To her home is a physical place, our house that we won’t be seeing for another month and a half as we travel along the National Park to Park Highway. But home is more than a house, more than a place to sleep, eat and rest.

Is home a feeling? When you’re in a place that feels ‘homey’ you know you can kick off you shoes and relax, you don’t have to worry about who you impress or offend.
To me home is both a place and a feeling. It’s somewhere you feel safe and comfortable, where you know what to expect and what is expected of you.
We’ve already had several homes on this trip. We carry the main one on our truck like a turtle shell. The Ultimate Adventure Vehicle holds our things, both the essentials and luxuries. It’s where we eat, sleep, travel and spend time together. Compared to our house back in Sundance, Utah it’s cramped, disorganized and requires constant shuffling of things, but it’s a place we can be where we feel safe, can sleep and know what to expect.
We’ve stayed in other people’s homes and will again on our National Park to Park Highway tour. This trip includes two family reunions, one near Yellowstone and the other in Southern California. For those gatherings our family rented other people’s homes. I like renting a home when we’re traveling for the luxury of hot water, a comfy bed, laundry and a kitchen. Since Big E is allergic to wheat, eggs and nuts we make a lot of our own food on the road. It’s just easier than custom ordering baked potatoes from Wendy’s for every meal.

The final home away from home we’ve had on this trip is Togwotee Mountain Lodge. Located 16 miles east of Moran Wyoming, Togwotee Mountain Lodge is close to Gand Teton National Park but far enough away to avoid the crowds. It’s secluded, which is good for feeling connected to nature, but bad if you want quick access to Grand Teton or Yellowstone. Driving to and from the park each day required an extra 40 minutes, which feels extra long after driving hours to get there, but it’s comparable to other lodging options in the area.
What I loved about Togwotee was the private family cabin with sleeping for six. The beds were comfy, the stovetop, microwave and fridge in the kitchen handy and they had an on site gas station, restaurant, convenience store and laundry. Plus they offer horse rides and snowmobile rentals on site (Mountain Dad’s already interested in a winter trip).
Although the cabins feel like a home away from home with all of the luxuries of a hotel, there are still reminders that you’re in the middle of Targhee National Forest. One night of our stay a lightening strike in Moran, Wyoming knocked out power to the resort for several hours.

At first I was annoyed. I was staying in a hotel and as such had certain expectations, like being able to turn the lights on when I wanted. But then I stopped my mental complaining by reminding myself that this entire National Park toPark Highway tour is essentially an extended campout. Instead of feeling annoyed, I dug through our Ultimate Adventure Vehicle for flashlights. It’s not like Togwotee controls the weather anyway.
On this adventure the concept of home is important. For me, home is a feeling of safety and peace. A place I can relax and sleep. Whether that is in the back of our truck, in a rented home or at Togwotee Mountain Lodge, it all feels like home.
Togwotee Mountain Lodge is a National Park to Park Highway tour sponsor. Visit our sponsor page to see more.

Yellowstone National Park Photo Journal

Yellowstone was the second park on our National Park to Park Highway tour, but the first National Park ever created. On this Independence Day I wanted to share some of our favorite photos from this large and beautiful park. For daily updates follow @mountainmomtots on Instagram.

Getting on a trail and away from crowds.

Little G loves hiking about as much as I love listening to her complain.

This hot spring was visible from our hike. So cool.

Mammoth Hot Springs

Falls in the Firehole River

Enjoying a soak down stream from a hot spring.

Ojo Caliente

Firehole River

Firehole Lake

I thought these globby things looked like Ursula’s garden.

Big E on the boardwalk

Grand Prismatic Springs