Note: There is nothing quite like exploring a national park, but exploring an Alaska national park brings adventure to a whole new level. We love our National Park Service, love what they represent, and for who. Below is my latest post for US-Parks.com, explaining the details behind the NPS’ popular Junior Ranger program. Between the badges, patches, and cool headgear lies a pretty impressive group of people who work hard to instill the values of stewardship, conservation, and preservation for our public spaces.
Park rangers are like firefighters, police officers, and armed services personnel. The combination of uniform and implied authority cuts an impressive figure, especially for children, and my earliest national park memories are filled with towering forms who led hikes, kept us safe, and wore unbelievably awesome hats.
Today, park service staff fulfill duties of many kinds, from fire crew to district ranger, but it is perhaps the interpretive seasonal employee who interacts with the public most often, and it is children who cause them to shine through the Junior Ranger program.
Junior Ranger programs exist in over 200 national parks, landmarks, and historical sites around the United States, and interpretive rangers are tasked with engaging and educating young visitors to the new surroundings they have come to see. Part activity book, part hands-on learning opportunity, Junior Ranger programs allow kids to thrive in the way kids do best; at their own pace, with a mentor to guide them. But Junior Ranger staff aren’t just made – each park has unique attributes that set it apart from others, and with it, events and daily activities that relate to children, and children-at-heart. How do you know a great Junior Ranger program?
Access: Each individual national park, landmark, or historical site has its own website, and it is here your preparation should begin. Does the park have an online activity guide, photo gallery, or kids’ page? Are family-friendly activities clearly stated and up-to-date?
People: Junior Rangers are nothing without their leader, and good interpretive staff will make an experience memorable. Do rangers talk with kids, or to kids? Are guided hikes led at a child’s pace, stopping often for questions, or to look for telltale tracks, wildflowers, or, even, animal poop? Are basic principles of preservation mentioned, and explained?
Diversity: Are activity books geared for a wide range of ages? Do younger kids feel as welcome as olders? Look for backpacks to check out, books to read, and things to touch, taste, and hear. Since kids are as different as the stars, so should be their experiences.
If Alaska is on your destination list for 2014, try our top three picks for Junior Ranger enthusiasts:
Kenai Fjords National Park, Seward: Adding additional programs that expand upon the basics, KFNP offers Fjord and Glacier Junior Ranger badges during the summer months, with tons of hands-on experiences on trails and water. Best for kids 6-12, these programs reach the often-missed ‘tween crowd. Exit Glacier trails and marine science combine to create a scientific adventure youngsters will talk about for months.
Denail National Park: With thousands of visitors each year, DNP is dialed in to the younger age bracket, and it shows, with backpacks to check out for day hike exploration, sled dogs to pat, nature hikes, and evening programs at campgrounds. Oh, and that’s in addition to the regular Junior Ranger stuff. Staff are knowledgeable, friendly, and love to chat up young people. Plus, tons of kids are always visiting Denali, and it’s great to have new friends with which to explore.
Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, Skagway: Designed to appease the cruise ship crowd, Klondike is a delightful experience for kids, with a designated Junior Ranger Station just down the block from a main visitor center at the train depot. Dress up in victorian-era clothing, play games like children of the 1890’s, and feel an otter, seal, or bear pelt. Interpretive staff are almost always teachers on summer hiatus, and the architecture alone is worth visiting. Don’t forget to check out a backpack at the main visitor center, either, and take a stroll around this historic gold rush town.
Next time you visit a national park, thank the interpretive staff who help our kids learn about stewardship for public lands today, so they may continue to protect them, tomorrow.