We had just dipped our feet into the Colorado River in Rocky Mountain National Park when a moose sauntered up to the other side for a drink. Fun fact: a moose can run up to 35 miles per hour. A barefoot family of four cannot. We took mental pictures while scurrying, shoes in hand, to a safer spot.
My 4-year-old twins, Cooper and Addie, were thrilled -- not just because they'd had a close encounter with something big and furry, but also because they could now check off one more critter in their Junior Ranger scavenger hunt.
My family was at the start of a vacation camping and hiking in a half- dozen national parks, and when the reality of living out of an oversize tent and eating PB&Js as the twins begged incessantly for s'mores started to sink in, my wife, Liz, and I had decided to give Rocky Mountain's Junior Ranger program a try. The scavenger hunt is typical of the activities offered: designed to encourage stewardship, it gets kids excited about exploring the 415-square-mile park by making it a game, one that involves spotting bear poop and yellow-bellied marmots.
More than 300 national parks offer Junior Ranger programs. Families pick up a booklet at the visitors' center (most are free; some are available for a nominal fee). Then they work their way through the pages and the park, tackling challenges, participating in ranger- led activities, and, prompted by questions in the booklet, interviewing rangers about the landscape, the wildlife, and the park service in general. The difficulty level of the activities is scaled to the child's age. Younger kids (ages 4 to 8) might just be looking for chipmunks, for example, while older kids (ages 9 to 12) are looking for specific species of chipmunk and learning about a park's ecosystems. If a child completes the program, she earns a badge and becomes an official Junior Ranger.