Plan a Family Vacation at These 5 Kid-Friendly National Parks
The Junior Ranger Program
National Park Junior Ranger activities can transform your kids’ visit to a National Park into a treasure hunt, a game, a challenge with rewards. You won’t hear complaints about “hikes are boring” or “I don’t want to study stuff, we’re not in school!” With the Junior Ranger programs and activities available at many National and State Parks, kids will drop their screens, grab the activity books and actually beg to get into nature. On their quest to finish the Junior Ranger challenges, kids will end up studying subjects including geology, botany, culture and history. They’ll be rewarded with badges, patches, or pins and a completed souvenir handbook. During regular operations, a Park Ranger can even perform a formal swearing-in ceremony to declare your child as a certified Junior Ranger. Below are a few notable programs and activities at parks around the country.
Note: During reduced park operations during Covid-19 some in-person experiences may be limited, but you can still do “Virtual Junior Ranger” programs with online activity books and certificates downloaded from park websites and distributed outside at some visitor centers.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is a great park for kids’ activities via their Junior Ranger programs. Park staff lead daily hour-long Junior Ranger walks from the Happy Isles Art and Nature Center, and also do Junior Ranger programs at the Wawona Visitor Center and Hodgdon Meadow Campground. The staffed drop-in Junior Discovery Table at the Visitor Center is available for kids to present their findings and take their oath. The park also has Wee Wild Ones story telling time for young kids every evening, and semi-regular Junior Ranger Campfire gatherings. Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite offers a special Junior Ranger-themed bus tour. This Junior Explorer Tour visits iconic Yosemite landmarks and is designed just for kids who work their way through the Junior Ranger program and receive a badge at the end.
Purchase a 24-page Junior Ranger or Little Cub Handbook at park bookstores or visitor centers, have your child complete the book’s nature activities, do a little park clean-up, attend one of the available programs and then your child can take the oath and earn their Junior Ranger badge.
Lassen National Park
From the stinking sulfur pits of the Bumpass Hell Trail to massive boulders and lava rocks hurled hundreds of yards from the Lassen Volcano, this park is a fascinating visit for any kid (or adult!) Lassen National Park provides Junior Ranger Activity Booklets (and Chipmunk Club activity sheets and stickers for younger tykes) at the Loomis Museum and Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center. The park also hosts kid-oriented ranger-led talks at the Loomis Museum. Kids and adults alike can join the Volcano Club by completing study activities on a worksheet to earn a unique patch.
Grand Canyon National Park
Visitor Centers at both the North and South Rims of Grand Canyon National Park provide their own Junior Ranger activity books, badges and programs for young explorers. The “Phantom Rattler” bonus Junior Ranger book and badge are available for kids who make the trek down to Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon. Families can attend kid-focused ranger talks at both rims with topics including “Critter Chats,” a “Geography Glimpse,” Native American talks and even stargazing events.
Saguaro National Park
Sonny the Saguaro cactus leads kids through an activity book full of fun experiential activities in the spikey deserts of Saguaro National Park, including Trail Bingo, Interview a Ranger, Draw a Food Chain and a Safety First guide. The park also hosts multi-day Junior Ranger Camps, and holds regular Junior Ranger talks, guided walks and even a group activity to dissect owl pellets! The programs are a good way to get kids to learn a few desert facts and do short hikes on even the hottest days, and they’ll be sure to apply their new safety tips by helpfully reminding you to stay hydrated.
Niagara Falls State Park
The Niagara Falls State Park Visitor’s Center and other centers in the Niagara Falls Heritage Area provide free activity books for aspiring Junior Rangers who can earn commemorative buttons for each 10 activity pages completed, covering topics ranging from history to geology and of course water flow. Junior Rangers can maximize their learning coverage by hopping on the Niagara Scenic Trolley to bring the whole family to attractions including the Niagara Aquarium, the Cave of the Winds and Prospect Point.