If you have plans to visit any national parks this year, check out the Junior Ranger Program! It’s a fun way to help kids learn about the parks you visit as you explore the great outdoors together.
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Did you know that the National Park Service protects over 84 million acres of wild landscapes and historic sites? That’s a lot of space!
As a Utah resident who grew up in central California, I’ve been lucky enough to have always lived within a couple hours of national parks. I LOVE getting out in nature, and I’m constantly amazed by the variety and beauty of this earth.
A love and respect for nature is something I want to pass on to my children as well, so our family has made a point of getting out and visiting national parks often. We’ve craned our necks searching for the tops of the giant redwoods of California, peered over the edge of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and searched for Alligators in Florida’s Everglades. We’ve seen some amazing things on our adventures!
And while traveling with kids can be challenging, sharing the experiences of these sites as a family is also incredibly rewarding.
One of the tricks is to get your kids excited about visiting national parks. Because while YOU may understand just how unique and special these places are, your kids probably don’t. To your kids, the Grand Canyon may just be a random deep crack in the earth, and the Giant Sequoias are just some big trees. We have to educate them about why these parks matter.
“In the end we will conserve only what we love,
we will love only what we understand,
and we will understand only what we are taught.”
So how do we teach our kids to appreciate these places in a way that keeps the experience fun?
For our family, one big answer is the Junior Ranger Program.
What is the Junior Ranger Program?
The Junior Ranger program is an activity program promoted by the National Park Service that encourages kids and their families to explore, learn about, and protect the natural resources and beauty of the national parks.
To become a Junior ranger, kids participate in ranger talks, play games, and complete printed activities (usually in a booklet you can get at the park’s visitor center) to earn a park-specific junior ranger badge.
Almost all national parks participate in the program, and many state parks and historic monuments do, too!
Why we love the Junior Ranger Program:
The Junior Ranger program is a great way to help kids learn about the national parks in a fun, play-based way. Here are just a few reasons we love it:
- It’s educational. My kids (and I!) have learned so many interesting facts about the parks we have visited by doing the Junior Ranger activities. We learned about the geological layers of Zion National Park, about the animals that inhabit the forests of Congaree, and how Giant Sequoias survive wildfires. Taking time to learn from the experts about each of the places we visit makes our experience more enjoyable and memorable.
- It keeps kids engaged in the experience. Without the Junior Ranger program, visiting a national park with kids can be frustrating. After all, it’s hard to appreciate the beauty of El Capitan (Yosemite) if you have a five-year-old whining, “Can we be done yet? I’m boooooored.” The Junior Ranger Program incentivizes kids to actually pay attention to ranger talks, to read interpretative plaques, and to look for what makes each park unique. Some kids might not need the structure of these activities to enjoy the parks, but for many kids it’s really helpful to have something to DO while exploring.
- It builds excitement about visiting more parks in the future. If your kids are anything like mine, they LOVE to collect things. Once they have earned one Junior Ranger badge, they’re likely to be excited about the prospect of adding more to their collection. It becomes a game (and a challenge) in and of itself to see how many your family can collect! My oldest son has all his badges proudly displayed on the bulletin board in his room.
Alternatively, if you want to show off your badges when you visit new parks, you can purchase an official Junior Ranger vest…or get a generic cargo vest from Amazon (affiliate link).
Or, try creating a Junior Ranger scrapbook like the one Utah’s adventure family made! What an awesome keepsake!
Interested in learning more? Keep reading to learn everything you need to know to become a Junior Ranger!
How does the Junior Ranger Program work?
Step 1: Go to the visitor center & ask a ranger for a booklet.
To become a junior ranger, you first need to visit with a park ranger at the park’s visitor center. Tell them you are interested in the junior ranger program, and they will provide you with an activity book. The rangers LOVE to teach kids and are often really good at getting them excited for what your family will see and experience in the park.
This is also a great time to get recommendations from the ranger for what the best, kid-friendly attractions are in the park. They can point you towards easy hikes, entertaining presentations/ranger talks, and tell you the best places to spot the items on your BINGO game (for whatever reason, most parks we’ve visited have a BINGO scavenger hunt).
Step 2: Do the required activities.
Once you have your booklet, take a few minutes to read through it. Usually, kids will have to do a certain number of activities in the book to earn their badge. Older kids are required to do more activities than younger ones. Sometimes the activities are leveled by age group as well. You do NOT have to do every activity in the book. Pick the activities you and your kids are most interested in, and get started!
Tip: We’ve found that working on our Junior Ranger booklet pages is a great way to break up a longer hike. When the kids get tired of walking, we take a water/snack break and try to do a page in their book.
Step 3: Return your completed booklet to a ranger & receive your badge.
Once you’ve completed the requirements for the badge, return to the visitor center with your kids to turn it in to a ranger. (Note: Make sure you check the visitor center hours, so you don’t get there after it closes…not that I learned that the hard way…). When you turn in your book, the ranger will look through it to verify what you’ve done, talk with your child about what they’ve learned, and will lead your child in the Junior Ranger oath:
As a Junior Ranger, I promise to teach others about what I learned today, explore other parks and historic sites, and help preserve and protect these places so future generations can enjoy them.
Finally, your child will receive their very own junior ranger badge!
Who can be a Junior Ranger?
The program is geared toward kids from 5 to 13, but younger kids can still participate, especially with older siblings. Toddlers may not earn a badge, but in our experience the rangers have given our little ones some kind of sticker or stamp to help them feel included.
Do all national parks have a Junior Ranger Program?
According to the NPS website, there are currently over 200 Junior Ranger Programs in the National Park Service. So far, every national park we’ve visited has offered a Junior Ranger badge.
PLUS, it’s not just national parks. Many state parks and historic sites participate, too. Basically, anytime you visit a site that is run by park rangers, ask about the Junior Ranger Program!
Here are some of the places we’ve visited and have earned Junior Ranger badges:
- Zion National Park (UT)
- Arches & Canyonlands National Parks (UT)
- Bryce Canyon National Park (UT)
- Dinosaur National Monument (UT)
- Grand Canyon National Park (AZ)
- Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (CA)
- Muir Woods National Monument (CA)
- Yellowstone National Park (WY) – Note: Yellowstone’s booklet costs $3
- Congaree National Park (SC)
- Minute Man National Historic Park (MA)
Want to find out about sites near you? Here is a full list of parks that have a Junior Ranger Program.
What if I can’t visit a national park in person?
One cool thing about the Junior Ranger Program is that you can do it remotely! If traveling to visit national parks isn’t feasible for your family right now, you can download the booklet for just about any park from the NPS website and complete the activities using information you research online yourselves.
Many locations even allow you to send in your completed activities and receive your badge in the mail! It’s definitely more fun to do the program in person, but virtual programs are a great way to learn about places you may not be able to visit in real life.
Attention fourth graders: You can visit the parks for FREE!
Did you know that fourth graders are eligible for a FREE national park pass for the entire school year? Yay for free things! Go HERE to learn more and register for your free pass. My oldest will be in fourth grade this year, and I’m excited to use his pass for this year’s family adventures!
Side note: If someone in your family has a permanent disability, that person qualifies for a life-long national park pass. My brother-in-law (who lives with us) has this pass, and it’s been great! While some aspects of national parks can be tricky for people with disabilities, there is still lots for all people to enjoy. Just do your research beforehand, and you’ll find lots to enjoy. We’ve taken a wheelchair all sorts of places!
Now you’re all set to have a house full of Junior Rangers. Next step: head for the hills!
What questions can I answer for you about the Junior Ranger Program?
If you’ve participated in it, tell me in the comments which parks you have earned badges from!