roadside reflections

We are working our way to toward the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I have an appointment with the Wright Brothers and the Lost Colony of Roanoke waiting for me.

This morning my GPS spoke assurances that we would arrive in 3 hours and 26 minutes. However, it failed to anticipate the RV tire blowout that would occur one hour into our trip. For now we sit parked on the side of the Interstate sandwiched between opposing sounds of speeding traffic to my left and chorusing tree frogs to my right. The cacophony of contrasting sounds makes me smile as I reflect on the diversity of lifestyles living side by side.

A lifestyle of busyness has its appeal and going and doing has inherent rewards. Yet, there is also special beauty to be found in the sitting still. Today we are getting an unexpected taste of both.

Whichever side of the guardrail you find yourself on today, do it with intention. If you are going, go confidence and be open to what God will show you along the way. If you are in a season of staying, let your song be heard above the busy roar so those who slow down can reflect on the beauty that you enjoy everyday.

miraculously commonplace

“Dear old world. . . you are very lovely, and I am glad to be alive in you.” ~L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

My three youngest sit in the backseat of the van munching on sandwiches and carrot sticks. Dear sweet Anne of Green Gables entertains us with her deep scope of imagination as we listen to her story unfold. Trent and Hunter bravely set our course into new territory as I follow behind in the van embarking on the next chapter of our own story.

This particular northward direction (from Florida to Maine) holds new excitement. The land of happenings, dates, and people lay before us. The soil is marinated in history. This is where states adopt slogans such as “It’s Good Being First” (Delaware), “State of Independence” (Philadelphia), and “First in Flight” (North Carolina).

Miraculously Commonplace

miraculously commonplace

Everywhere we go there is amazing newness to be discovered. Yet, I find myself continually amused by the fact that I’m surrounded by people who are living out their own version of normal in the most ordinary way. In South Carolina we accompanied a crab fisherman who grew up along the banks of Hilton Head. The dolphins swimming by our boat were his version of the deer we see in Idaho–completely commonplace.

LANGUISHING LOVELINESS

“It’s funny, but have you ever noticed that the more special something is, the more people seem to take it for granted? It’s like they think it won’t ever change.” ~Nicolas Sparks, The Wedding

Its strikingly simple to adapt to your surroundings with such ease that the lovely languishes under the weight of the miraculously commonplace. As much as I’d like to claim otherwise, I am as strikingly vulnerable to this sad reality as the next person. For seven years we lived 20 minutes from America’s most beautiful small town (according to USA Today and RandMcNally), yet rarely made an effort to properly take advantage of the quaint and uniquely quirky Sandpoint, Idaho. We heavily considered including the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington D.C. into our itinerary this year. Yet in all my childhood years growing up in Northeast Washington State, I never once attended the Spokane Lilac Festival.

Annoying Propensity

I was recently reminded of this annoying propensity toward a prosaic point of view as we headed into the cozy northwest corner of North Carolina. Here the folds of the earth begin to gather together in a sudden contest of altitude. My breath was faint as I mouthed the words, “mountains” in an inaudible exaltation. Suddenly, after three months in the lowlands, my heart and mind remembered my first geographic loves: pinnacles, peaks and points. I’ve been wrapped in elevation for most of my life, yet I often have to step away before my true appreciation can seep in.

Overlooking Asheville, NC from the Blue Ridge Parkway

The Mark of Wisdom

“The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

I see value in identifying idiosyncrasies for the purpose of reforming habits. Truly beauty is bountiful and the seemingly ordinary carries with it the enormous weight of importance. The trick is to live within the margin of deep appreciation without slipping into the abyss of ordinary. I desire Emerson’s wisdom to see the miraculous in the common. I want to marvel in both the unusual and the familiar. The magnum opus that my Creator has set before me deserves my awe.

How about you? Do you find yourself struggling to find the miraculous in the common? When do you most easily find yourself breathless with awe? 

is it possible to have community on the road?

Before we launched into our new RV living lifestyle, there was one particular aspect we wondered about most: is is possible to have community on the road?

Since hitting the road, this topic of RV community has been discussed repeatedly between Trent and I. Additionally, it has been talked about over campfires with new friends and its been questioned by blog readers.

What does community look like for nomadic travelers? Is it possible to obtain? How it is similar or different from a more traditional living situation? These questions are multi-faceted and with only a little over 6 months of travel time under our belts, I feel ill equipped to even comment. Yet despite my rookie status as a full-time traveler, I will lay my humble two-cents on the table.

Defining our terms

First things first. I feel it is important to define the terms that we are using when we speak of community. Webster defines community in the following two ways:

  1. a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.
  2. a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goalsthe sense of community that organized religion can provide.

In the first description, community becomes implied simply by nature of our location or a common characteristic. In this sense we are part of the “RV community” by default each and every time we pull into a RV park.

Yet what I believe most people are after is found tucked more solidly within the second description. Here there is a feeling of belonging, strengthened by common interests and goals.

However, to complicate things further, Trent and I are not entirely satisfied with option #1 or #2. Our hearts long for something greater. Something reflected in the pages of Scripture. We read about the new believers in Acts chapter 2 verses 42-47 and our hearts salivate.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. Acts 2:42-47

Within the framework of this example we might redefine community in the following way:

An interdependency with others connected by a common God-given vision with the goal of authentic fellowship aided by close proximity and mutual interests.

Basically we want our cake and to eat it too. We don’t just want to live near others. We don’t simply want to have common interests. We want more depth and breadth added to the entire mix. Admittedly this is a high standard–so much so that in our 17 years of marriage we’ve only sampled tastes of it. Yet, our longing remains.

To a degree I believe we will continue to hunger for this unique community until heaven satisfies our hearts. Yet, because I believe our longing was placed there by community’s creator Himself, I refuse to settle into apathetic relational atrophy.

Community on the road?

Our current lifestyle goes directly against the stream of convenient community. We’ve given up the built-in neighborhood. Our church building is ever-changing. At times we move too frequently to receive mail. If the postman can’t even find us, how could we possibly experience authentic community with others?

It may seem illogical but incredibly I’ve talked to women who have cultivated more connection on the road than they found in their former neighborhoods. We’ve heard about teens who traversed the unknown and discovered their own tribe of traveling friends. And remarkably, accounts from military families who say that their relationships on the road are stronger than they were while on active duty, caught us off guard.

“Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out that there are so many of them in the world.” ~Anne of Green Gables

Again and again we’ve heard from families who planned to travel for “just one year” who now have an open-ended travel itinerary simply because they realized they didn’t have to forgo relationships just because they happened to have nomadic tendencies.

community in an rv on the road
Super Bowl Sunday at the Fulltime Families Rally

EARLY TASTES of community on the road

While it’s too soon to make long term predictions on what this full-time RV community could look like for our own family, I can tell you what we’ve tasted so far:

-We’ve seen over 100 full-time RV traveling families.
-We’ve sat at the pool and recognized everyone else present.
-We’ve enjoyed spontaneous dinner guests and game nights.
-Our kids have attended co-op style homeschool classes and game nights.
-Hunter had a tent sleep-over two nights in a row.
-Trent went to a men’s movie night.
-I attended an IKEA ladies day out, a mini marriage seminar and a Christmas sock exchange.
-The two of us played the newlywed game with a large group of other couples.
-Ashlyn learned how to weave and taught others how to make fabric scrap dolls and friendship bracelets.
-Quinten and Tanner enjoyed countless light saber wars with neighboring boys.
-We enjoyed co-op meals.
-I taught a class on how to brew Kombucha tea and another on how to help your kids memorize easily.
-Trent taught a class on the basics of installing solar.
-We weathered a tornado warning in a parking garage amidst playing kids and crock pots of cheese dip.
-We worshiped and prayed together.

I’ve been floored by how many wonderfully unique people make up this RV community. Their stories would blow your mind. A single widow RVing with her two teens and two-year-old twins. A family of 12 fighting their dad’s brain tumor diagnosis by living life and making their dreams a reality. A Canadian family who wrote a book about the battle they faced against flesh eating disease and the way God miraculously provided healing. A man who is hiking 1,000 across two AZ and UT while carrying a flame. Families who have fostered. Families who have adopted. Families who have also experienced the grief of stillbirth. I could go on and on…

To be honest, during our stay in Orlando, we had more opportunity for social interaction than we could ask for. However, despite the abundant relational opportunities surrounding us, relationships don’t automatically equal community.

rv community on the road
The Newlywed Game hosted by the Nomadic Homeschoolers

New beginnings

This winter has been a lot like moving into a new neighborhood. Yet, the introductory questions have drastically differed from my former norm.

“What state did you launch from?”
“How long have you been traveling?”
“How long will you be here?”
“Where do you plan to travel this year?”
“What’s your story? What got you into this lifestyle?”

Beginning a relationship based on location based questions is intriguing. Yet like any other kind of friendship, time is required in order to develop depth. Depth can be difficult to obtain in traveling timeframes–yet, not impossible.

community on the road in an rv
Taco Tuesday potluck sponsored by the Nomadic Homeschoolers

SHALLOW VS. DEEP

While depth of relationships are often developed over stretches time, it is possible to accelerate the process. I’ve adopted the intentionally mindset. If I see someone I want to get to know, I take quick action. I’ve initiated morning walks, dinner get togethers, fireside chats and game nights. While I’ve not yet had enough time for those relationships to mature to a aged perfection, they do have a favorable jumpstart. The upside is that I’ve met some really fantastic women. The downside is that I’m not currently parked next to any of them.

“Dear me, there is nothing but meetings and partings in this world.” ~Anne of Green Gables

The process reminds me of standing next to a campfire on a cool evening. I stand as close as I can for as long as I can and then I have to turn to warm up the other side. While the proximity is right, the conditions are fantastically favorable for friendship. As soon as the proximity is off, it’s way off. I’m states away from people I ate dinner with just a few weeks ago.

I’m too new to know how this works out in the long run. Others have told me that they continue to ebb and flow in and out of proximity–meeting up with old friends and making new ones as they go.

PLACES VS. PEOPLE

Without a doubt there are relationships to be had if you are willing to pursue them.  Herein lies the rub. At times there is a choice between the pursuit of the location or the people. For example, our goal for the next 6 months is to explore the east coast. However, we’ve met some great families who are traveling west this year. By nature of our chosen places, we will miss out on spending time with those people. Due to some family events, we need to move up the east coast relatively quickly. Yet, our east coast traveling friends are on a slower timeline. Unfortunately this means they will be trailing a few weeks behind us. We will do what we can to align our schedule to overlap with others however, for the next 6 months we are admittedly putting “places” in a high priority position.

Should our travels continue beyond this first year, I anticipate that the pull between places and people would begin to yield much more heavily toward people. As a result, I expect that we would begin to pursue places which are in close proximity to the people we wish to see rather than the reverse. What I don’t know is how close to our ideal “third community” definition we can get while on the road. In that arena (like all others) I’ve resigned myself to remember that God has never failed to provide for us. I believe that if He could create a partner for Adam out of a rib (Genesis 2:18-25), He can certainly provide community for us on the road.

community for kids
The kids marketplace at the Fulltime Families Rally

A different perspective

In an effort to provide a more balanced perspective on the subject of community, I reached out to friends we’ve met online and on the road and asked for their insight.

The Walkers were the very first full-time family we met on the road. We’d gone two months without meeting another family and our social tanks were on empty. What a gift it was to connect with them! Since that time we’ve reconnected on multiple occasions and our kids have formed sweet bonds. To get to know them better, check out their Trent & Siobhan YouTube channel and listen to their music on Spotify!

Full Time Community – The Walkers’ Perspective:

For us, community on the road was a saving grace. To make a long story short, we had spent our first 8 months in our RV without community and we were very discouraged and about to give up when we made a last-minute decision to attend a rally with other families in New York. That decision was the best decision we had made since “launching” and we wished we had attended a rally or meet-up earlier. We went from not knowing ANY other full time families to meeting about 50 at one time! It was absolute bliss for all of us to spend four full days NOT having to explain to anyone that we live in an RV on purpose…lol! There is just something special about regularly spending time with people who share a common lifestyle. Since that time we have made a point to attend more rallies and meet-ups to continue the process of forming relationships.

This community of nomadic people, as a whole, couldn’t be more diverse but we have this common bond of homes on wheels and no matter our nationality, color, financial status or level of education we ALL still have to empty the black tank.

Marissa and Nate have been traveling since May of 2015 with their adorable young daughter, Hensley. We met for the first time at the Fulltime Families Rally in Tallahassee and then again when we went to Devil’s Den (click here to see that video) and then again briefly in Orlando. Their popular Less Junk More Journey vlog on YouTube as well as their blog is a great place to get to know them better. Here are Marissa’s thoughts on community on the road:

Community is one of the most overlooked aspects of fulltime RV living, but it is one of the most important. We set out on our journey hoping to just run into families at campgrounds who were living the same lifestyle so we could interact. It was 6 lonely months before we met our first fulltime family, just as we started to think they were as mythical as unicorns.

After our first year, we decided to devote our travels to more community based events. We attended the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta and a Fulltime Families rally and it rocked our RV world.

After including community as part of our travels our experience has been more fulfilling and enriched through these relationships and even friendships. Making community a vital part of your family travels opens amazing doors that you didn’t even know was possible.

Gaby Cuda from RVShare and I have corresponded via email with the mutual connection of blogging and RVing. I asked for her feedback on this topic of community and she was happy to share.

Finding meaningful connections on the road isn’t difficult, but, like all relationships, it does entail some work on both sides. In all aspects of life, relationships must be not just forged, but fostered. The wonderful thing about the RV community is that so many RVers are eager to join forces and share stories. What binds us together is our love of exploration, freedom, and of course, our rigs. There are plenty of ways to meet like-minded individuals – check out an RV show. Join an RV club. Strike up a conversation with your campground neighbors. You’ll come across many people in the RV world that have the same outlook on life as you – and that’s one of the strongest foundations for a lasting friendship. When you look for it, you’ll see community all around you, whether it’s in a neighborhood, a church, or a cluster of campers.

Michael and Crissa Boyink have two older children and have been Rving since 2010. When I said before that I am a newbie, to me these guys are the extreme opposite of that! I first met Michael and Crissa online after I heard a Family Adventure Podcast interview featuring their family. Since that time, I have enjoyed reading their weekly newsletter and using the resources on their Ditching Suburbia blog (such as their crowd sourced Where To Go interactive map). If you’ve been a Faith Takes Flight reader for a while, you may also remember that I wrote a guest post on Ditching Suburbia about how we downsized our possessions to fit our new RV lifestyle. We got the opportunity to meet up with the Boyinks in person at the Fulltime Families rally (they wrote a blog post about their rally experience here) and it was a lot of fun to interact face to face. Here is their take on finding community on the road:

We have more friends (and deeper friendships with those friends) out on the road than we had back in our suburban life.

We never expected that.

But road friendships don’t happen by chance. We purpose to meet people. That often means changing plans. We chose to prioritize community over a fun museum or National Park visit. We went from Michigan to Texas by the way of Washington, DC in order to caravan with friends just a little longer.

And friendships look different than in the suburbs. We used to see friends more often but interact at a shallow level. Now we see people less often but interactions are deeper.

And we’ve gotten better at saying goodbye. We’ve learned to appreciate the sadness that comes when leaving friends. If there is no sadness, then the visit wasn’t a good one.

We’ve written so much about community we created a dedicated category for it on our blog.

I am so encouraged to hear these perspectives and I love how the Boyink’s have chosen to view their goodbyes: “If there is no sadness, then the visit wasn’t a good one.”

How to find others on the road

While our stay in Orlando was on the extreme end of the social spectrum, we’d experienced the isolation end of the spectrum for much of the three months preceding. Here’s what I would suggest to other families seeking to make connection on the road:

-Connect yourself to another organized group of traveling families. The two we’ve found most useful so far have been Fulltime Families and Nomadic Homeschoolers.

-Make efforts to attend a Fulltime Family Rally. The rally we attended in Tallahassee at the beginning of February was great. We’ve heard from many that attending a rally was the game changer in helping their family see this lifestyle as a sustainable, long term choice.

Fulltime Families also has a new family finder on their website. Members can update their location and see if other families are in their area.

-Use social media to your advantage. I’ve found other families in our area through Instagram. At the Fulltime Families rally I asked other parents (via the private Facebook group) for help in connecting my slow-to-initiate daughter with other girls her age. Within 20 minutes a small tribe of girls showed up, crafts, snacks and an umbrella in hand and friendships were born.

community on the road
Before and after: the time I used social media to help my child make connections

-Build margin into your travel plans. We’ve been most starved for interaction with others when we are moving too quickly to facilitate relationship building.

Initiate. This is not a time to wait to be pursued by others. You have to be willing to make the first move.

I’ve put my two cents out there, now it’s your turn. If you are a traveling family, what has your community experience been on the road? If you are not a traveling family, are there questions I didn’t answer?

RV camping: Florida Everglades National Park

If visiting Florida was therapy for my unfounded fears, RV camping in the Florida Everglades National Park was to be my culminating coronation. The reoccurring theme in my Florida fear rehabilitation was that becoming familiar with something new is often the best antidote to overcoming a fear of it.

RV camping in the Florida Everglades National Park

Was this a bad idea?

While I’d failed to have a bad National Park experience thus far, I was open to the possibility that this might be my first. The rumors of mosquitoes, thick like clouds combined with the seemingly dangerous, if not deadly, animal population was enough to make me second guess our sanity.

Thankfully, once again, I was shown the error in my thinking and my preconceived notions were corrected and realigned. What I’d previously overlooked or even discounted as irrelevant swampland, I now understand to be a unique and vital part of our country’s ecosystem. Perhaps you are curious to know what it’s like to visit the Florida Everglades National Park in your RV. Here is my quick rundown:

The everglades wildlife

In my opinion, seeing wildlife in its natural habitat is always far superior to a view in a zoo. While in Florida, our family had already felt blessed to be able to see alligators, stingrays and sea turtles in the wild. Our hopes were high but our expectations of viewing an American crocodile, manatee or dolphin while in the Florida Everglades National Park was pretty low.

We were therefore overjoyed to view multiple crocodiles sunning themselves in plain view just a short walk from to the visitor center. We also saw both alligators and crocodiles on our ranger led canoe trip (more on that below). Two days later we were treated to an up close and personal view of several manatee in the marina near the visitor center. The following day, several bottlenose dolphins were swimming in the bay and we could easily see them cresting as they made their way across the Gulf. In addition to these new-to-us viewings we also enjoyed sightings of many bird species including Coots, Pelicans, Osprey, Turkey Vultures, Egrets and the Great Blue Heron.

Everglades Ranger led talks & activities

One of my favorite aspects of the National Park system are the ranger led activities. The number of talks, walks and tours available in the Florida Everglades National Park amazed us. During our stay they offered a free 3.5-hour morning guided canoe trip, daily 30-minute afternoon talks and a one-hour program every other evening. They also offered bird walks, tropical tree walks as well as a ranger led car caravan.

We attended many of the 30-minute talks with subjects ranging from the American crocodile to manatees, hurricanes and pythons (which, not to freak you out, have basically exploded in number to such a degree that authorities are now simply hoping to contain them from spreading throughout the entire Southeastern United States). . .

On a lighter note, we also participated in the morning canoe trip as well as an evening program.

While on our morning canoe trip we were able to silently paddle past a handful of lazy alligators and crocodiles (did you know this is the only place in the world where the two co-exist in the same habitat?) while navigating around and under the low laying branches of the red mangrove trees. I did my best to maintain a calm veneer as we proceeded through placid waters welcoming top-of-the-food-chain predators. I took my cue from the calm ranger and just kept paddling. . .

Stopping from time to time, the ranger pointed out various aspects of the vegetation or delicate eco-system around us. We marveled not only at the surrounding beauty, but the fact that this unique tour was offered free of charge.

I highly recommend taking advantage of as many of the ranger led activities as possible during your stay. You can click here for more details on their schedule. In addition, there are also paid boat tours available which can take you north deeper into the Everglades or south into the Gulf of Mexico. We didn’t participate in any of these tours, but the accessible availability was appealing to many visitors to the park.

Rv camping in the Florida Everglades

RV sites in the Flamingo campground within the Everglades Park were $30/night for the 41 electric hook-ups sites. A water and dump station is available on-site. The bathrooms were clean. Most of the showers are solar heated. We mistakenly choose the non-heated bathhouse and found the water temperature to be quite “refreshing”. Once we made a point to look for the buildings with the large solar panels (on the last day of our stay), we rejoiced in a very comfortable water temperature. There is an outdoor sink on one side of the bathrooms for dishes if needed.

If you can snag an RV site right next to the shower house and have an extra long water hose, you may be able to get water. However, the sites next to the bathrooms do not have electricity so you will be forced to choose between the two. Our RV is 41′ long and we could have comfortably fit into any of the sites offered (they were ALL pull-through)  which is a really wonderful plus for a National Park! Although, the quality of this photo is not high, it may give you a feel for the open ease of access.

rv camping florida everglades national park

If you are willing to boondock, there are many sites available but the number of electric sites are limited. We reserved our site online several months in advance because we were not sure how fast they would fill up. Initially we reserved two weeks. Later, we canceled one of those weeks in order to visit the Keys. In the end, we felt that one week was plenty of time for our family to enjoy the park at a laid-back pace. You can find more details about the Flamingo Campground here.

Everglades National Park Travel notes:

Tours and education

-The 3.5 hour ranger led canoe trip is free and for ages 10 and up. Ages 14 and up may paddle. Reservations are expected. You can reserve your spot in the visitor center. It was expected that both paddlers be from the same party/family. One underage (10-13) rider may sit between the two paddlers in the middle of the canoe. Surprisingly, mosquitoes were practically non-existent due to fish eating up the larvae. This made for an unexpectedly pleasant bug-free morning. I highly recommend this tour.

The Jr. Ranger program at the Florida Everglades National Park requires 4 pages to be completed regardless of age. You can ask for ranger packets at the visitor center, park entrance or even when checking in to your camping site. Or if you really want to be ahead of the curve, click here and print your own copy! Activities in the booklet are not difficult and there were many to choose from.

Transportation

-Bikes were a plus for our stay. We used them on several occasions to ride to the nearby visitor center (about 1.5 miles from the campground) or the beach (think clay, not sand) although we could have easily used the car.

The Flamingo RV campground is about 38 miles past the entrance of the park. Although the town of Homestead is just outside the Everglades Park, it will take you at least 45 minutes (one way) to drive there. We planned ahead and did our grocery shopping for the week before arriving so that we would not have to leave the park for food. Speaking of food, there is a small restaurant at the Flamingo visitor center (the one by the RV park). We never ate there but that is an option if you want to make use of it.

Communication

-We currently use Verizon and Wi-Fi within the park was non-existent for us. However, I’ve heard that people with AT&T were able to get service. There is free Wi-Fi at the visitor center. The visitor center closes at 4:30 each day but the doors remain unlocked and you can access the Wi-Fi both within the building our just outside of it. We took the opportunity to decompress from our devices and found our week without Internet to be a welcomed change.

Mosquitoes and other things that bite

-Mosquitoes were the main drawback to our stay in the Everglades. Come equipped with good bug spray. During the dry season (from December-April) you will find the mosquito numbers to be most favorable. Keep in mind that “favorable” is a loosely used term. Although our stay was technically during the dry season, we are told it has been wetter than normal this year, which meant more mosquitoes than average. We did our best to avoid being outdoors until mid-morning and then again retreated into our RV around sunset. During those early morning and late afternoon periods of time the number of mosquitoes felt laughable to this Idaho girl. However, even for my mid-west man, the levels were irksome. That said, from mid-morning until late afternoon most days quite pleasant. There was often a slight breeze and we could enjoy our time outside in the sun with little interaction with mosquitoes.

-Although personal safety due to wildlife was an initial concern, I can honestly say that I never felt we were in danger (even while gliding past alligators in our canoe). Having a ranger with us on our tour may have had a lot to do with that. However, I was reminded that although wildlife can be dangerous, as long as we give them adequate space and respect their young, it is possible to enjoy the same space without fear.

Outside perspective

-A friend and fellow full-time RVer wrote a good review of her time in the Everglades over at Barry Good Times. Her family only had time for a one day visit and they explored a different part of the Everglades than we did so I thought you might enjoy reading her take on the park as well.

How about you? Have you been to the Florida Everglades National Park? If so, what was your experience? If not, do you plan to go in the future? Why or why not?

The National Park Jr. Ranger Program

What is the Jr. Ranger Program?

The National Park Jr. Ranger program has been a fun way for our kids to go a little deeper into the history or science behind the National Parks we visit.

Participation involves completing a predetermined number of pages within a Jr. Ranger booklet (provided at the visitor center). Some activities may include watching a video, going on a hike, observing nature, drawing a picture or attending a Ranger led program. Upon completion of the booklets, Jr. Rangers raise their right hand and are sworn-in by promising to protect the National Park system, obey their parents or eat their vegetables (it all depends on the personality of the ranger on duty). Finally, a free badge and certificate of completion is awarded and there are smiles all around.

Our experience with the Jr. Ranger program

Our daughter (11) has been participating in the Jr. Ranger Program through the National Park system for a few years. Our younger two (5 and 7) have recently joined her. In our family, a green ranger vest is awarded once five badges have been earned. Now all three of them show up vested and ready for serious park business when we enter a new visitor center. Call me crazy but there is something seriously cute about seeing these three walk around all vested up with badges clinking.

National park Jr. Ranger pros:

  • With the exception of the Smoky Mountains National Park (which charged a few dollars per book), all ranger booklets have been free. Small pencils are typically provided as well, however this is not always the case (Mt. Rushmore did not), so it is good to keep a few extra in the car just in case.
  • Activities in the books often provide a great overview of the park. Details about what make the park unique are often presented in an age appropriate way.
  • The Park Rangers have been very kind, supportive and encouraging to our children at all of the parks we have visited.
  • Our older son almost opted to participate with the plan to sell his newly earned badges on eBay for a profit. We noticed that Jr. Ranger badges can sell for around $5-$8 so if you have a budding entrepreneur this might be the angle that intrigues them most!

national park Jr. Ranger cons:

  • Depending on the length of time we have to visit a park, we have occasionally felt almost enslaved to the completion of the booklets, especially if the required number of pages is on the upper end and our time in the park is on the lower end. I therefore really appreciate parks that say “complete as many pages as you like” in order to qualify.
  • Some of the pages are more along the lines of what I would consider to be “busy work”. For example, some children really enjoy word searches but I don’t consider them to be highly educational and yet they seem to be a very popular inclusion in the booklets.

national park Jr. Ranger tips:

  • If you have multiple children, try paring up youngers with olders to help work on the booklets. Most booklets are geared for ages 4-12 however all ages are welcome and even adults can participate. I recently heard from one mom who has been earning badges right along with her kids and said that made all the difference in their motivation.
  • I recently learned that the Jr. Ranger booklets are typically able to be accessed on the National Park’s website and printed off at home. This could prove to be very useful if our time in a park is going to be short and some activities could be completed ahead of time.
  • Keep in mind that if you don’t complete your booklets before you exit the park, you can mail them in. A ranger will review your child’s booklet and send their badge in return. We have not done this yet but have heard positive things from others who have–including a hand written note of congratulations from the ranger and some fun extras!
  • Ranger vests cost about $35.00 but we’ve found that this varies by a few dollars depending on the park. I’ve also noticed that not all parks carry every size on hand at all times. In addition to that, most parks don’t have sizes that accommodate children much older than 10. Therefore, if you are hoping to purchase a vest for an older child, keep your eye out at each visitor center gift shop and perhaps check on eBay for a used vest.
  • Purchasing an $80 America the Beautiful annual pass is a great value if you are going to be visiting several parks in a year. However, it might be worth researching ahead of time the entrance fee of parks you plan to visit. We’ve been surprised at how many parks have been free. In general it’s the larger National Parks that charge an entrance fee while a lot of the National Monuments and Landmarks that we have visited have been free.
  • If you have a 4th grader, be sure to take advantage of the Every Kid in a Park program. During your child’s 4th grade year your entire car load of family and friends can visit ANY participating National Park for free by simply filling out the form online and printing your pass ahead of time (homeschoolers are eligible as well)!

Still hungry for more?

  • In doing research for this post, I discovered a neat WebRanger program that allows your child to explore parks remotely and participate in a variety of activities in different degrees of difficulty.

How about you? Have your kids tried out the Jr. Ranger program? What has your experience with it been? What have been your favorite National Parks to visit?