I grew up with a family large enough to field an eight-man football team. With our behavior as kids, we'd have lost every game due to unnecessary roughness penalties on *each other*, but I digress. My parents managed to take their six kids on lots of trips, despite limited means. Where were some of our regular destinations? National parks.
Yellowstone, either with family or a group of friends, is a fantastic deal. For one vehicle, the fee to spend a whole week in the park is only 30 dollars. If you pay 50, it gets you into Yellowstone and nearby Grand Teton. For that small price, you can enjoy limitless trails, wildlife viewing, and tourists taking selfies with buffalo. If you're childless and you manage to corral a few friends, you'll each be paying under ten dollars for seven days of national park exploration. If that's not a reason to make friends, I don't know what is. If you're taking your kids, you won't have to pay for a ticket for all of them. Take that, Disneyland!
Wildlife viewing is one of the biggest draws at Yellowstone. Just driving around the park will get you lots of views. You're basically guaranteed to see buffalo, elk, all kinds of birds, and squirrels. As we know, random anecdotal evidence is super reliable, but I've seen coyotes and deer quite regularly, as well. If you're lucky, you may see moose, bighorn sheep, otters, wolves, or bears. If it's the latter, hopefully you're in a car and not attempting to get a super cuddly Instagram shot with Yogi. The likes aren't worth it!
Mammoth Hot Springs is a great area to see elk and watch them put their elbows on the table.
When you're done watching animals from the park-mandated distance like responsible citizens, there are a lot of great trails to enjoy. You can go to the heavily traveled ones near active geothermal spots, like those around Old Faithful, the Artists' Paint Pots, Mammoth Hot Springs, and the Norris Geyser Basin. If you want go out of the way, there are two trails I've particularly enjoyed - Mystic Falls and the Beaver Ponds Loop. The Yellowstone website lists Mystic Falls as 2.4 miles round trip and moderately strenuous. There are quite a few people on that one, too, if you're not confident in your bear spray-slinging talents. The waterfall is quite nice, and it's a means to get into the park and stretch your legs without devoting a big chunk of your day to a hike.
Beaver Ponds Loop is five miles round trip and a slightly strenuous, as well. We didn't see any beavers in the ponds, but we did see what I believe were ruffed grouse on the first part of our hike. When I went on this hike, my brother really wanted to see a bear. He also gave me the bear spray. He saw how poorly I always performed in squirt gun fights. He should have known better. Fortunately, we did not see any bears, but apparently they are often seen in the area, as are elk. The trail gets you pretty far away from the bustle, but you still encounter other people, so you may be safe if you gave the bear spray to the wrong person.
One of the ponds you can enjoy on the loop. The beavers were being dambodies that day, hiding at home.
When it comes to food, there's no need to buy any in the park. Pack in a picnic and sit just about anywhere to enjoy it. My personal favorites are spots along Yellowstone Lake and the Madison River. Just be sure to follow park guidelines on food storage and garbage. If any non-predators come within 25 yards of your sandwich, you should move elsewhere. You don't want to risk sandwich-napping or your own safety. For the predators, make that 100 yards. They can close that distance to get your sweet PB&J pretty quickly. Or, you know, you.
With all the wildlife, hikes, and overlooks perfect for a picnic, you can't get a much better deal than 30 dollars for a week. Corral a group of friends or your kiddos and get going! If you'd like some more tips, you can watch my Thrifty Trips Yellowstone video.