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Junior Rangers: A new generation of national park protectors

A Junior Ranger in Mount Rainier National Park

The national park rangers' ranks are growing, judging by the three western parks our family visited this month.

The newest rangers may be smaller, but they're no less enthusiastic or passionate about the parks. They're the Junior Rangers of the National Park Service, and you'll find them at parks across the United States: attending ranger programs, hiking trails, identifying animals and habitat, completing activity books, and pledging to protect the parks and their resources. All to earn an official Junior Ranger patch or badge from each park.

I'd heard of the Junior Ranger program before my family's trip to Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Rainier, but hadn't given it a lot of thought. Then my 6-year-old asked to attend the evening ranger talks at Jenny Lake Campground in Grand Teton. After a presentation on the prehistory of Jackson Hole (during which my son got to hold a spear and a beaver pelt!) the ranger signed Junior Ranger activity books for other young attendees, and my son was hooked. Soon we were filling out activity pages, recording what animals we'd seen on hikes, and learning new facts about park geology, wildlife, plants, and habitat.

Programs vary by park, but typically kids pick up activity books at visitor centers, or sometimes from rangers leading programs. The three parks we visited — Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Rainier — shared much of the same format: attend a ranger program, hike a trail, and finish a certain number of activities, depending on age, with content focused on what makes that park unique.

A Junior Ranger program in Rainier National Park.

In Yellowstone, kids also can earn a Young Scientist badge through a program sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The 5-7-year-old version involved an introduction to the scientific method, complete with hypothesis, observations, and conclusions about geysers.

Typically a small fee or donation ($1-3) is requested for the book or to cover the cost of the badge or patch, but how much and when it's charged depends on the park. In Grand Teton we got activity books for free but paid for the earned badge, and both kids (including our 2-year-old) earned free patches by attending a Junior Ranger program in our campground on animal signs. In busier Yellowstone, we paid upfront, and in Rainier the program was free.

Not only did the Junior Ranger activities and pursuit of badges excite and captivate my son (who spent evenings in the tent filling out info), it also meant that our family participated in programs we might not have otherwise. We attended ranger-led programs and learned about the prehistory of the Jackson Hole area, how climate change is affecting Grand Teton, the bears of Yellowstone, the history of the national park system, and how to find signs of animals in Rainier.

In each park, we saw and met many other kids, from the United States and abroad, proudly walking around with Junior Ranger badges and patches pinned onto their hats and vests. One young boy we passed on a Yellowstone trail had a hat nearly covered in plastic badges from different parks. My own son proudly told every ranger he met that he was a Junior Ranger.

Taking the Junior Ranger pledge in Grand Teton National Park.

The rangers leading the programs, signing in Junior Rangers, and taking their pledges showed great interest in each child. They took the time to look over each kid's work, ask questions about what they'd seen and learned, gave them the pledge and badge, and shook their hands. They made each Junior Ranger feel important and involved.

Sound like fun? Programs vary across parks and by age, but are worth checking out if you'll be visiting any parks with kids. While my son is naturally inquisitive, participating in the formal Junior Ranger program (versus listening to Mom and Dad), earning badges and patches, and meeting the rangers, really made the trip a lot of fun for him. He took a lot of pride in his accomplishments in each park.

No kids in tow? While programs are geared at 5- to 14-year-olds, several rangers in Grand Teton told us that they get adults earning badges and taking the Junior Ranger pledge daily. A few national parks even have Senior Ranger badges, for those 18 and over.

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While the Junior Ranger program has been around for many years (it was around when I was a kid, so since the 1940s at least), it has gotten a lot more sophisticated. And environmentally more conscious. When my family took us on the traditional Great Western National Parks Tour, I remember (well, actually have photos taken by my parents) watching the feeding bears in the Yellowstone garbage dump (one of the photos shows my sister and me standing next to a ranger with our ranger badges looking at the bears in the garbage pile). Thankfully, that sort of amusement has changed.

This is a really great program for getting kids interested in the outdoors and doing a bit of education (and for the parents, too).

For many years, the Forest Service had a similar program in which you got a Squirrel Club card for hiking to a fire lookout tower and climbing up the staircase to see the giant map and sighting device that was used to get the azimuth to any smoke plumes. There were several thousands of these lookouts, so triangulation could be used to pinpoint the fire location. Fire lookout towers are pretty much a thing of the past, though a few hundred still exist. You could volunteer to spend a couple months at one with your family, thus giving the rangers a bit of time off. My parents considered volunteering, but decided against it (my sister and I were enthused, but my mother was rather less interested). I wonder if the Squirrel Club still exists at the few manned lookouts that still exist.

This photo is of the tower on Tahquitz Peak in Southern California. I collected about a dozen Squirrel Club cards from this peak during the summer I worked at Camp Emerson, a Boy Scout camp in Idylwild, CA, at the base of Tahquitz. About twice each week, I would lead groups of the scouts on a hike up the Devil's Slide trail on one side, then back down the South Ridge trail on the opposite side. Tahquitz Rock, the famous climbing area which saw the development of many of the modern rock climbing techniques and many of the rock climbers who became famous for climbs in Yosemite Valley, is on the side of this peak.

We visited the Smokies 2 summers ago and that was the first time I paid attention to the Jr. Ranger program. My son and daughter both enjoyed the program , but my daughter (8yrs old at the time) really felt important after being awarded her plastic badge. She seemed to feel a stewardship role had been given to her. She spent the rest of the trip cleaning empty campsites of trash and thanking other campers for having their dogs on leashes. It made a great impression on her.

Bill S my friend (a local indian) climbed dry falls (Palm Springs) bare handed when it was wet. I was going up on the right side which was still pretty dangerous without any climbing gear. It was one of the craziness things I ever saw. Until he picked up a two and a half foot timber rattler with his bare hands at the top of dry falls about forty five minuted later.

We were all young and stupid at one time. I remember when I see dry falls wet.

I generally don't sign on to programs like this one. I think the idea of burden kids with adult problems is going to take the fun out of their visit. I tell my kids to never leave trash behind and to take some other careless peoples trash out with us.

What a wonderful program and a creative way to get kids outside with fun projects that help them learn! At 9 months our son has been to Denali, Glacier, North Cascades and Olympic Natl Parks (prob missing one or two) and he is most at peace and engaged- already!- when he is outdoors.

Blogged about this- I love it. And can't wait till our 9 month old is old enough to give it a try!

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