Our family has done so many trips through the West over the years, and the Wyoming vacation is always a favorite pick! From vacations to stops while moving across the country to focusing on Yellowstone, there’s nothing quite like the Western Wyoming road trip. With epic views, cowboy activities and more, we’ve enjoyed a wide variety of experiences on each visit. I’ve got to say though, our week exploring the West starting in fossil country and ending in Yellowstone National Park was our most awesome visit yet.
We always aim to make our family trips a mix of fun and learning, and always try to find new things to do for all of us. I think this particular region of Wyoming offers more diverse sights and activities than any other part we’ve been to, and it’s perfect to suit lots of different interests. Here’s what we loved and for sure recommend in Fossil Country, western towns and Yellowstone National Park.
If you have any questions about these towns or this region in Wyoming, please let us know. It’s a very different sort of trip than most people plan when they visit, so if you would like to share your own ideas or inquiries, please leave a comment or send us a note!
Favorite Fossil Country Things to Do
We visit so many museums in our travels and get to see lots of fascinating fossils, from dinosaurs to extinct giant sloths, but we rarely get to see where these pieces of history come from. Wow. Fossil country, aka the southwestern slice of Wyoming, is full of fossil sites where you can both see incredible specimens everywhere AND you can actually find them yourself. The town of Kemmerer is at the heart of fossil country and you’ll love it! This is the first place we HIGHLY recommend when you’re planning a Wyoming vacation.
Quarrying for Our Own Fossils on a Wyoming Vacation
Visiting the American Fossil Quarry was one of the coolest things our kids have ever done. They were naturals at carefully splitting limestone and finding some really beautifully preserved fossils (and us adults did alright too!). We learned about how this enormous fossil deposit formed and how to identify and preserve fossils. A week of adventures in Wyoming and quarrying for fossils was the highlight the kids continue talking about.
Exploring Fossil Butte National Monument
We also really enjoyed our visit to Fossil Butte National Monument. Within the same gigantic fossil bed, this preserved area is absolutely striking! The views of the colorful landscape and the wildlife are incredible on their own, but add to that a really cool visitor center loaded with so many types of fossils, large and small, and engaging exhibits for all ages, and a half day here is a win for any itinerary for Western Wyoming.
There are actually quite a few Wyoming National Park sites, so if you have more time, you could add several other interesting stops on your Wyoming vacation.
Touring the Wyoming Dinosaur Center and Dig Site
Dinosaurs will never lose their wonder for me (or our kids), so we try to see their bones and learn about them whenever we can. The Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis is a whole other level of fossils and discovery. Yes, there is a fantastic museum with specimens and exhibits, but there are also active dinosaur dig sites! Whether you just want to see what an active dino-dig is like or if you actually want to participate and learn more about paleontology, this is a must. Think about how much time you have, how important it is to those you’re traveling with (this may be something that is BUCKET LIST for some people) and if you can work a whole dinosaur themed day into your itinerary.
Fossil Country really is one of the best, most overlooked Wyoming vacation spots. It’s a great place to start travel planning for a completely different sort of trip. We’re planning another trip back for camping, dinosaurs, and a bunch of other great fossil country activities we’ve only just learned about (including awesome hikes!)
Great Ways to Enjoy a WESTERN Wyoming Vacation
Can you even say the word “Wyoming” out loud without thinking “The American West!”? I certainly can’t so a trip through Western Wyoming for us means doing all the western activities we can. From fun with horses to appreciating some of the most eye-catching western art, you’ll get your fill of The West here, with Cody, WY being the heart of it all. This is the Wyoming vacation plan you know you have been curious about but we’re sure how to research.
One of the most important elements of Wyoming’s history and equally important in having a balanced perspective during your visit, is taking time to appreciate and learn about the indigenous nations that did and do call Wyoming home. The state is the ancestral lands of the Shoshone, Arapaho, Lakota, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Crow, Nez Perce (Nimiipuu), Sheep Eater, and other American Indian nations. Whether you observe a powwow or you take time engaging with educational exhibits, indigenous culture is one of the most vital aspects of the West.
The Cody Nite Rodeo
Rodeo culture is a totally unique experience, especially if you’re from the city or just didn’t grow up in a rural area. The Cody Nite Rodeo is THE place to experience it, from men’s bronco competition to kid events, it’s perfectly western. Even though rodeo events were all completely new to us, we got into it pretty quickly and learned what each event goal and process was. By the end of the night we had a great time and now are looking forward to our next rodeo experience!
Attend a Powwow or Land Acknowledgement
I can’t stress enough how important it is to take time to learn about the people who’ve always called Wyoming home. The history of the West is not good at times, with millions of people being both displaced and destroyed, and today, while we can’t change the past, we can all learn from it. The indigenous people of Wyoming, including the Shoshone and Lakota (our family) have a strong presence in the state and up into the Dakotas. While you’re exploring Western Wyoming, watch for events you can attend or participate in so you and your family can see up close the vibrant, incredible culture that lives today.
We attended the Eastern Shoshone Indian Days Powwow in Fort Washakie and it was awesome. We were completely welcome as visitors, both to observe and participate in open, friendly dances. The community vibe was amazing and seeing such a celebration of living culture was very meaningful for our family.
Another event to watch for as you travel through Wyoming, and the rest of the West, is a land acknowledgement. Sometimes this comes in the form of a simple statement at the beginning of a public event and sometimes the stage is given to local tribal members to offer a statement, prayer, dance or performance. Whichever it is, take a moment to listen and explain to anyone you’re with why this is important, and if you aren’t sure yourself, ask!
Buffalo Bill Center of the West
There are museums and then there are MUSEUMS. The Buffalo Bill Center of the West is five museums all in one central location and is the premier place to see all things Western. The Whitney Museum of Western Art and the Museums of the Plains Indian were our two favorite areas. The art, the stories, and amazing exhibits showing the West in a different light than we’re used to, these two museums really impressed us.
The Draper Natural History Museum and then, of course, the Buffalo Bill Museum are also great. Really, spending a few hours or a few days (it does take two days to do the whole museum complex) is one of the best ways to dig into the “western” side of a Wyoming vacation. When we talk with our kids about the West and what that means to most people, we are sure to explain that “cowboys” are the main story most people hear, but that the indigenous nations, including our great grand parents, are a very important part of that story. The Buffalo Bill Center of the West does a good job combining the histories.
Horseback Riding through Western Landscapes
Seeing Wyoming on horseback is a beautiful way to get a different perspective. Our family enjoys riding horses wherever we go, so getting to go up into the mountains and canyons of Cody was a blast. Craggy cliffs and flowing streams make for a different sort of horseback adventure than we’re used to.
If you don’t ride often but want to be sure it’s a part of your Western Wyoming experience, there are lots in Jackson, Lander, Dubois and beyond, so set aside a few hours during your adventure and experience the western landscapes for yourself!
Note: in Wyoming, kids under 18 are required to wear helmets when horseback riding. If a helmet isn’t offered for your children, wherever your Wyoming vacation takes you, ask for one before going out on the trail.
Old West Photo Souvenirs
One of our favorite souvenirs from Wyoming (and we have them from other places too) is our family Old West photo. If you haven’t done one before you have got to do a western photo shoot when you’re in Cody. You can find them in other towns too, but our experience at Way Back When Photography in Cody, WY was great. The kids got to pick out the type of Old West character they were, then us adults got dressed up too. Once in character you get to do a photoshoot with props and different sets, resulting in one of the best, most memorable Wyoming souvenirs you can find.
Things to consider when you’re doing an old west photo shoot, whether on your Wyoming vacation or in Carson City, NV or even Leavenworth, WA is what sort of props you’re okay with. Thinking about the context of the photo you’re creating, there are all kinds of things that aren’t okay in real life, like jugs of ale, beer mugs and a variety of weapons (real and replicas). We talk openly about the use of props and that they aren’t things kids would access in real life, and we talk DIRECTLY about guns and not pointing them, even fake ones, at people. When you’re doing a photo shoot like this, it’s important to put the times in context and draw a clear line between a photo prop and real life.
The Best of Yellowstone with Kids
Yellowstone National Park is so well known. It’s been our family’s favorite National Park destination since our kids were tiny, so even though we had a full and fun trip through Western Wyoming already, we just had to have a little time in the park. There are few places that compare to Yellowstone when it comes to wildlife, natural wonders and epic views. It’s the gem of Wyoming.
Easy Wildlife Viewing in Yellowstone
The thing about wildlife is just that: it’s wild. We saw so many beautiful places and learned so much during the rest of our Wyoming road trip that we could’ve gone home happy, but we love getting to just watch wildlife and Yellowstone is the perfect place for it. On this specific visit, we saw a bull moose, three grizzly bears, a black bear, countless bison and elk, deer, North American pelicans and so many more birds… all in one day!
The best route to drive in Yellowstone for the easiest wildlife viewing, especially if you have limited time, is the stretch from Cody, WY to Canyon Village. This drive takes you through the mountainous cliffs (watch for bighorn sheep), along Yellowstone Lake (look for moose, pelicans and more), through the Hayden Valley (bison, bears and trumpeter swans), and ends at Canyon Village (our favorite Yellowstone visitor center).
Best Kid-Geyser Experience
When we visit Yellowstone National Park, we like to visit some of the lesser known spots, and that includes some of the overlooked geothermal areas. Old Faithful and Norris Geyser Basins are famous for good reasons, but they take a long time to explore and there are more people there than our top picks for visiting with kids or on a short timeframe. Our first pick is the Mud Volcano area. This is extra fun because it’s stinky gurgling mud. It’s full of cool sounds, crazy steam and is one of the most active geothermal sights you’ll see. It takes about a half hour to an hour to visit and is worth the stop.
Our next pick is a small geothermal area called the Biscuit Basin. It’s easy to drive past since it’s close to Old Faithful, but we love to stop here. This is a great place to see the variety of colors that Yellowstone’s hot springs are known for. It’s a small area, but beautiful. If you want to turn this stop into a hike, there are paths from here so bring your hiking pack and hit the trails.
The third geothermal stop that’s easy to add to a quick Yellowstone visit or is just great with kids is Firehole Lake Drive. This is a beautiful, quiet loop road with lots of small geysers, some gorgeous still waters, wildlife and a totally different Yellowstone experience than you might expect.
Favorite Family Photo Spots in Yellowstone
Of course our favorite viewpoint in Yellowstone for a family photo is at Artist Point on the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. How can it not be? With every visit we get a new family photo here and it’s just wild to see our kids growing up with new Wyoming vacation memories at each visit. While the main Artist Point lookout is the where most people go and snap a photo, the best spot is actually on the stair down to the viewing area. You’ll love it!
Another beautiful spot for a family photo is at the Calcite Springs Overlook. Here you’ll see a totally unique perspective across the canyon and surrounding mountains, including geothermal areas below. It’s awesome!
One more perfect spot for a family photo is on the lakeside boardwalk at the West Thumb Geyser Basin. Catch it on a sunny day for sparking water, turquoise and glowing dormant geysers in the lake, and just downright beautiful surroundings. The bonus is getting to see even more colorful springs in a lakeside setting.
For more Yellowstone travel plans check out our complete guide and podcast episodes all about our favorite National Park!
I hope you can tell how much we enjoyed our journey through the west on this Wyoming vacation. It’s been a family favorite for camping, hiking and science trips for a long time, but this most recent adventure really showed off how diverse the experiences are and how PERFECT Wyoming is for a family trip.
If you have any questions about planning a Wyoming vacation, things to do around the state, stuff outside of Yellowstone or need tips for anything else in the Rocky Mountain region, please leave a comment or send us a note. We love this part of the USA and are always happy to share more vacation planning tips, in Wyoming or beyond!