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Reconnecting with the wild at Yellowstone

Meet Ethan Eagle.

Let's not forget Oscar Osprey, Brett Bison, Freddy Frog and Tommy Trout.

My young cousins Ethan Sitzman, 9, and his sister Hannah, 6, who live in Denver, named all the wildlife we saw as we explored perhaps America's greatest natural zoo -- Yellowstone National Park, where 67 species of mammals, 322 species of birds, six species of reptiles and four species of amphibians call home.

But a visit to a national park -- even Yellowstone -- is more than a chance to see wildlife and spectacular scenery, like the two enormous waterfalls at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, geothermal features like Old Faithful.

The best part of a national park experience can be the chance to reconnect with the outdoors as a family. "Kids forget about iPads, iPhones, TV, etc.," says Dan Austin, of Austin-Lehman Adventures ( whose company has been leading trips to Yellowstone, and other national parks, for more than 25 years.

"These experiences open the mind to endless discoveries and, more often than not, a passion for the outdoors that can last a lifetime," he adds.

Whet your kids' appetite for a summer visit to a national park through WebRangers ( the National Park Service's site for kids, which offers all kinds of activities and games. To date, some 200,000 kids have taken part in the program!

Wherever you are outdoors, especially in a big national park, the key is to slow down, get out of the car and explore off the beaten track, Austin says.

That's how we were able to watch Yellowstone's famous bears safely. Rangers estimate that about 150 grizzly bears and more than 500 black bears live in the park. Visitors are cautioned to stay at least the length of a football field away from them. Our guide spied one from our van, turned around, parked and raced up a hill with his scope so we could watch as the bear snacked on greens amid the wildflowers hundreds of yards away, oblivious to our presence.

Until that moment, I'd wondered if we really needed guides in Yellowstone. But throughout that trip, we saw a far different Yellowstone than we had in the past and it was far more relaxed. Our guides not only got us away from the crowds to places I wouldn't have found, but also entertained the kids, had snacks at the ready, told us what to look for and explained what we were seeing.

Besides Austin-Lehman, Adventures by Disney (, Backroads ( and Tauck Tours ( are among those offering guided national parks trips for families.

If you prefer going on your own, take advantage of ranger-led activities. Use websites like, which pull together user reviews of U.S. national and state parks and more with insider tips (even where to get a good burger). For iPhone and iPad users, there's even a new Passport to Your National Parks app (

Last summer, after three days and two nights camping in Yellowstone, Ethan and Hannah had completed the activities required to become Junior Rangers (everything from tracing the route we'd taken through the park to checking off all the animals they'd seen) and they stood proudly at the Mammoth Hot Springs Visitor Center as a ranger swore them in as Junior Rangers.

Watching their excitement at being in one of our country's greatest treasures was worth every mosquito bite we'd gotten.

"As a Yellowstone Junior Ranger ... I will continue to learn about the natural world, even after I leave Yellowstone," they pledged.

I hope they will. I know they won't forget the days they've spent here. And that's a good first step.