Hike Through the Greater Yellowstone Area at the Draper Natural History Museum
A family introduces their kids to the diversity of Yellowstone
By Jennifer Billock
When my husband, Andy, and I went to Yellowstone for our honeymoon, we were floored by the diversity in the area. Meadows, forests, plains…we fell in love with the environment. Now that our kids are old enough to appreciate nature in all its glory, we wanted to share that experience with them with some educational goings-on added in. So we took Connor, 8, and Ella, 5, to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s Draper Natural History Museum in Cody, Wyoming, for a mock walk through Yellowstone before we headed to the Park itself. We figured that by investigating Yellowstone in a hands-on way ahead of time, our two grade-schoolers would be even more excited when we got to the Park, and would learn to love nature as much as their parents.
Picking up an Adventure Passport
We started our journey on a rough-hewn pathway at the Expedition Trailhead Bulletin Board, where the kids picked up their Adventure Passports—small booklets that Connor and Ella could stamp as we explored the museum. The Draper recreates an entire trail walk inside the museum, including the trailhead with two cabins and a pathway going down through different mountain ecosystems.
“I’m going to be the first to get all my stamps!” Ella called to Connor as she marched to the first stamping station, excited to collect each one as we traversed trails representing the fascinating aspects of the Yellowstone ecosystem.
The Draper is incredibly interactive, and we got started right away at the trailhead. The kids were thrilled to explore the tools of the naturalist trade in a rustic cabin located near the trail entrance. A sign nearby told us resident naturalist B.A. Ware—Get it? “Be Aware”?—was “out researching,” so we had full rein over the items inside, everything from educational placards to fossils. Every visitor to the museum can explore the same way we did. From there we headed to the next cabin, the Steve Seay Geology Field Station Classroom, where we plotted our route through Yellowstone using the wall-sized map. The kids had fun pulling out all the drawers inside the cabin and seeing how the Yellowstone landscape formed throughout history. When they finished, we were at last ready to start our journey through the museum along its Alpine-to-Plains Trail.
“Tighten your shoelaces, kids; we’re going on a hike!” Andy exclaimed through the sound of birds chirping above us. It was easy to imagine that we were outside with the realistic environment around us.
A trail of exhibits
The path took us on a gently downward slope, starting high up in the mountains, tracking below through the forest and meadow, and then on to the plains. Along the way, we spotted typical Yellowstone wildlife, including bears and beavers. Connor and Ella excitedly knelt down on the floor, gazing at exhibits under glass, which showed how some animals like ferrets live underground and others built habitats only partially underground, like the beavers. We eyed four more stamping stations throughout the trail walk.
Both kids loved the “Please Touch” exhibits, especially the one about bear heartbeats. Visitors can place their hands on the exhibit and feel a human heartbeat compared to a bear’s, both awake and in hibernation. Connor insisted on feeling his own heartbeat at the same time as the bear’s, so he stood with one hand on his heart and the other on the exhibit, concentrating on timing the differences.
“Mom, can we stay until I fall asleep, and then you can check the hibernation heartbeat too?” Connor asked me hopefully.
“Maybe not this time,” I laughed.
We interacted with even more exhibits as we followed the Alpine-to-Plains trail, from pushing buttons and hearing the sounds of every animal in a beaver pond, to breathing in scents that brought nature to life. This museum fully engaged all of our senses! At one point, we could swear we were near a wildfire: We smelled smoke under a bright orange light by a video of a raging wildfire off in the distance.
Elsewhere, we heard bears roar and wolves howl. We listened to the trill of a red-winged blackbird and gazed overhead to find one frozen in motion across the interior sky. A giant moose standing watch from the edge of the trail scared Connor, and we all giggled when he realized it wasn’t going to move.
Learning about wildlife
Andy and I were interested in the bear safety exhibit and learning about bear habitats with our Yellowstone trip right around the corner. In case we encountered a bear, should we play dead? Or should we look tall and scary? (We learned the answer to this question as we watched the brief bear safety videos in the exhibit.) The kids put their hands up to imprints of bear paws and measured the size.
The buffalo jump sculpture also caught our eye—three huge, bronze buffalo falling off an indoor cliff. We learned how Native Americans used a cliff to hunt bison in large numbers. They herded the bison near the cliff edge and then one hunter, dressed in a bison costume, ran ahead so that the real bison would follow. In this way, large numbers of bison would fall to their deaths. Morbid? Yes, but utterly fascinating.
As we neared the end of the Alpine-to-Plains trek down the mountain, we stopped into the Seasons of Discovery gallery. After stamping their passports, Ella rushed over to the microscopes, while Connor pretended to be a bear stomping into his den, getting ready for a long winter. We learned about changing seasons in Yellowstone and animal migration patterns. Then, a scientist showed us ancient stone tools once used in the area in nearly every aspect of the Native people’s lives. The kids both sat for a few minutes on comfy cushions watching videos about how nature and humans are related, and how the seasons affect the land, the plants, and the animals.
At the end of our hike, Connor and Ella compared their passports, making sure they each had all their stamps before we left. They were already planning the real hike we’d take through Yellowstone, as they walked to the car. Andy and I smiled at each other, listening to our children still excited from our experience and knowing that we were successful in sharing our love for nature with them.
Learn more about the Draper Natural History Museum.