The National Parks’ Best Kept Secret? Junior Rangers

The National Parks’ Best Kept Secret? Junior Rangers July 31, 2012

The National Parks may well be “America’s best idea” (goodness knows the government has had many worse ideas), and one of their best programs is the Junior Rangers. As homeschooling parents of young children, we have gone to many national parks and found that doing the Junior Ranger activities is just the trick for maintaining our kids’ interest. On our recent family trip, we did the programs at Jamestown and Yorktown in Virginia, and will be submitting the Chattanooga & Chickamauga park program by mail.

I don’t get the impression that the NPS markets the Junior Ranger program very hard, and I don’t know why. In any case, for any parent or grandparent wanting to do more than ride rollercoasters on your vacation, Junior Rangers is an excellent educational alternative.

If you’ve never done it, here’s how Junior Rangers works: at the visitor center, you ask for a Junior Ranger activity book. Sometimes the books are free, sometimes they charge a nominal fee. They usually have broadly age-graded books, requiring more work from older children. They include a variety of activities, from Q&A about the history and features of the park, to crossword puzzles and matching games. Some books are much more demanding than others; some are quite demanding (and often rewarding) for the adults. We shamelessly help the kids do their books, which is indispensable for elementary-age children.

When you return to the visitor center (doing the program in one day usually requires at least a couple hours’ investment in the park), the ranger “checks” the book and asks the kids an obligatory question or two. (No ranger, I trust, would ever flunk an aspiring Junior Ranger.) Then, with varying degrees of pomp and ceremony, the ranger awards the kids a badge or patch for that park, and swears them in as official Junior Rangers.

We have done the program at many parks, from Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (Michigan) to Carlsbad Caverns (New Mexico). But my favorite Junior Ranger moment came in Big Bend National Park, the vast, desolate park along the Rio Grande in southwest Texas. At the Castolon Visitors’ Center, a very nice ranger enthusiastically announced to all the visitors there that he wanted to introduce our children as the latest additions to the ranks of the Big Bend Junior Rangers. The kids beamed.

For those of you who’ve done Junior Rangers, do you have any favorite experiences, parks, or suggestions for getting the most out of the program?


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