When people learn that I’m a journalist who specializes in travel, they invariably ask me one of two questions: “What’s your favorite place in the world?”(“My bed,” is the honest to God truthful response) or “Where was your best family vacation?” They expect to hear tales of African safaris, castle retreats or a journey on the Orient Express. My new acquaintances and readers may be surprised to know that the best family vacation of my life was a trip to Yellowstone Park in July 2001, one of the busiest months for the planet’s oldest national park. What could have been an exhausting, crowded and unenlightening trip turned out to be invigorating, profound and just plain fun. The magic ingredient was Austin-Lehman Adventures, a multi-sport adventure travel firm with a high commitment to serving families. If Austin-Lehman could deliver perfection in the middle of peak season, imagine what’s in store for you in winter, spring or fall.
Having never visited this immense wilderness area called Yellowstone nor undertaken an adventure travel trip, our family was excited but a bit apprehensive. Will the kids get bored and the adults get sore? The guidebooks clearly state, “Slow going in July and August because of crowds.” (About 3.1 million people visit the park every year, about half of those in July and August.) As each day passed, we dumped more of our doubts into the park’s stinky thermal pools where they belonged. Our guides knew the least-traveled routes, the best areas to view wildlife and, most important, when to serve up delicious snacks.
After introducing ourselves to the two other families who would accompany us on our Yellowstone adventure, the Austin-Lehman guides assured us that the itineraries were flexible and that no one need be an Olympian to enjoy the upcoming adventure. (The company doesn’t rate trips for beginners, intermediates, advanced or death wishers. A hike or biking expedition can be modified, for example, for those who want more or less exertion.) Austin-Lehman has hosted adventurers from age 7 to 73, so there’s a pace for every age and fitness level. The company promises an intimate experience with maximum personal attention and it boasts the industry’s best guide-to-guest ratio: two guides per 12 guests and extra help and vehicles if children are in tow.
After a scenic drive through Paradise Valley, we undertook a 4.2-mile round trip hike to Bunsen Peak. The kids ascended with a smidgen of sweat and I swear I had a couple of heart attacks on the way up, but the 360-degree views of the park and the yummy lunch awaiting us on the summit were welcome rewards. All along the way, the knowledgeable and friendly guides explained geology, flora and history, and kept a special eye on the youngest children in the group so the rest of us could take in the glorious outdoors. Austin-Lehman owners Dan Austin and Paul Lehman are dads and as such they understand the special safety considerations when children are included. The guides took the schlep factor entirely out of the family travel equation, from searching for restaurants and snacks to hauling bags, resulting in better moods and more time to share in the magnificence of nature.
From Mammoth to Old Faithful, we toured the Norris Geyser Basin, and the young ones learned quite a bit from an IMAX show about the park and its origins. After a picnic lunch, we dipped into the Firehole River, warmed naturally from thermal areas upstream. Along the way, we were lucky to see a mother grizzly bear and her cubs, elk and bison in their natural habitats — our expert guides enhancing our encounters with information, safety precautions and lore.
We fished in Yellowstone Lake, watched Old Faithful spurt with double rainbows around her, and spent a day climbing to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone with Ken Sinay, the most passionate and congenial wildlife biologist one could ever imagine. He made river flies and mud pots fascinating for everyone from the kindergartner to the teens and the older folks. Most visitors spend a day driving around Yellowstone, trying to eyeball an eagle or a bear, then head out thinking they’ve experienced the park. The fact is there’s something new to be discovered every moment, if you have connoisseurs of nature to lead you in the right direction. This wasn’t just a gathering of families, but a memorable sharing of wonder and the good Earth.
Everyone anticipated rafting down the Yellowstone River through the Yankee Jim Canyon, which was thrilling and extremely safe. As our soggy group emerged from the raft, our Austin-Lehman guides had hot pizza and cool salads waiting for an outdoor lunch. Afternoon brought an easy horseback ride along the Absaroka Mountains.
Austin-Lehman guides are teachers, geologists and chefs, and all are certified in Emergency Response and CPR . Dan Austin explained that biking wasn’t included in this Yellowstone trip because it simply wasn’t safe considering the crowds of cars veering to catch glimpses of wildlife. Sure enough, one afternoon as we drove to our next stop in the park, we noticed bike-riding clients of another well-known adventure travel firm desperately searching for their group leader’s van amid a continuous stream of RV’s and SUV’s. I was pleased we chose Austin-Lehman for our first foray into adventure travel.
During our Yellowstone family adventure the group dined and snoozed at park hotels such as the Mammoth Hotel, the stately Old Faithful Inn and the newly renovated Canyon Lodge. Austin-Lehman books accommodations and dinner reservations up to a year in advance, so we just waltzed by the hungry throngs to our tables. Kids sat at their own table, with guides helping with ordering and entertainment, so adults could relax, dine and engage in conversation. I’m at the 15-year mark of chowing with children, and I have another 10 years to go, so this seemingly small aspect of the trip was an undeniable treat. One evening, we took a wagon ride to a chuckwagon barbecue complete with cowboy legends and song. On our final night, the adults supped on a gourmet dinner at the historic Chico Hot Springs Inn, just outside the park, while the children munched at the poolside grill with a guide. A dip in the hot spring-fed pool was fun for youngsters and a relief for those of us whose prior horseback riding experience amounted to a spin on a carousel.
As a trained and experienced journalist, I’m not a gusher and my family travel standards are appropriately high. But don’t take my effusive word about Austin-Lehman Adventures. Peter and Matt Willms of Mequon, Wisconsin are adult brothers who signed up their respective families to a custom Austin-Lehman trip to Montana in 2001. “I searched the Internet and came across Austin-Lehman,” explained Peter. “They had a long history of providing trips and it was the kind of trip our families, which include people in their 20s, teenagers and kids, wanted to try. We chose Montana because we had never been to that part of the country and Austin-Lehman tailored our trip in such a fashion that we were absolutely thrilled with the countryside,” he said enthusiastically. “Austin-Lehman took care of everything, we were educated and exercised at a reasonable pace and laughed and kidded as a family.” Matt Willms’ 11 year-old daughter couldn’t finish the first day’s bike ride, so the van was there to take her the remainder of the way. “There was a real peace of mind that if you did get tired or just didn’t want to do something – you didn’t have to. It was fabulous and we all had a great time,” Peter continued. “If our trip was any example, it’s all about you – they want you to be happy. We would travel with Austin-Lehman again, without a doubt! I would recommend it to everyone who wants to have a reunion in the outdoors.”
The Willms families have taken a number of trips together, reuniting in places such as northern Wisconsin and the Atlantis resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. The Austin-Lehman adventure “turned out to be more than we thought it could be,” according to Matt Willms. “The guides were outgoing and showed incredible customer service,” he explained. “It was neat for the kids because the guides would skateboard and throw a Frisbee with the them after dinner. Montana’s beauty took care of itself but with the guides adding stories and information about the area, lore, geography and the people – that made it great.” Some of the clan chose to fly fish on the Yellowstone River while others just hung out by the hot spring pool and sipped margaritas. “The physical aspect shouldn’t bother anyone because it’s totally flexible,” reminded Matt. “On a scale of one to 10 it’s one of those things you’d give an 11. This was the best trip I’ve ever been on.”
That said, are you ready to call Austin-Lehman Adventures ((800)) 575-1540) and set up your first active family reunion? The company offers trips for adults only as well as family adventures that include excursions to the Canadian Rockies, Grand Tetons, Montana and Yellowstone. There’s a winter Big Sky Getaway featuring skiing, snowmobiling, dogsledding and snowshoeing down Moonlight Basin. Austin-Lehman will create a custom trip for class, family or military reunions with a variety of activities tailored to different energy levels. Whet your adventurous appetite by visiting family adventure vacations.
If you go
Prior to our Austin-Lehman family adventure to Yellowstone, we decided to settle in Bozeman, Montana for a few days. A quick call to Travel Montana (800 – VISIT MT) got us in touch with a fine vacation home rental firm. Since we wanted to enjoy the cowboy charm and good eats of Bozeman, Mountain Home Montana Vacation Rentals (800-550-4589) suggested their “Southside Home,” walking distance to downtown and Montana State University. The company sent detailed information, from directions from the airport to where to find the best cup of joe in town, which proved helpful in our short stay.
The three-bedroom, three-bath home was smack dab in the middle of a normal neighborhood, with lots of light and pretty decorative touches and a huge kitchen stocked with utensils. Mountain Home Montana Vacation Rentals boasts 40 vacation homes, farms and cabins. Imagine staying at Springhill Farm, a restored farmhouse with 30 acres of meadows, two ponds, a creek and a teepee at the base of the Bridger Mountains. Larger groups and reunions might choose Yellowstone Bluffs overlooking the Yellowstone River with its swimming pool, hot tub, three fireplaces and a pool room. For a better look at accommodations, from rustic to luxurious, visit www.mountain-home.com.
How much does all the spaciousness and privacy cost? Home rental can cost far less than hotel rooms, not to mention savings in preparing occasional meals and snacks in a fully equipped kitchen. Sharing a larger space with extended family or friends can make luxury affordable. In the case of Mountain Home Montana Vacation Rentals, summer rates range from $1000 per week to $6,500, depending upon guest capacity, with discounts during winter and off-season spring and fall dates.
About the author
Journalist/Editor Jacky Runice has penned a weekly travel column for Chicago’s Daily Herald since 1994 and writes about travel and dining for USAToday.com; CBS Local Chicago; and Examiner.com. She expands her repertoire at Kane, Lake and McHenry County (IL) Magazines with articles about everything from healthy living to technology. A former Chicago radio talk show host, Jacky has three grown children who have inherited her love of sampling new cultures, countries and cuisine.