Image: river rafting
Photo courtesy of Austin-Lehman
Rafting offers great views of Yellowstone National Park — minus the crowds.
By
Tribune Media Services
updated 8/19/2011 4:49:54 PM ET 2011-08-19T20:49:54

How much longer?

It's the familiar lament heard by parents as their cars crawl along in traffic on the roads in Yellowstone National Park — some 466 miles — as vehicles slow to gawk at the wildlife.

But we're not driving. Along with our Austin-Lehman Adventures guides, Matty Kirkland and Katie Gugliotta, we're kayaking on Yellowstone Lake to a wilderness camp called 7M7. We paddle five miles from the point where a fishing boat dropped us off and spy osprey and deer along the way, but no other people. We'll spend the next two nights in tents with outdoor pottys, no showers and no Internet or cell service, and we can't wait, especially since we don't have to set up the tents or cook. Is that a bald eagle flying overhead? Wow!

There are many remote campsites along the huge lake, which stretches 20 miles north to south and 14 miles east to west and offers 141 miles of shoreline — and we are heading as far from the crowds as we can get. Last year, Yellowstone had a record-breaking 3.6 million visitors, setting visitation records for the third time in four years. The National Park Service recorded 906,935 visitors this July — the second highest monthly visitation level ever recorded, though down slightly from last summer — making reservations in the park lodges sometimes hard to get.

When we visited in the last week in July, the park is packed with families — especially around Old Faithful (just one of the park's 300 geysers) and in the new children's discovery area at the Old Faithful Visitor Center. And despite plenty of room to get away from the crowds — Yellowstone stretches for 3,472 square miles in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho with 1,000 miles of trails — the National Park Service says the vast majority of visitors don't get more than a quarter-mile from the road even though only about 3 percent of the vast park can be seen from that vantage point.

Lead the way
That was why we opted to let Austin-Lehman lead the way. The company has been guiding families in Yellowstone for 25 years — several hundred a summer — and though they offer trips around the world, including many specifically for families, Montana and Yellowstone remain their most popular trips (look for an additional Montana family itinerary next summer to include more camping) whether you sign on to tour with other families or organize a trip just for your family alone, as we have. Our family trip included my cousins Jayme and Mike Sitzman from Denver and their kids, Ethan, 9, and Hannah, 6.

"The guides were able to take us places that we would not even have noticed if we were alone," said Katherine Shatrau, visiting from suburban Chicago. She was just finishing a Austin-Lehman trip with her husband and 7-year-old son at the Chico Hot Springs Resort and Day Spa just outside Yellowstone.

"This trip had no stress whatsoever," Shatrau added. "No worries about where to get gas, whether we were lost. All we had to do was wake up and bring our camera/water bottle/sense of adventure!"

Mike Sitzman agreed. The guides meant he could focus on having fun with his kids in such an iconic and memorable place instead of sweating the details. "And that was huge," he said. Just as significant, with the amiable guides leading the way, the kids didn't whine or bicker (much anyway), nor did they seem to want the electronics they can't live without at home.

When we spied a bear from the road, Matty Kirkland made a U-turn (no small feat with a van and trailer), parked and raced up the hill to set up a scope so we could watch from a safe distance (park rangers say visitors should be at least a football field away) while he chowed down on greens in a field of wildflowers. When it was time for the kids to be sworn in as Junior Rangers, Gugliotta and Kirkland whispered into the ranger's ear to "make a production" of it, thrilling the kids and making everyone around us smile, as they were handed their coveted ranger badges.

Keeping kids occupied
Our guides knew exactly where to hunt for frogs and fashioned balloon animals for a scavenger hunt at our campsite; they had magnifying glasses at the ready for nature walks so they could look close up at bugs and flowers and they helped the kids construct a bona-fide arch from rock along one trail and snapped pictures all along the way, putting them together on a CD they gave us at the end of the trip to chronicle our adventure.

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"With kids, it's always about the journey, not the destination," explained Matty Kirkland, who has been guiding families for Austin-Lehman for 15 years.

Sure it costs more to tour the park this way (typically $400 a person per day, less for the kids), but that includes everything — accommodations (no worries here about getting rooms at park lodges), stellar meals (how about a taco picnic while the kids bang away at a piñata in a picnic area?), activities (we ended the trip with a whitewater raft trip down the Yellowstone River) and most important knowledgeable guides who not only interpret what we are seeing (did you know pine sap makes good chewing gum?) but also entertain the kids with a never-ending supply of jokes, riddles, songs , piggyback rides and snacks.

Of course, there were glitches. The mosquitoes were terrible at our campsite. The crew that set up our camp didn't bring the promised fishing poles for the kids. A hot springs where we planned to swim in the park was closed because of high water. But because our guides were always ready with a plan B (ready to fly a kite instead of fish) things that might have derailed another trip proved to be just minor annoyances and the adults could relax rather than scramble for alternatives.

Other thoughtful touches made us all smile. Think homemade ice cream made with a special REI gadget and served in cones at the top of a hiking trail with the bright turquoise Grand Prismatic Spring — the third largest hot spring in the world — spread out in all its glory below us or yogurt parfaits presented on a silver platter underneath a waterfall.

"Absolutely worth the money," said Atlantan Tim Mast, whose Austin-Lehman family trip also overlapped ours. His wife and three daughters had such a good time — their first on such a group trip — that they are already thinking about next summer.

Our last morning in Yellowstone, 9-year-old Ethan declared, "It's better than DisneyWorld! I don't want to leave."

Me either.

For more Taking the Kids, visit www.takingthekids.com and also follow "taking the kids" on www.twitter.com, where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments.

© 2011 Eileen Ogintz ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Photos: America's national parks

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  1. Acadia

    Acadia National Park in Maine boasts the highest mountain on the U.S. Atlantic Coast and was the first national park east of the Mississippi River. Visitors beware: temperatures can vary 40 degrees -- from 45 degrees to 85 degrees in the summer and from 30 degrees to 70 degrees in the spring and fall. (Gareth Mccormack / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rocky Mountain

    Bear Lake, with mountainside aspens changing colors in mid-autumn, is one of the popular attractions in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. (Universal Images Group via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Badlands

    The climate in South Dakota's Badlands National Park is extreme. Temperatures range from minus 40 degrees in the dead of winter to 116 degrees in the height of summer. Visitors are drawn to the park's rugged beauty as well as the area's rich fossil beds. (Mark Newman / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Yosemite

    One of the nation's first wilderness parks, Yosemite is known for its waterfalls, scenic valleys, meadows and giant sequoias. (Robert Galbraith / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. North Cascades National Park

    The North Cascades National Park complex offers something for everyone: Monstrous peaks, deep valleys, hundreds of glaciers and phenominal waterfalls. The complex includes the park, Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. (David Mcnew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Zion

    This spectacular corner of southern Utah is a masterpiece of towering cliffs, deep red canyons, mesas, buttes and massive monoliths. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Redwood

    Created in 1968, Redwood National Park is located in Northern California. Today, visitors to the national park can enjoy the massive trees as well as an array of wildlife. (David Gotisha / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Joshua Tree

    Joshua Tree National Park is located in southeast California. The area was made a national monument in 1936 and a national park in 1994. Outdoor enthusiasts can go hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Great Smoky Mountains

    Straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses more than 800 square miles in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Visitors can expect mild winters and hot, humid summers, though temperatures can differ drastically as the park's elevation ranges from 800 feet to more than 6,600 feet. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Arches

    More than 2,000 natural sandstone arches, many of them recognizable worldwide, are preserved in Utah's Arches National Park. Temperatures can reach triple digits in the summer and can drop to below freezing in the winter. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Grand Teton

    The Snake River flows through Grand Teton National Park, and the jagged Teton Range rises above the sage-covered valley floor. Daytime temperatures during summer months are frequently in the 70s and 80s, and afternoon thunderstorms are common. (Anthony P. Bolante / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Haleakala

    Visitors watch the sun rise at 10,000 feet in Haleakala National Park in Maui, Hawaii. If weather permits, visitors at the top of the mountain can see three other Hawaiian islands. (The Washington Post via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Grand Canyon

    Grand Canyon National Park is perhaps the most recognizable national park. Nearly 5 million visitors view the mile-deep gorge every year, formed in part by erosion from the Colorado River. The North and South rims are separated by a 10-mile-wide canyon. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Yellowstone

    Yellowstone National Park, America's first national park, was established in 1872. The park spans parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Grizzly bears, wolves, bison and elk live in the park. It is well known for Old Faithful and other geothermal features. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Mount Rainier

    Glaciers. Rainforests. Hiking trails. Mount Rainier National Park, located in Washington state, offers incredible scenery and a diverse ecology. The park aims to be carbon neutral by 2016. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Hawaii Volcanoes

    Two of the world's most active volcanoes can be found within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In 1980, the national park was designated an International Biosphere Reserve; in 1987, it was added as a World Heritage Site. (David Jordan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Everglades

    Everglades National Park covers the nation's largest subtropical wilderness. It is also a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve and a Wetland of International Importance. Visitors to the park can camp, boat, hike and find many other ways to enjoy the outdoors. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Glacier

    A view from atop the Grinnell Glacier Overlook trail in Glacier National Park. With more than 700 miles of trails the park is known for its glaciers, forests, alpine meadows and beautiful lakes. (Matt McKnight / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Bryce Canyon

    Located in southwestern Utah, Bryce Canyon National Park is known for its distinctive geological structures called "hoodoos." (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Crater Lake

    The brilliant blue Crater Lake, located in southern Oregon, was formed when Mount Mazama, standing at 12,000 feet, collapsed 7,700 years ago after a massive eruption. Crater Lake is one of the world's deepest lakes at 1,943 feet. (David Gotisha / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Olympic

    Washington state's Olympic National Park offers visitors beaches on the Pacific Ocean, glacier-capped mountain peaks and everything in between. Keep the weather in mind when visiting, though, as roads and facilities can be affected by wind, rain and snow any time of year. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Sequoia and Kings Canyon

    A woman stands among a grove of a Giant Sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park in Central California. The trees, which are native to California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, are the world's largest by volume, reaching heights of 275 feet and a ground level girth of 109 feet. The oldest known Giant Sequoia based on its ring count is 3,500 years old. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Denali

    Alaska's Denali National Park spans 6 million acres and includes the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, North America's tallest peak. Many park visitors try to catch a glimpse of the "big five" -- moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves and grizzly bear. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Kenai Fjords National Park

    The National Park Service considers the 8.2-mile round-trip on Harding Icefield Trail in Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park to be strenuous, saying hikers gain about 1,000 feet of elevation with each mile. (National Park Service via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Death Valley

    California's Death Valley encompasses more than 3.3 million acres of desert wilderness. In 1849, a group of gold rush pioneers entered the Valley, thinking it was a shortcut to California. After barely surviving the trek across the area, they named the spot "Death Valley." In the 1880s, native peoples were pushed out by mining companies who sought the riches of gold, silver, and borax. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Wind Cave

    Bison graze in Wind Cave National Park in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota. Millions of bison were slaughtered by white hunters who pushed them to near-extinction by the late 1800s. Recovery programs have brought the bison numbers up to nearly 250,000. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Canyonlands

    The Lower Basins Zone is outlined by the white rim edge as seen from the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Shenandoah

    Fall colors blanket the Shenandoah National Park, drawing tourists to Skyline Drive to view the scenery. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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