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?

The lavish lure of the Smoky Mountains

The stage is set. All of nature has been waiting with breath held for this, this moment in time, this blink of history. As the sun rises the show begins; grand in entrance, yet quietly dripping with elegance, she pierces through the curtain of foliage like a bugle sounding her battle cry.

smokeymountains
On the road to Clingmans Dome (highest spot in the Smokies)

Standing at attention with stately brilliance, row upon row of attentive trunks swell their breasts with pride as they lift their branches in unabashed arrogance against the backdrop of the pale sky. “Look here!” they cry. “Gaze upon me!” they plead.

smokey-mountains
The view from Clingmans Dome in the Smoky Mountains National Park

And we do, we cannot look away, our eyes are fixed, our faces set against the sky, pulling the view close, attempting to etch it into our memory with frail focus. For we know that this moment is fleeting. Like a whisper it will come and go. Like the Smoky mist, it will slowly become obscured, crowded out by more pressing persuasions. Perhaps that is part of the lavish lure of it all. So we cast our longing glances, capture, click and sigh knowing that when the curtain closes on the day, we didn’t miss the show–we were part of it.

2,200+ miles and still alive

In college I drove 279 miles from Spokane, WA to Seattle, WA alone. I remember turning up the music full blast, rolling down my window and eventually pulling over numerous times to jump around on the side of the road in an attempt to wake myself up. In our early years of marriage, there were a few times that I offered to drive on a long trip to relieve Trent when he was getting sleepy. I never lasted more than 30 minutes before he needed to take over again for fear that I would be the one to fall asleep. Therefore, you may understand when I say I had a legitimate concern about driving the van on this trip. “We may die or at the very least, we may arrive a week later than expected due to frequent stops to wake myself up,” I reasoned.

At the beginning of the trip, I did struggle. Montana worked out okay, partially because I was on an adrenaline high from beginning our adventure. However, South Dakota was harsh. My mind was turning to mush out there on the prairie and was threatening to blow away my focus like the tumbleweeds. By the time we arrived in Minnesota, Trent and I were having serious discussions about leaving the van at his parent’s house and simply continuing together as a family in the truck. This option would be doable, but not ideal. Having a second vehicle gives us freedom and flexibility. We can easily leave the truck and RV at the registration desk at a campground, jump in the van together and scout out the best RV site without having to navigate the truck and RV around the countless loops. Once we are parked at a campground, we can use the van for day-trips. Should the truck (or van) have issues, we are not without a second back-up vehicle . . . However, none of these options matter if I can’t stay awake.

Somehow a little miracle happened. This last Thursday I drove 256 miles, stopping just one time so Trent could gas up. I could have kept going! My driving muscles seem to have slowly strengthened with each passing mile. Is that possible? Perhaps more probable is that the landscape has grown increasingly more interesting as we’ve traveled. Thursday was no exception. We left Indiana in the morning and arrived in Virginia by mid-afternoon. It was slightly mind blowing to leave the mid-west and arrive in the east-coast in a matter of hours. Driving through the state of Kentucky was a treat. The distant hillsides were filled with tremendous texture as the hardwoods heralded their splendor, intermingling color and shape and size. Closer to the road we were treated to picturesque views of fenced green meadows with grazing horses. Who could possibly fall asleep while seeing this for the first time?

falltrees

As we arrived at our campground location in the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, we felt doubly blessed to be situated in such a lovely location for a portion of our trip designed for downtime.

cumberland-gap-campsite

After enjoying a slow start to our morning and completing our school goals, we ventured out to the ranger station for the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park. After our three youngest finished their Junior Ranger booklets and received their new badges, we ventured up to the pinnacle overlook. From this location we were able to take in a breathtaking view of the Appalachian Mountains and see where the three states of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia come together at the top of a nearby ridge. We could also locate the Cumberland Gap where between 1175-1810, 300,000 settlers traveled after Daniel Boone helped clear a trail for their travels. The kids hurled countless acorns over the side of the viewing platform, but no matter how hard they tried, the acorns kept landing in Virginia.

cumberland-gap

Fact: I’ve now driven over 2,200 miles.

Fact: I’ve been the only adult in the vehicle.

Fact: I have had at least 3 of the 4 kids with me at all times.

Fact: We are all still alive.

Let’s celebrate!

 

Travel details:

  • Cumberland Gap National Historic Park has no admissions fee.
  • Camping is $20 for a site with electricity and $10 without. There is no water or sewer. Camping is first come, first serve with no reservations.
  • They have a lot of sites but many of them are too uneven or too short to work for our 40-foot RV so this was a time in which we appreciated having our van along to help us scout out where we wanted to go.
  • Despite the fact that we arrived mid-week, nearly all the sites with electricity were full. We ended up staying at a non-electric site. The public bathroom and showers are very clean.
  • The camp hosts were friendly, quick to welcome us and fill us in on the details of the park.
  • We spent about 1 ½ hours at the ranger station. If we were not helping kids with their Jr. Ranger booklets we would likely have been there 45-60 minutes.
  • There are Gap cave tours available for $8/adult, $4/child (ages 4-12). These book up early so plan at least a day in advance. We opted not to do a tour here as we recently did a cave tour in South Dakota (Jewel Cave) and plan to visit one again in a few weeks (in the Mammoth Cave area).
  • There are many hiking trails in the area as well.