Imagine a funky mix of the Boy/Girl Scouts exploration and Pokémon trading and collecting. Welcome to the Junior Ranger program from the National Park Service.  At our National Parks, the world is literally a touch-tank of awesome nature and local history. And the best part is that wherever you live in Los Angeles, you’re probably no more than 30 minutes away from a site where you can get started, exploring and stamping and on your way to Ranger-hood.

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photo credit: DenaliNPS

How it Works
The National Park Service created this program to get kids aged 5-13 interested in visiting more than 200 of its parks, preserves and monuments nationwide.  As part of the program, kids talk to Rangers, play games, go on hikes, do scavenger hunts, attend workshops and learn about the parks’ rich histories. Each park is different and the activities vary by park and age. Once your child completes the site-specific activity, they check in with the on-site Ranger and are rewarded with an official National Park Service Junior Ranger badge and certificate.

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photo credit: Zach Rosenberg

There are also “cancellation stamps” available in all National Parks, as well as monuments, preserves and anywhere there’s a visitor center. These stamps are dated and have the name of the site on them – much like the passport you’d take for international traveling. You can purchase a Passport book at each visitor center and begin collecting your ink stamps right away. It’s a fun way for kids to “check in” and begin collecting stamps from places near and far. Getting an ink cancellation stamp is free and the Passport book usually runs less than $10. The Passport book also contains maps and has information on each region, so your kids can read up on the ride to the next park.

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photo credit: Zach Rosenberg

Did you know that Yosemite National Park, which spans 747,956 acres, was one of the country’s first National Parks? But the 125 year-old Yosemite isn’t the only National Park in California. The rich history of California’s natives and settlers can be found all over the state, with plenty close to home. Los Angeles-area day trips include sites like Channel Islands National Park, Joshua Tree National Park and Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.national-parks-service-junior-rangers

photo credit: National Park Service

Within each National Park, there are specific areas of interest. Make sure when planning your visit to do your research in advance – the easiest way is by checking out the websites listed above and going to the “Plan Your Visit” menu, paying special attention to the “Places to Go” section. There you’ll find visitor centers listed and can call them individually and ask if they participate in the Junior Ranger program. Also, check the days and hours: some are only open weekdays, others are only open weekends.

Family at Rancho Sierra Vista

photo credit: Zach Rosenberg

Next Stop, SMM
Where to get started this summer? The closest options are the Santa Monica Mountains sites. You can find three nearby that will earn you stamps: Franklin Canyon Park in Beverly Hills, the Anthony C. Beilenson Interagency Visitor Center in Calabasas, and the Satwiwa Native American Indian Culture Center in Newbury Park. All of these parks areas have great areas for walking and hiking.  (Insider tip: remember not to wear sandals or flip-flops. Some trails are shared by horses, humans and occasionally snakes, so put the family in closed-toe shoes!)

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photo credit: National Park Service

Beyond the Border
If you have to drive to another state to visit family this summer (join the club!), take the exploring on the road. The Junior Ranger program is nationwide and a quick internet search will yield all of the local opportunities for Passport stamps and Junior Ranger program badges. If you’re off to visit your family in Kentucky, you can check out the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Park. If you hit Nebraska, visit the Agate Fossil Beds Monument. Florida? Big Cypress National Preserve or the Biscayne National Park. And Hawaii has Pearl Harbor. Even if you find yourself in Alaska, your kids can check out the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve and get themselves a Junior Ranger badge. Once your kids get their first badge, they might even take the reins and hunt down the next stop (near or far) in their Passport book’s maps.

NPS Junior Ranger Program

photo credit: Zach Rosenberg

Just because school is out, it doesn’t mean the learning stops.  This is a great way for kids to have fun, explore nature and learn more than they realize (sneaky, sneaky parents) as they collect badges, stamps, pictures and stories about our nation’s National Parks.

Get started online at: nationalparks.org/connect/npf-kids/junior-rangers

-Zach Rosenberg

Have you got a junior ranger at home?  What’s your favorite national park or monument?