Our key to incredible family vacations in public lands
Our adventures take us to lots of US public lands, and National Park Junior Ranger programs have become a key part of improving and having more fun on our family travels. Various National Parks, Monuments, and other federal and state public lands offer Junior Ranger programs.
When you and your kids participate, the kids not only can get a spiffy badge showing they’ve become Junior Rangers. The insights, ideas, and inspiration you get from National Park Junior Ranger activities can make the trip more fun for the entire family.
Our kids love being Junior Rangers, and for that matter, so do we parents. Here are 7 ways we’ve found National Park Junior Ranger programs to make our family trips a big win all around.
1. Working on National Park Junior Ranger activities encourages serendipity and wonder.
Public lands are an amazing way that we can be part of a special place, while keeping that location as intact as possible. When our kids get their National Park Junior Ranger books, we find the activities inside encourage serendipity and wonder. They’re like knocking on a door, and knowing it’ll open onto a place that will amaze you and become part of you.
The activities bring up questions and inspire discussions. What makes this place so special? Where are all the bears? Why can’t trees grow on this mountain? How is that lake’s water so blue?
Public lands are full of so many features—not to mention opportunities to explore and enjoy in different ways. While we often have plans for what we want to see and do, we also find that the kids need room for their ideas too.
As they work on their booklets and we check out different areas, they suggest other places to see or things to look for. Instead of over-scheduling ourselves, we keep openness and flexibility in the day. That way, as we all get different ideas, we have the freedom to explore another place or see something we didn’t realize could be so amazing. Above all, we let ourselves be surprised, and we come away amazed, time after time, with new experiences and discoveries that fill our hearts, minds, and curiosity.
A wonderful visitor center full of serendipity and wonder: Fossil Butte National Monument, US National Park Service, Wyoming
While driving from southeast Idaho to southwest Wyoming, a roadside sign caught our attention and sparked our serendipity.
And we are so glad we stopped.
Surrounded by flat-topped plateaus, Fossil Butte National Monument also has a fascinating visitor center. Millions of years ago, the dry, high desert area around us was once the bottom of a massive inland sea. Today, animal and plant fossils abound throughout the visitor center. There are the small, such as seeds, flower petals, and fish. And there are the big: huge palm fronds you could swaddle a baby in, and even crocodilians bigger than most dogs.
Our serendipitous stop at Fossil Butte reminded us why we always leave room for the surprises along the way. Connor and Aster roamed from exhibit to exhibit, telling us about the histories of the fossilized organisms and what the place would have been like when it was a huge mass of water. They had no idea. Neither did we.
The sense of wonder we found at Fossil Butte set a tone for the entire trip.
Directions to Fossil Butte National Monument
2. Vast National Parks can be overwhelming. Junior Ranger programs make them approachable and understandable.
National Parks, Monuments, and other properties can be vast and complicated. Spaces such as Yellowstone are massive. National historic sites encompass difficult facts and events. A natural space might not immediately seem interesting to a kid.
That’s another reason we love National Park Junior Ranger programs. Whether working on an activity booklet, talking with a ranger, or getting useful exploration tips that meet your family where you are, Junior Ranger programs make the parks more approachable. They take something huge and momentous, and help families and children break it down. Before you know it, you’re understanding the park better, and getting more out of your time there.
Overwhelming becomes approachable at Rocky Mountain National Park, U.S. National Park Service, Colorado
At 415 square miles, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park is big. It’s bigger than New York City. It’s half the size of Tokyo. Exploring Rocky Mountain National Park with kids can seem overwhelming.
That’s where the park’s excellent Junior Ranger program comes to the rescue.
Our first day at the park, we headed straight for the rangers. Before we knew it, the kids were measuring the temperature of mountain streams, observing animals, and singing the scat song with a ranger (no, really).
We visited the park over the course of a few days. Whether scrambling over boulders at Alluvial Fan, hiking the Sprague Lake Loop Trail at sunset, or driving the Trail Ridge Road to see mountain peaks almost at eye level, the National Park Junior Ranger program set up the kids to be engaged, fascinated, and inspired.
Bonus: At the nearby gift shop, the kids’ grandparents got them each a Rocky Mountain National Park Junior Ranger hat and vest. Those have now become essentials for their camping kits, even when we aren’t going to a National Park. Connor especially takes pride in showcasing his badges—not to mention kitting out his vest with carabiners and string so he can accessorize for whatever the day’s adventure might require.
Directions to Rocky Mountain National Park
3. Junior Ranger programs get kids thinking about the world beyond their own experience.
Kids live very much in the here and now. Yet life is much more in the past, the present, and the future… all at the same time.
While we love how our kids can be in the moment, we also love when we have opportunities to show them things bigger than their perspective—or their existence and experience. After all, it’s a big, varied world. And it’s a world that’s been going on for a long, long time.
Visiting different parks and public lands gives us an opportunity to talk about history, geology, and events big and small. Those discussions lead to questions, insights, and new perspectives. Junior Ranger programs are designed to help kids think about the life and land beyond their own experience.
Touching fossils at Dinosaur National Monument, US National Park Service, Utah
Even better than those bigger perspectives? How often the rangers are just as fascinated about the parks as the children are.
There really is something special about the National Parks that brings out that curious, inquisitive, active kid in all of us. And when we visited Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument, we got to see exactly that.
As part of their Junior Ranger booklets, the kids had to design their own dinosaur. They could name it, give it features, and try to describe what of the dinosaur could become fossils. As each kid proudly presented their Junior Ranger booklets to a ranger at the Quarry Visitor Center, they were a little nervous as they went through their work.
After Connor explained his dinosaur design, the ranger’s smile lit up, and it made Connor’s day to hear that she thought it was the most detailed dinosaur design she had ever seen. And when Aster presented her dinosaur, she and the ranger agreed that “Rose” did indeed make a perfect name for a dinosaur.
Directions to Dinosaur National Monument
4. The past becomes present and alive.
History sometimes seems so abstract: People who are now dead once did things long ago.
But National Parks bring the past back to life. They make history present, and alive.
When the kids tuck into Junior Ranger programs, some of those activities get them diving deeper into history, whether that’s a hundred years ago or a hundred million years ago. Suddenly, we aren’t just standing in a Utah desert, or on top of a jagged mountain Oregon, or looking out over a valley in Idaho. We’re talking about dinosaurs gathered by a muddy waterhole. Or how big and loud a volcano’s explosion must have been, that it could shatter a mountain. We’re looking at the wagon wheel ruts on a hillside, and pondering how hard it must have been to get a wagon over this hill.
Riding the wheel of history at Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument, US National Park Service, Idaho
Just outside of Twin Falls, Idaho, you can get glimpses not only into the Oregon Trail, but the long lineage of the creatures that, eventually, evolved into the horses we know and love today.
Idaho’s Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument led us to hills looking out over the vast, fertile, beautiful Hagerman Valley. From here, we wandered a national historic trail that paralleled the old roads taking by settlers making their way along the Oregon Trail. The wheel ruts are still visible. And those wheel ruts bring to life the hopes, hardships, and stories of those who came this way long ago.
Hagerman’s Visitor Center also gives a glimpse into a different past. The area is famed for the discovery of the Hagerman horse, a distant ancestor of today’s horse. And when we experience these things, from fossils to wagon wheel ruts, we feel history’s wheel go around. We see how the past has influenced the present—and it guides us to talk about how our own actions can influence the future.
Directions to Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument
5. Junior Rangers can always find a fresh way to approach National Parks and Monuments, even on return visits.
Whether big or small, public lands have something to offer not only on a first visit, but on every return visit. Natural spaces change season by season—even day by day. For national historical parks or other lands, new exhibits or features get unveiled, or new information or understanding gets reflected in what the place offers the public.
Even if a place seems the same, the visitors are not. If you’ve visited once or ten times, you have changed. Kids have grown and learned. Adults change perspectives too. All those changes add up to being able to come to a park or monument with a different frame of mind that keeps the familiar fresh.
Junior Ranger programs build on this. Activities introduce you to new ideas or park features, or they can remind you of ones you had forgotten about since your last visit. Some parks even have multiple programs, as we learned, much to our surprise, on a second visit to one particular must-see National Monument.
Seeing the same past in new ways at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, US National Park Service, Oregon
The first time Aster saw Oregon’s famous Painted Hills, part of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, she was too young to remember. Two years later, we came back to the Painted Hills, so she could experience them again—and remember them for the first time.
As Connor likes to put it, “The only word for the Painted Hills is ‘breathtaking.’”
The deep reds, golds, and sage greens of the hills shone in the morning light. And Aster said that this time, she knew she would remember them.
The power of a place like John Day is that you can always come to it with a new perspective—and find something new to see. On our second visit, we toured the Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center again (and the kids added a Junior Paleontologist badge to their John Day Junior Ranger badge).
Even though we’d been to the Painted Hills and the visitor center before, we returned with new insights, knowledge, and questions. We looked more in depth than before at some exhibits. We also still had plenty to check out, such as short hikes to ancient rock formations at Foree. Just a few miles north of the visitor center, Foree’s high cliffs, bare rock, and small trees felt like another world. It was one we had all to ourselves—and one we will visit again.
Directions to John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
6. Junior Ranger programs help kids understand the different forces that shape the world they know.
Just as we change, the world changes, has changed, and will change more. When we are out and about, though, it’s easy to forget about those throughlines that have shaped the world around us.
Junior Ranger programs remind us that the world around us is the way it is because something happened. It could have been the slow force of millions of years of erosion. It might have been the moments of a massive volcano blast.
When we work on Junior Ranger programs with the kids, we all get reminded that the world didn’t just happen. Different forces and events shaped the land and the life.
Whether we’re talking about millions of years or the action of molecules, many of those forces and changes happen at a scale that’s really hard to understand. Yet we don’t have to comprehend the technical nature of these forces in order to remember their ongoing impact. We can look at a landscape and understand how erosion or explosion shaped it, without grasping exactly how that happened.
The more important part? The part we take with us? We come back to our everyday lives more aware and perceptive of the shaping forces around us, in landscapes, lifescapes, and humanscapes. It reminds us of the human and natural forces at work: People built buildings; different forces made rivers wind the way they do. We remember to experience the world not as a static scene, but as an ongoing, ever-changing process.
Camping in an active volcano at Newberry National Volcanic Monument, Deschutes National Forest, Oregon
This might come as a surprise, but it’s not always obvious when you drive into a volcano.
When it comes to Oregon’s Newberry National Volcanic Monument, that’s because the volcano isn’t some Mount Doom, Death Mountain, or schoolkid drawing of a cone spitting fire and lava.
Newberry is what’s called a shield volcano. It’s relatively low, and it stretches over a vast part of Central Oregon, just outside of Bend. The volcano is still active.
Yet it’s also full. Not of lava, but of forests, hiking trails, campsites, and two beautiful mountaintop lakes.
At the nearby Lava Lands Visitor Center, an excellent Junior Forest Ranger program helps kids and adults understand Newberry’s intense forces, how they’ve shaped the area, and what the volcano is like today.
We turned our time at the visitor center into discussions as we explored Newberry. Hiking the Big Obsidian Flow, where you literally get to walk on volcanic broken glass? It’s a great time to talk about what it must have looked like when this was molten lava, flowing a hundred and fifty feet high. Just beyond the edge of this thick, frozen wave of black glass, a forest stretches tall.
Or there are those lakes. When you paddle along the shimmering waters of East Lake, you float atop a chamber that once was full of magma. You might even get a chill. It’s a great time to run your fingers through the water. It’s warmer than you might expect—heated from below by the fires that still burn inside the earth.
Directions to Newberry National Volcanic Monument
7. Kids come to appreciate unique places and the bigger, broader, wider world beyond.
Many public lands are devoted to protecting and preserving a natural landscape. Oddly enough, that can help us be more appreciative of the world beyond the park.
Junior Ranger programs have helped our kids pay attention. To the little details, like ants on a rock, or a raptor hidden in high branches. The activities have given them perspective on history, on life, on the forces big and small that shape the world as we experience it today.
Finding awe at Crater Lake National Park, U.S. National Park Service, Oregon
The first time the kids saw Crater Lake, and its deep blue, shining water, they had no words. The entire time we were at Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park, they took in the water, the conifers all around the caldera, and the fascinating rock features like Phantom Ship, the Pinnacles, and the Pumice Castle.
Back at home, when the kids received their Crater Lake Junior Ranger badges in the mail, there was something different about them.
They were proud, as they have been whenever they’ve gotten a Junior Ranger badge. But it wasn’t just because they had completed their activities and gotten recognition by cool rangers who wear awesome hats.
The kids were proud that they were part of the same world that has made these incredible places we’ve visited.
Directions to Crater Lake National Park
BONUS: 4 hints to use National Park Junior Ranger programs to make your family travels better
1. Be excited too—and show it.
A ranger at Lava Lands near Bend told us how sad it was when kids weren’t excited about the Junior Forest Ranger program. However, anytime that was the case, the kids had something in common: Their parents weren’t interested either.
That’s a lost opportunity.
If you come to a public land with the impression that learning anything is drudgery, your kids will pick up on that too.
We find that the Junior Ranger programs, honestly, aren’t just for the kids. (And that seems to be design: As one astute friend and fellow public lands aficionado pointed out to us, “There’s no upper age limit on who can be a Junior Ranger.”)
Junior Ranger programs are really fun. They give you insight into aspects of the park you might not have known about or considered in the same way. The Junior Ranger activity booklets and other programs give the kids something to do, which at the very least means they are occupied!
We use Junior Ranger programs as an entry point into our park experience. Not only do we learn lots, but the programs help us have more fun and get so much more out of our parks experience that if we were on our own.
2. Make a big deal about the badges.
Seriously. The badges are cool. There is something about saying the wee pledge, standing before an honest-to-goodness ranger, and getting handed that little wooden badge. There’s a weight, a gravity, to the occasion. And there’s a pride in a child when they realize they’ve learned something amazing, done something cool—and they are getting recognition for it.
Who doesn’t want that?
So go ahead, make a big deal about the badge. The kids deserve it. They’ll take pride in it. And getting those wee badges makes your National Parks travel memories all the better.
3. Find programs before you go.
As much as possible, seek out details about Junior Ranger programs before you go. Every park does things a little differently. The NPS app and website can clue you in on the particulars of a place’s program. That way, you’re prepared to get the kids what they need and help them get underway.
4. And chat with rangers when you’re there.
Every experience we’ve had with Junior Ranger programs is that the rangers are as excited as the kids. Rangers enjoy seeing kids learning, being inspired, and really getting to the heart of their time at the parks. Getting in deep to these places is the stuff a lifetime of memories is made of.
So when you arrive at a park and head to a visitor center, seek out the rangers and talk with them about the junior ranger options. They can clue you in on things happening that day or little details you might miss.
They can also let you know other options. For example, it wasn’t until our second visit to John Day that we learned that not only did they have a Junior Ranger program… but the kids could also earn their own Junior Paleontologist badge too!
Junior Ranger programs bring out the best in our public lands—and each other
Whenever you’re going to a public land, see what Junior Ranger programs are on offer. Participate. Get into it. Help your kids with the activities—maybe even do a few yourselves. And have fun.
When kids are part of Junior Ranger programs, they bring home much more than a little badge.
They bring home memories, understanding, awareness, and a caring concern. They learn not just about place, but about themselves, and that drives inside them a desire to take care of themselves, each other, and the world around them.