Ultimate Guide to the National Parks Junior Ranger Program

Junior Ranger program badges pinned to a wall hanging
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Traveling in the United States? The USA National Parks Service offers the Junior Ranger program at almost all of their 423 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.

Where Can You Earn Junior Ranger Badges?

The NPS website has a list of parks with Junior Ranger programs. That covers a majority of the 423 sites managed by the National Park Service. If you’re in doubt, just ask at the visitor center or tollbooth at the park entrance.

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!

A girl working on a Junior Ranger program booklet at African Burial Ground National Monument in New York City
Working on a Junior Ranger book at African Burial Ground National Monument. In New York City’s Financial District, African Burial Ground is a great example of an urban National Park site. You don’t need to be in the woods to earn a Junior Ranger badge!

Who Can Earn Junior Ranger Badges?

Anyone! Officially, the program is geared to children age 5-13, but anyone can take part. Typically, the older you are, the more activities you need to complete. A few parks have special “Senior Ranger” or “Not So Junior Ranger” booklets for adults. Other parks, like Lewis & Clark NHP, require you to complete the entire Junior Ranger booklet. Yep, even the word searches.

Two adults taking the Junior Ranger oath at Lewis & Clark National Historic Park
Even adults can earn Junior Ranger badges! At Lewis & Clark National Historical Park in Oregon, adults complete the entire booklet to earn a badge and patch. I’m guessing the Ranger pulled out all the stops on this oath – we both look like we’re holding back a laugh!

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.

Two children taking the Junior Ranger oath at Zion National Park
The Zion National Park Junior Ranger program requires a Ranger talk. We were lucky to catch a fabulous talk on cougars. After the talk, the Ranger swore in Batty and Falcon.

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 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.

Two children taking the Junior Ranger program oath at Mesa Verde National Parl
The Junior Ranger oath is a window into the personality of the Ranger. Sometimes you get a straightforward “Learn, Explore, Protect” message. Other times you get elaborate and creative promises to eat vegetables, never argue with your siblings, help clean the campsite, etc. Creative oaths always win points!

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 you may purchase a patch in the gift shop. This is a nice balance. Although at $5 a patch, it adds up.

The 4 materials Junior Ranger badges are made from. A plastic badge from Golden Spike, a wood badge from Olympic, a metal badge from African Burial Ground, and a patch from Lewis & Clark
Junior Ranger badges are typically plastic, but we see more and more switching to reclaimed maple wood. I think they should all be wood or metal. I know budgets are a concern, but the NPS is an organization that should lead by example on plastic reduction. If you are lucky, the park gives a free patch. Patches are our absolute favorite!

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 Pass for the entire family! Enroll at Every Kid Outdoors program. Yes, 10-year-old homeschoolers too!
  • Take advantage of FREE National park entry days.
  • Pack “Junior Ranger Kits” with pencils, colored pencils, and clipboards.
  • You can usually mail in completed booklets you weren’t able to turn in. 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!
A mother and two children working on Junior Ranger program booklets at Grand Canyon National Park (North Rim)
Work on the booklet with your kids…or earn your own badge. You’ll be surprised how much you learn!

Specialty Programs

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 the National Cherry Blossom Festival.

National Programs

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.

“Extension” Programs at Specific Parks

Some sites offer special patches if you do additional activities or extra booklets. Here are some we know about:

Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania rocker patch setComplete booklets for all four battlefields to earn the complete rocker patch set.
Fort Frederica Master Junior Ranger patchComplete Fort Frederica’s Junior Ranger Challenge plus Underwater Explorer and Junior Archaeologist.
Mount Rainier Citizen Ranger patchThe Citizen Ranger quests at Mount Rainier NP are aimed at 12+, but we completed it as a family to earn our patches. The Junior Ranger badge is one of the quests.
Harper’s Ferry Apprentice, Journeyman, and Master badgesHarper’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 entire book!

Multi-Site Programs

Some regions offer special rewards if you earn multiple badges in a geographic or topic area. Here are the ones we know about:

Arizona Junior Ranger Explorer patchVisit four of Arizona’s many National Park sites.
National Parks of Manahatta patchComplete a special booklet when you visit Castle Clinton NM, Federal Hall NM, and African Burial Ground NM in New York City.
Oklahoma Outdoor Ranger patchVisit all three of Oklahoma’s National Park sites.
Hawai’i Island National Parks Junior Ranger patch Visit all five National Park sites on Hawai’i Island and complete the Hawai’i Island National Parks Junior Ranger Adventure Program booklet. You earn other prizes along the way too!
South Florida Junior Ranger patchComplete the entire booklet covering Biscayne National Park, Everglades National Park, and Big Cypress National Preserve.
Junior Civil War HistorianComplete Junior Ranger programs at three participating parks.

Historical Site Trading Cards

That’s right. Trading cards aren’t just for baseball! A few of the historical parks, such as Independence NHP in Philadelphia and Boston NHP, have historical trading cards. You can earn trading cards by asking Rangers questions or attending programs. Participating parks have multiple trading cards. Be prepared to show off your knowledge to earn rarer cards.

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 take part in organized educational activities, like Junior Ranger badges, or volunteer service projects for a minimum of 10 hours at national parks.

Can You Earn Junior Ranger Badges from Home?

Yes! Craft Knife Homeschool compiled a HUGE list of Junior Ranger badges to earn from home. You will need to mail the completed booklets at your own cost.

All the national Junior Ranger programs can be earned at home, too.

The NPS also has a 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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