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.
Cooper and Addie were just old enough to participate in the Rocky Mountain program, and I honestly thought they'd see the pamphlet as nothing more than a coloring book. But after meeting the moose up close and personal, they quickly turned their attention to the other creatures on the "must see" list, including elk, bighorn sheep, and grouse. We shut off the DVD player as we drove Trail Ridge Road and spotted more elk than we could count (Addie called them "reindeer"), meadows full of wildflowers, the snow-packed Continental Divide, and a host of moose (by the end of our stay, we'd tallied 20 in all). The kids used crayons to check off landmarks and animals on a colorful map.
Hiking to Emerald Lake, we stayed motivated with activities from the booklet. We played games, such as I Spy ("I spy something green and fuzzy." "Moss!"). Near the aptly named Dream Lake, we stepped off the trail, closed our eyes, and whispered to each other the different sounds we heard (flowing water, wind). We were lousy at finding animal tracks but excellent at finding poop. And in a particularly rocky section of trail, we finally spied the yellow-bellied marmot, which was so cute Cooper asked if we could take him home. "We could build him a cave to live in!" he suggested. After a ranger-led talk about park wildlife (we learned that bears can smell a hummingbird feeder four miles away), the kids were sworn in and, beaming, received their badges.
After that, Cooper and Addie were eager to sign up for Junior Ranger programs everywhere we went. At Canyonlands National Park in Utah, we picked up an Explorer Pack, a backpack containing a scavenger-hunt board game, a thermometer, workbooks, and binoculars. We searched for cactus and types of rock, and then (our own idea) tested the temperature of the sand (hot) and the car (scary hot).
A ranger taught us about the fragility of the desert's soil crust and the importance of staying on the trail and let the kids touch a dead cicada she had found. When you're 4 years old, any time you get to touch a dead bug, it's a good day. And for a parent, any time your kid pulls you through a hike while showing an interest in the wildlife and landscape, it's an even better day.
Weeks later, back home in North Carolina, we camped in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and worked through the most rewarding Junior Ranger program yet. The kids learned Cherokee words for corn (shay-lou) and bear (yo-nah), and interviewed a ranger in the field, asking questions about his uniform. Then we collected leaves and matched them to pictures in the activity booklet.
The big hit, though, was hunting for salamanders in a creek by our campsite. We missed the park-led hunt by a week, but a ranger kindly showed us the ropes. We took turns slowly turning over rocks while placing a disposable coffee cup on its side, in hopes one of the elusive amphibians would retreat into it from his hole. After a half hour of searching, the tiniest black salamander scurried into Cooper's cup. Addie declared him cute and named him "Sal" before we ceremoniously released him back into the wild. Success!
More than 300 national parks offer Junior Ranger programs. Here are three we tried:
Rocky Mountain National Park Search the Rockies for some of the most awe-inspiring animals in the Lower 48. Free; nps.gov/romo; 970-586-1206
Canyonlands and Arches National Parks Pick up your Explorer Pack -- a backpack full of tools and games -- at one of these parks and return it at the other (they're less than 30 miles apart). Free; nps.gov/cany; 435-719-2313
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Learn about the park's colorful history and search for bugs, salamanders, and wildflowers. $2.50 for booklet; nps.gov/ grsm; 865-436-1200
FREE DAYS: Admission is free at all 401 national parks April 19-20, in honor of National Park Week (other fees may apply).