One woman recounts her travels through Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park with a toddler and an Airstream trailer in tow.
By Kelly DiNardo, Photos courtesy of the National Park Service
The shuddering gasps for air slowed. The stream of tears dried. His eyes grew heavy, heavier and finally closed. Relieved our son was finally asleep, my husband, JP, and I acknowledged this was our fault. We had broken one of the golden rules of travel: Go at the slowest person’s pace.
The day before, the three of us had taken off on an early morning flight to Montana, picked up a rental Airstream trailer and drove to our first campground on a weeklong tour of Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. Our 20-month-old son, Oliver, snagged a too-short nap, but kept up with our jam-packed travel day with good cheer.
We were not as lucky on our second day. After another too-short nap in the car seat, we had a toddler in powder-keg form. The inevitable explosion of tears, exhaustion and frustration—a mercifully small one, easily extinguished—was the warning shot we needed. This was Oliver’s vacation too, and no one would have fun if we traveled at our usual blistering speed. And that was when we established our golden rule of travel: Whether we are with 84-year-old Nana or our not-quite-2-year-old son, we need to move at their pace.
We started to fall into an easy routine that mimicked Oliver’s schedule at home: We got up early, snuggled in bed with a few books, had breakfast and hustled out the door. But instead of racing to school and work, we hiked to the top of waterfalls, scrambled around mountainous lakes and wandered boardwalks surrounded by steaming hot springs. After lunch, we would either head back to the trailer or take a long enough car ride for Oliver to get a proper nap in before heading back out for another adventure.
With a little planning, we organized our explorations so everyone was happy. In Grand Teton, we hiked to the Cascade Canyon Trail, and the promised boat ride back across Jenny Lake kept Oliver happy. The half hour we spent skipping and throwing stones at the rocky beach along Lakeshore Trail helped Oliver burn off some steam after being contained in the hiking pack. I snapped photos along Mormon Row, a picturesque array of historic homesteads, while Oliver and JP raced around the iconic barn.
In Yellowstone, the 308-foot Lower Falls—more than twice the height of Niagara Falls—and the rainbow of colors and misty clouds from the Grand Prismatic Spring were so tremendous, even Oliver was content to watch from the confines of the hiking pack.
We quickly felt confident enough to stretch the schedule a bit. In the dark, pre-dawn hours, we scooped Oliver up and into the car, drove across Yellowstone and met up with a wildlife guide. The four of us joined a band of wolf watchers and squinted through a scope at the dark figure almost a half mile away. We watched a herd of bison graze across the road and quickly hopped back into the car when they meandered into the parking lot. During the course of the day, we spotted elk, river otter, osprey and, on our drive back to the trailer, a black bear and her cub.
Having a steady home base made everything easier. The fact that home was a gleaming, silver Airstream seriously upped the cool factor. We had rented the fully equipped camper and the Chevy Tahoe needed to pull it from Airstream2Go. The company tricks out Airstreams with modern-day comforts like flat-screen TVs and solar-powered lights for retractable awnings. We essentially rolled a luxury apartment into each campsite. The company’s tour-operator partner, Off the Beaten Path, arranged most of the remaining logistics, making campsite reservations, connecting us with our wildlife guide and suggesting hikes and activities.
Towing this shiny, curved behemoth also slowed our usual pace. On highways, pulling the 28-foot Airstream any faster than 55 mph led to an unsteadying sway, and navigating mountain passes with stomach-in-the-throat declines meant we typically crawled along at less than 25 mph.
When we gave into it, to the slower pace dictated by a toddler and a house on wheels, we found there was magic in the unhurried, deliberateness of it all. Yes, we wondered at the dramatic beauty of waterfalls and wildlife, but we had time to notice the understated charms too: the billowy clouds floating over craggy spires, the sizzle and pop of a campfire. Traveling at the slowest person’s pace soon transformed from an imperative task to a blessing.
The Best Day Hike in Yellowstone National Park
Uncle Tom’s Trail to the Lower Falls includes 328 steps down—and then back up—a vertigo-inducing metal staircase, but the views are worth the climb. The trail is less than a mile long, but other paths connect to it, allowing visitors to make a longer trek.
The Best Day Hike in Grand Teton National Park
Cascade Canyon Trail to Inspiration Point is a short hike with a bit of a climb and great views at the end. It was a good post-nap hike, offering the benefit of not too much time for our toddler in the hiking carrier, and the boat ride back (One-way tickets start at $6.) was a nice reward.