Traveling in the United States? The USA National Parks Service offers the Junior Ranger program at almost all of their 419 sites! We are huge fans of the Junior Ranger program. The program helps us easily focus on key history, wildlife, or geology unique to a park. Plus, Junior Ranger badges make a fun souvenir. I admit, the geek in me enjoys the Junior Ranger program as much as my kids! Now we want to share our experience with you.
Everything You Need to Know About the Junior Ranger Program
The Junior Ranger program is an activity-based educational program at the United States’ National Park Service (NPS) sites. Children (and children-at-heart) complete workbooks and activities to be sworn in as Junior Rangers and earn a Junior Ranger badge. The booklets and Rangers have helped us learn so much, while still giving us the flexibility to enjoy the park on our terms.
This might be a good time to mention that Junior Ranger badges aren’t only at National Parks, but at all types of National Park Service-managed sites – battlefields, historic monuments, national monuments, seashores, etc. You don’t need to be in the great outdoors to become a Junior Ranger either. Many NPS sites are in urban areas. You can even earn certain badges from home!
Who Can Earn Junior Ranger Badges?
Anyone! Officially, the program is geared to children age 5-13, but anyone can participate. Typically, the older you are, the more activities you need to complete. A few parks do have special “Senior Ranger” or “Not So Junior Ranger” booklets for adults. Other parks, like Lewis & Clark NHP, require you complete the entire Junior Ranger booklet. Yep, even the word searches.
How Do You Earn a Badge?
The short answer is that to earn a badge, you complete a series of activities, share your answers with a Ranger, pledge to “explore, learn, and protect” National Park resources, and receive your free badge and certificate.
First, head to the Visitor Center. A Ranger will give you the Junior Ranger booklet and tell you how many activities you need to complete. The booklet usually lists the requirements too.
Check at the tollbooth! If the park has a vehicle tollbooth, ask for the Junior Ranger booklet there too. Some parks, like Olympic National Park, have booklets at the tollbooth because vast areas of the park don’t have Rangers present.
Next, make your plan. The complexity and number of activities vary widely from park to park. Depending on the site, you may need to examine museum displays, watch a movie, hike, collect garbage, or attend a Ranger program. Ranger programs can be tricky in the off-season. In the summer, some parks host special Junior Ranger presentations just for kids, especially at campgrounds.
Short on time? Print the booklet ahead of time (not available for all locations) and do non-park based activities like word searches and crossword puzzles beforehand. Look for the booklet on the park’s official website under “Learn About the Park” | “Kids & Youth.”
When you’re finished, return to the Visitor Center or find a Ranger (yes, Rangers out and about usually have badges). The Ranger may ask you lots of questions or they may give your book a cursory glance. Considering the effort required to complete a booklet, we appreciate it when Rangers are able to review them thoroughly.
You will then say the Junior Ranger oath, which may be elaborate. Finally, the Ranger will sign your Junior Ranger certificate and give you a badge.
Does it Cost Money?
Usually, the program is free. A few parks charge a small fee ($1-$3) for the booklet. This mostly seems to be extremely high volume parks (e.g., Yellowstone or Great Smoky Mountains) or parks with free entrance (e.g., Pearl Harbor).
A few parks, such as Arches, offer a badge for free, but an optional patch may be purchased in the gift shop. This is a nice balance. Although at $5 a patch, it adds up.
What Do I Do with All My Badges?
Whatever you want. 🙂 Seriously though, it’s nice to have a plan after all that time and effort!
Many people purchase official Junior Ranger vests or hats at the National Parks gift shops. We dutifully pinned our badges on a vest at first. The kids also used their vests for hiking and camping, which caused a mini-crisis when the badges started to scratch. We have switched to a wall hanging, which displays the badges nicely and is more practical as their collection grows. I will say that kids with scads of badges on their clothing attract attention from Rangers. If fame is a motivating factor, a vest or hat may be the way to go.
More Junior Ranger Tips
US 4th graders get a FREE National Parks for the entire family! Enroll at Every Kid Outdoors program. Yes, 10-year-old homeschoolers too!
Pack “Junior Ranger Kits” with pencils, colored pencils, and clipboards.
Completed booklets that you didn’t turn, can usually be sent by mail. If the address is not inside the booklet, give the park a call. A Ranger will review your booklet and mail your badge.
Many state parks have Junior Rangers too!
If you have time for more than one badge during your visit, ask the park if they offer any additional Junior Ranger programs. By default, parks usually only give you the site’s booklet. Sometimes, they have other badges too, including badges honoring special events such as Junior Ranger Day, NPS Centennial, or National Cherry Blossom Festival.
There are several national Junior Ranger programs, focused on a particular type of Ranger. The Junior Ranger booklets for these programs are available online or at select parks.
Harper’s Ferry has three different Junior Ranger levels – Apprentice, Journeyman, and Master – depending on how many activities you complete. Yes, you can earn all three if you complete the whole book!
Some regions offer special rewards if you earn multiple badges in a geographic or topic area. Here are the ones we know about:
That’s right. Trading cards aren’t just for baseball! At 87 participating parks in 32 states connected to the “Civil War to Civil Rights” theme, you can earn trading cards by asking Rangers questions or attending programs. Parks have multiple trading cards and you can see the whole collection on Flickr.
Girl Scout and Boy Scout Badges
The National Park Service, Girl Scouts, and Boy Scouts have partnered to create the Girl Scout Ranger Program and Resource Stewardship Scout Ranger program. To earn a Scout Ranger patch, Scouts should participate in organized educational activities, like Junior Ranger badges, or volunteer service projects for a minimum of 10 hours at national parks.
The NPS retired the popular WebRanger program at the end of 2019 BUT as part of the 2020 Virtual National Parks Week celebration, the NPS has launched a new Junior Ranger Online site. Check it out for lots of interactive and printable activities, including some new virtual Junior Ranger badges.
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