You’ve earned your share of merits: Best Birthday Party Planner, Most Patience Exercised, and Highest Rate of Clothing Changes Made in a Parking Lot Setting. Now let your kids earn their own stripes and have some fun in the process. The Junior Ranger program at Golden Gate National Parks may be America’s Best Idea for parents hoping to earn yet another merit badge for coolest parent ever.

The Scoop
The program is offered at three Bay Area parks: Alcatraz Island, Muir Woods and Marin Headlands. It’s easy, free of charge and available year-round. To become a Junior Ranger, kids are required to complete an activity book available at each park. To participate, simply show up and request a booklet from the park’s Visitor Center.

Marin-Headlands-Visitor-Center

photo credit: Fabrice Florin

How it Works
The book guides kids through a series of activities designed to lend context and purpose to their visit. Activities are delineated according to age groups: Younger kids sniff; older kids spell. And like all activities meant to inform children, parents end up learning cool new stuff as well. At Muir Woods, you’ll ponder the true awesomeness of the Sempervirens (Coast Redwoods). The Headlands booklet will have your kids comparing animal scat. And at Alcatraz, you’ll search cells for clues to solve a puzzle.

Alcatraz Activity Page

It’s a smart way to engage what otherwise might get tiresome for kids — especially little ones. You’ve certainly figured this out by now: the more your child is engaged, the less your watchful parent brain has to work. The book is a useful tool to allow both child and parent the ability to appreciate the splendor of each setting.

Muir-Woods

photo credit: Garrick Ramriez

Receive a Badge (and Other Cool Perks)
Upon completion — easily accomplished in an hour or so — budding rangers will hand in their completed activity book to the Visitor Center. They will then be awarded a Junior Ranger badge (a nifty wooden version of the real thing) as well as other items like a temporary tattoo, sew-on patch, and certificate (each park differs). A ranger will even swear in your child with hand on heart, oath recital, and everything.

Ranger-Swearing-in-Junior-Ranger

photo credit: DenaliNPS

Learn. Explore. Protect. That’s the noble credo of the Junior Ranger. Engage my child, please. That’s the credo of the Junior Ranger’s parent. But hey, if kids can be entertained while learning appreciation for nature and stewardship of our environment, that’s a truly magnificent thing. Like we said: America’s Best Idea.

How to Participate
Simply inquire in person at the Visitor Center of Muir Woods, Marin Headlands or Alcatraz. No need to call or reserve anything in advance. You can also download Activity Books online.

— Garrick Ramirez