Ranger Programs

Seriously, these are both fun and educational, and cool for all ages beyond infants. No, really, even for that smirking pre-teen I see rolling his eyes at the monitor next to you Mom.

We attended four programs and recommend them all. Programs are free, scheduled events where a bunch of people and a Park Ranger gather at a particular spot and the Ranger leads a presentation on some topic. There is no hiking (unless stated in advance) and some are indoors while most are outside.

Grand Canyon ranger talk

The first program was aimed primarily at elementary school-aged kids and laid out the immensity of the span of geological time illustrated at the Grand Canyon. With a l-o-n-g rope held by a group of the kids present, the Ranger measured off the billions of years the earth took to cool, the years various geological events consumed, the patch when the dinosaurs occupied your subdivision and of course, at the end, the tiny nub at the end of the rope that represents humankind's tenure on earth. The Ranger then distributed Oreo cookies and encouraged the kids to let them get all mushy in the sun (not a problem). Once the cream started to melt, he had to kids break the top cookie piece and led them through a demonstration of plate tectonics, with creamy goodness standing in for lava. At the end the kids had to throw the cookies away. NO OF COURSE NOT! They got to eat them if Mom and/or Dad hadn't already eaten them and said yes.

Grand Canyon ranger talk

The second program was the best, all about fossils. We met our Ranger near the bus stop we had already used a bunch of times and he immediately showed us dozens of small fossils right nearby, stuff we walked past just the day before ‘cause we were too darn stupid to know a fossil when we saw one. Now keep in mind for your hyperactive 13 year old (don't worry, girls will replace dinosaurs as his principle focus soon) these are not T-Rex skeletons, but instead fossils of small sea plants and animals that used to rule the Grand Canyon ‘hood billions of years ago. Through some excellent discussion, the Ranger evoked for us, on a blazing hot July day, the image of the area around us under water, what was now desert instead dominated by a vast inland sea exploding with life. For every moment after the talk we saw the Grand Canyon in a new way, and found small fossils practically everywhere we looked that wasn't already paved over. Both our 8 and 12 year old ate this one up majorly.

Grand Canyon ranger talk

The third program we enjoyed was held inside, air conditioned with seats, at the Yavapai Visitor's Center. A Ranger talked in emotional detail about the “other” animals that shared the Grand Canyon with us, owls and mountain lions and all sorts of rodents and snakes. She told great stories of her own encounters with mountain lions, all tempered with pleasantly clear pleas for all of us to help conserve and preserve the wilderness around us. Nicely done. The cute animal part appealed to our younger kid and the conservation angle was interesting to the older heir.

The final program we saw was also at the Yavapai Visitor's Center and probably should have been one of the first things we did. A Ranger-Geologist explained the unique set of circumstances that resulted in the world's only Grand Canyon. Especially interesting was the explanation about all the different layers of rock-we had all been staring at the different layers and their colors for days without knowing what it all meant. The geologist also passed around softball-sized rock chunks from each layer, so even our younger kid had a hand in some active learning.

Rangers are Cool

I also owe you a word about the Rangers themselves. You'll bump into them at the programs of course, but you'll also see and talk with them throughout the park. They love what they do and are so into their topic in a (complimentary) geek-like way. If I had spent years of higher education studying geology and instead the main question I was asked 27 times a day was where the toilet is I might run amok and end up at the bus station drinking out of discarded wine bottles, but these folks are great.

If you kids (or you maybe) come away with an interest in becoming a Ranger, the Association of Park Rangers publishes a guide to becoming a National Park Ranger.

Junior Rangers

For younger kids, look into the Junior Ranger program. The kids sign up at the Visitor's Center and other locations (announced in the brochure you get when you enter the park) and receive a workbook-style activity book. They have to complete certain pages to qualify, but it is all sorted by age level and pretty easy stuff. You will need crayons or colored pencils for most kids, though color is not required, just better.

The kids also have to attend at least one Ranger programs, but these are worth doing no matter what. In the end your child gets to swear a very solemn oath with a Ranger and receives a certificate and badge.

While the Junior Ranger program is open to all kids ages 4-14, our 12 year old wanted no part of this. Our eight year old enjoyed it and the workbook kept her occupied during the “boring” parts of the lecture portions of the programs and gave her a focus for the trip. For kids much younger than eight the program would likely be a parent-child joint project. Junior Rangers are also entitled to purchase a Junior Ranger patch from some of the bookstores, but this is low-key without any sales pressure or hassle.

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