Journey with Junior Rangers
If your children are like mine, then prying them away from their electronics to appreciate the wonders of nature requires incentive. My wife and I both have a keen appreciation for the real jungle versus the urban version, and are at times bothered that our appreciation is only grudgingly embraced by our kids. However, while vacationing at Yosemite National Park a few years back, we stumbled across the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger Program, and it has considerably enlivened our trips to the great outdoors.
Once praised by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wallace Stegner as “the best idea we ever had,” the national park system is a vast opportunity to experience nature, science, culture and history.
The Junior Ranger Program is an effort by the park service and National Park Foundation to engage our nation’s youth and encourage them to explore, learn and preserve these resources. In fact, preservation through education is the goal, and the motto for the junior rangers is “Explore. Learn. Protect.”
During our trip to Yosemite, my wife and I were excited to explore its impressive scenery and share it with our children; however, other than pointing out the obvious features like Nevada Falls, we really didn’t have much knowledge to pass on. Fortunately, a big bearded ranger at the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center told us about the Junior Ranger Program.
For a few dollars apiece, we received activity books that provided an excellent guide for our 10-year old daughter and 7-year old son. These books focused, in a colorful and simple manner, on the park’s 400 species of invertebrates, Yosemite Falls (North America’s tallest waterfall), and the risks to Yosemite that come from air quality and climate change.
The program offers badges for carrots, requiring kids to attend a guided program, collect litter and complete age-appropriate pages of the book. Needless to say, both my children gained much more from the experience than my wife and I could have shared alone. And at the end of the day, when they shared what they learned with the big bearded ranger at the visitor center, they received a sense of accomplishment that went with the golden Junior Ranger Badge now pinned to their jackets.
From that trip on, we had a new holiday mission: to see as many park sites as possible and to collect their badges. On our trip to Hawaii a couple years back, it wasn’t a hard sell to the kids to visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and witness that famous volcanic action.
While cruising in Alaska, we stopped at Sitka National Historical Park to learn about the Russian settlement there and see our first totem pole. During a trip last year to Boston, we followed the Freedom Trail. When we visited relatives in Phoenix this past Thanksgiving, we took a side trip to the Grand Canyon. And this summer, we hope to take a few extra days from an anticipated Caribbean cruise to see alligators in the Everglades National Park.
A Badge of Honor
The quest for badges has also led us to explore some national parks we may not have considered. Yosemite is an obvious choice; however, the rock formations at Joshua Tree were far more interesting than the scrubby Mojave Desert led us to imagine. The stunningly clear water and kelp beds where our boat docked at Channel Islands National Park astounded us. And Pinnacles National Monument had a hiking trail through nearly pitch-black caves that tested our nerves - in a fun way.
In the Bay Area, we are fortunate to have 11 national park sites to explore, most of which have Junior Ranger programs. During the last school break, the kids and I visited the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez. It seemed appropriate to pay homage to the man considered to be the father of the National Park Service by collecting a badge at his very own homestead. But the visit turned out to be more than I anticipated. What I thought would be a quick tour of the century-old home turned into a three-hour exploration not only of John Muir’s experience but of an exhibit on the Juan Batiste De Anza Historic Trail.
Although the exhibits were compelling, I came away with a unique appreciation that I credit to the Junior Ranger Program. The booklet posed a series of questions that encouraged children to examine the orchards enveloping Muir’s property. The trees had been planted more than a century ago, and the Sequoia that Muir had planted as a seedling is now a towering symbol of the man’s passion for nature. The orchard is much smaller today, houses crowd the edges of the property, and zooming cars can be heard on nearby Interstate 4. Taking it all in, my now 14-year-old daughter commented, “I wonder how John Muir would feel about how busy his peaceful home has become?”
The fact that the irony was not lost on my children certainly made me feel as if the Junior Ranger Program, and its badges, were meeting their goals.
Tim Geiser is a freelance writer living in San Jose.
Bay Area National Park Sites
- Alcatraz Island* – San Francisco
- Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site* – Danville
- Fort Point National Historic Site – San Francisco
- Golden Gate National Recreation Area* – San Francisco
- John Muir National Historic Site* – Martinez
- Muir Woods National Monument* – Mill Valley
- Point Reyes National Seashore* – Inverness
- Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial - Concord
- Presidio of San Francisco – San Francisco
- Rosie the Riveter Homefront National Historic Park – Richmond
- San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park* – San Francisco.
* The Junior Ranger Program is offered here.
Can’t get there? Several park sites allow Junior Ranger programs to be completed via correspondence. Print out the program, complete it and send it in. The park service will send back a certificate and badge. Some sites are as follows:
- Fort Stanwix National Monument
- Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
- Bering Land Bridge National Preserve
- Point Reyes National Seashore
- Learn more at nps.gov/learn/juniorranger.cfm.