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- Where to Find US National Parks
- Who Are Junior Rangers?
- How to Earn a Junior Ranger Badge
- Getting the Reward
- Other Special Junior Ranger Programs
Kids naturally learn in the best way by doing and exploring. National Parks offer so many opportunities to learn at each of the park service’s 400 sites. Additionally, more than 300 National Park Service Sites offer special programming just for kids. This TravelingMom’s kids have earned more than 100 badges during their travels across the U.S. Here are her best tips for engaging your kids on a national parks getaway (or at home with the new online Junior Badge program).
Where to Find US National Parks
There are 61 US national parks spread across 29 states and two U.S. territories. California has the most with nine, followed by Alaska with eight, Utah with five, and Colorado with four. Additionally, find national parks in urban areas, like San Francisco and Boston.
Read More: The Ultimate Guide to US National Parks
Some national park sites span several states, like the national historic trails. Find several sprinkled across the U.S., like the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail that retraces the exploration of the west. Though kids with special interests, like dinosaurs or volcanoes, can find national parks to learn more.
Another way to visit a national park is on a cruise to Alaska or the Caribbean with ports-of-call in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
Who Are Junior Rangers?
When my kids walk into a national park visitor center covered in shiny little badges, people notice. The park rangers shift their focus and hone in on my highly decorated Junior Rangers. Then, from the corners of the room, I overhear, “What are Junior Ranger badges and how do my kids earn them?”
After visiting more than 100 national park service sites, I’m here to tell you: It’s fun and easy — for adults as well as kids.
Junior Rangers are junior-sized park rangers. Kids from 5 to 13 can join the ranks as they explore, learn and protect our national treasures, but it’s not just for kids. Some national park sites, including Acadia National Park in Maine and Guadalupe Mountains National Park in West Texas, offer special Senior Ranger booklets and badges. Additionally, Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State offers a Citizen Ranger booklet and badge. Other parks give badges to adults who complete the entire Junior Ranger booklet. So brush up on those mazes and word finds!
More than 300 National Park Service sites hand out free booklets specially designed for that park (a few parks, including Yellowstone National Park, charge $3 for the booklet).
How to Earn a Junior Ranger Badge
First, pick up a Junior Ranger booklet at the park’s visitor center. It’s my first stop after entering the park and it usually offers restrooms. Most visitor centers are open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Junior Ranger requirements differ from park to park, so look over the booklet. Some require kids to take a short hike or watch a short introductory film found in the visitor center. Others require recycling or picking up trash in the park. Most Junior Ranger badges require attending a ranger program — an educational program presented by a park ranger during the day and open to all.
Junior Ranger programs vary in length but are usually 20 or 30 minutes long. I usually drop my kids off for a few minutes while I explore nearby. It seems I never get a minute to explore on my own!
Then I talk with a park ranger for recommendations. If a hike is required, I ask the park ranger which trails are best for kids. I find the family-friendly hikes and circle them on the park map I picked up for free at the visitor center or entrance station.
Finally, we explore the national park site as a family and the Junior Ranger booklet points out the unique features of the park. I’ve learned just as much as my three kids by earning Junior Ranger badges over the years.
Getting the Reward
After completing the required activities, the kids turn in their booklets to the Park Ranger on duty at the visitor center. Park rangers will go over each booklet and discuss important features of the park with each child.
After discussing the booklets and what they learned, kids raise their hands and recite the Junior Ranger Pledge:
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.
Each kid gets a collectible badge or patch, depending on the park, and a signed certificate.
Earn National Junior Ranger Badges at Home
An online version of the Junior Ranger Program features national Junior Ranger booklets that can be downloaded, printed and completed at home. Afterwards, mail the booklets to the National Park Service. Someone there will review the booklet and mail back the earned badge back. All for free.
Obviously, you can’t hike a national park from home, but the kids can still learn. Here are some of the badges they can earn at home:
Junior Ranger Railroad Explorer
Learn how the east and west coasts were connected back in the 1800s via the transcontinental railroad. Download the booklet here.
Junior Ranger Sounds Explorer
Learn about sound and how scientists study sound. Download the booklet here.
Junior Ranger Space Flight Explorer
In a partnership with NASA, kids learn about space and how humans explore it. Download the booklet here.
Let’s Go Fishing Junior Ranger
This badge is issued in a partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Learn about fishing, aquatic habitats and fishing safety. Download the booklet here.
Junior Cave Scientist Program
The National Park Service preserves 150 areas that protect caves or karsts (landscapes created by weak acids that dissolve rocks), like Wind Cave National Park. To learn about speleology, the study of caves, complete at a park with a cave. Or complete at home and mail the completed booklet to the National Park Service Geologic Resources. Download the booklet here.
Junior Ranger Night Explorer
Junior Ranger Archeology Program
Kids learn about the lives of people from the past. This booklet includes a parent guide. Download the booklet here.
Junior Paleontologist Program
Introduce your dinosaur-loving kids to the science behind uncovering hidden bones. The National Park Service features 259 parks that preserve fossils, including Badlands National Park. Complete the booklet at a participating park or at home. Download the booklet here.
Other Special Junior Ranger Programs
The National Park Service partnered with the Girl Scouts and the Boy Scouts to offer a certificate or patch for registered scouts. So scouts who complete 10 hours of organized learning, like the Junior Ranger badges, or perform service projects are eligible for a patch.