Junior Ranger Programs at National Parks

Leaving Phoenix - Carlsbad Caverns (10)
Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico


We LOVE national parks.  We have never been disappointed in our visits to these spectacular pieces of our country.  They are well-preserved natural habitats.  The cost to get into the park are a small fraction of the amount of things to do and see and experience.  It is well worth the money!

At EVERY major national park, there is a Junior Ranger program for the kids to complete Usually it is free, although we did have to pay a couple of bucks for one at the Smokey’s because there was not park entrance fee.  There are usually 2 different programs, one for readers (6 yrsold-12) and one for younger children.

Tennessee - Jackson takes a photo of black bearTaking a picture of a bear for his Junior Ranger Program.Our first stop at a National Park is always a visitors center.  We watch a movie, see some of the displays, grab a map, talk to the rangers about kid-friendly outings or any info we need to know and then ask for a Junior Ranger Program.  The kids work on these activities in the car and on our outings.  On our way out of the park, they like to return to any visitors center, show the activities they’ve completed and be ‘sworn in’ as a junior ranger to get their ranger badge.

Olympic Nation Park - Under the Tree
Olympic National park



Getting Sworn in at the Everglades National Park, Hats and all!

They are all specific to the things they will be seeing in that park and have pictures, puzzles, games and kid-friendly information.  I feel like these are most secretive than they should be!   You always have to ask for them and the rangers are usually like, “Oh yeah!  Those!”  why don’t they just have them out to take?  Anyway, my mission is to get the word out to our junior members of society to make our trips to National parks more meaningful and memorable!


Maine - Hallie & Jackson in the Forest
Acadia National Park Junior Rangers
Hawaii - Family at the Lava Tube (2)
Hawaii Volcano National Park Junior Rangers


The Folly of Flying by the Seat of our Pants

MOST of the time, I love last minute planning and ‘on the fly’ adventure travel.  Usually, we find awesome places and things to do and see.  When we finish a trip, I frequently say that deciding on the spot made the trip better than pre-planning it.  However, our most recent trip showed us the disadvantages of not planning, preparing and researching carefully for a trip.IMG_1685

As we drove toward the ocean, swimsuits on and ready to rock the waves,  I looked up family-friendly beaches in Miami. I had heard that some beaches that were nude, gay, party  beaches, etc.  So I thought I would make sure it was family friendly.  Those 2 words should do the trick, right?

South Beach came up as the most popular IMG_1686beach; NOT to be missed.  I also read about a little park, Lummox park, on 12th street and Ocean, that is a great place for kids to play around.  Seemed like a no-brainer.  My husband dropped the kids and I off at the park.  I sun-screened everyone while they played and he parked the car.  Together, we went right behind the park to the ocean.

All the ingredients for a successful day on the beach were present.  Hot sun…check; rolling waves… check; warm water….check; gorgeous, clean sand…. check;

We were absorbed in keeping our family together and finding a quick place to plant our stuff so we didn’t have to roll the stroller through sand any longer than absolutely necessary.

IMG_1683We plopped down, spread out our stuff and the kids and I ran to the ocean as fast as we could.  Dave was occupied getting Whitney to stop crying and go to sleep despite the heat and sun.  It was a moment of chaos for our family.  And thus, we were completely oblivious to those around us.

When things finally calmed down and we looked around, we piece-by-piece discovered that we had unknowingly stumbled on to the gay-est beach in town.   To our left, there were hundreds and hundreds of male couples sunbathing in speedos and short-shorts.  To our right, lesbian couples tanned.  The four lesbians right next to us (like 5 feet away) were sunbathing topless facing up. There wasn’t a child to be seen for miles.  Men in skimpy swimwear showing tanned skin and feminine walk, chatted gayly (and I mean that in the happiest way).   Women in thong bikini bottoms (*and by bottoms, I mean they didn’t actually have a bottom) caressed their partners.

We slowly realized that we had just planted our family in the middle of people who were not wanting to see a big Mormon-family with tons of kids running around.  We felt so out-of-place with our 4 kids, a baby, our white un-toned bodies, my one-piece workout swimsuit and missionary hair-cuts.   While those around us were lathering their bronzed bodies with bathing oils and donning the latest fashion sunglasses, we were sun-screening around hand-me-down stretched-out kid’s suits in the shade of our just given-to-us-umbrella.  The closest I came to fitting in was when I breastfed– without my cover on!  While we were not exactly shunned,  several couples obviously picked up their stuff and moved 20 feet down the beach, away from our noisy children.  We realized we were in the minority (or rather the ONLY) and felt very uncomfortable.   But, because we only had an hour before we had to head out to the airport, we just stayed put and tried to enjoy the beach despite our obvious differences.

See the wide space we were given on a crowded beach?  How nice, right?

True to form, and much to our chagrin on every other part of our trip, our kids were oblivious to the people around them.  They didn’t seem to notice anyone or anything except the waves, water, sand and toys.  They didn’t miss having other kids to frolic in the waves with (but did miss the same-gender couples making out in the ocean because I started a seaweed war to distract them).   My 4-year-old did beg to take her swimsuit top off, but as far as I could tell, that’s all they noticed.

As we left the beach, we were still wondering if it was, in fact, a gay beach or a special event or WHY there were so many in that area.  We then noticed the rainbow flags flying loud and clear and soon learned via google that 12th street beach is the #1 Gay beach in Florida (and has been for 25 years).  So glad we didn’t miss it, LOL!

And someday we will tell our children the story of the day we took our family to the Gay Miami beach.

A day in Seattle

We arrived in Seattle late at night (2 am our time) and crashed in a slummy hotel just north of the airport.  No problem, it had 2 large king sized beds, a kitchenette (which we didn’t use) and free breakfast which is the only thing our kids need to be happy.  I crashed putting the girls to sleep and Dave fell asleep with Jackson.  We both spent the night uncomfortably being kicked in the back by our children.  We usually help them fall asleep separately and then move them… note to self.. ALWAYS move the kids together!

At 5 am I was up (it is 8 am our time)  I started using my phone and next thing I know my 3-year-old is next to me and in the most motherly voice said, “It’s not time to use your phone, Its TIME to be in bed!”  I promptly obeyed and headed back to bed with her.  She fell asleep for another hour until everyone started waking up around 6:30.  I am always proud if my kids sleep past 7 or 8 our time.  When I was a young and inexperienced traveler, I would stress and worry about the amount of sleep my kids got, now I know that tired and not well rested kids are just part of the first days of travel and I try not to stress about what I can’t change and try harder to be prepared to help them through those tired times.

You know your living in a high class motel when you can only shower from the belly button down!

1. Pike’s Market Place

We started the morning where everyone told us to go, Pikes Place Market.  I must not have done enough research, because I expected only a fish market with workers singing and moving all over the place (‘FISH‘ book anyone?) But really it is a multilevel giant mall, with portions of it being in open air on one side of it.  We entered from the parking garage on the water side We really struggled finding the center famous part of it.

TIP#1 : Use the downtown parking website or app:  This helps you know the cost of parking and where to find close parking anywhere downtown.  It saved us at least $10!


Mini Donuts for breakfast (because the toast and jam and muffins at the hotel weren’t enough carbs to start the day)


This picture is a great memory because the kids were all sorts of worried about these fish  here, they wouldn’t approach them and they kept asking if they were dead.  I assured them they were and told them to get in a picture with me.  They reluctantly joined me, but kept their eye on the fish.  Then right before the picture this fish in the background jumped up!  Scared the kids (and me) to death.  The kids went screaming and crying away as the stranger with the phone snapped this.  Turns out the fish is attached to a chain and can be pulled from the other side of this display.  We had all sorts of fun with it later on (after the tears were dried).  and other families got their laughs and giggles as we pulled it and scared their kids… so pay it forward!


I finally convinced one of the kids to touch a fish.
Rosie the Bronze piggy bank found around the area.

Once the day got going, the market was really crowded (and this was a Thursday morning.  We had trouble staying together with so much to look at and so many people.  The kids were begging for lots of things and my husband stopped to buy Brats and Salmon (packed with lots of ice so it could last until dinner time). We ended up walking on the outside of the market and looking at the sculptures and bridges from the market to the other side of the street.

2. Gum Wall

This really is just a part of the market place, since it is just down the stairs from the central fish market.  The gum wall was gross!  I thought I would really like it, but I was grossed out.  Luckily,.my kids are old enough to NOT TOUCH when I commanded it!
We all left our mark. The kids just liked that we got to chew gum!

TIP: Bring gum or buy it before going down.  We left ours in the car and bought more in a shop upstairs.  BRING SANITIZER!

We wandered down the hall of the market and Dave found some German Brats we bought by the link, so we tried every kind.  Jackson of course ordered the Italian one.  Our hotel had a grill so we planned on making it for dinner that night.  We also bought some king Salmon to complete the random meal.

Seattle was so interesting!  We found art pieces, waterfalls, sculptures etc all around the city.

3. Waterfront

Behind Pikes Place we wandered down to the waterfront.  It was beautiful and there was ping pong, the giant ferris wheel ($13/adults $9/kids), the Puget sound and the aquarium ($25/adults, $17/kids)  if interested.  There was also a really cool blue path that I thought would be fun to bike if the kids were bigger.  We only spent 30 minutes enjoying the sites and sounds of the area and didn’t spend a dime (except in our parking that went over by 2 minutes and we paid another $3.)




This was part of the waterfront and the building the the back is the aquarium.
Another interesting sculpture.  Always something fun to look at here!

TIP: Bring a Sack lunch and eat on the provided picnic table with a fantastic view and the kids can roam or play ping pong.

4. Hiram Chittenden locks

We parked at the “locks’ and realized the kids and I were really hungry.  The place to eat only had fish and chips and I wasn’t sure how that would go over with the kids, but they loved it!  It always makes me a little nervous to take my picky eaters to new towns so I pack a lot of snacks, but I love finding food they will eat!

We then headed through a nice little park to see the Hiram Chittenden locks (free) where the ships enter and it fills up or lets out water to move them from one lake/canal to another.  We were there just in time to see a few boats rise within minutes.  The kids thought it wasn’t real, so it was fun to try to explain it.

Unfortunately, we missed the salmon swimming upstream season by a week, but there are windows into the canal so you can see the fish trying to jump up the stream to get back to their nesting ground.  We saw a few fish swimming around. IMG_20160721_125450536_HDR

TIP: Research the weeks that Salmon are running and this would be more entertaining

5. Discovery Park

We headed across the canal to Discovery park (Free)  I didn’t realize that during the week you have to check out a parking pass to go down to the beach and lighthouse.  There are only 8 parking passes!  One was expected back within 45 minutes so we decided to wait.  There was a small, but fantastic kids play area with puppets, tunnels and a few other things to look at and do.  It was a perfect down time for us and the kids.  The parking pass came right as we were ready to go and we headed out to the Puget sound for some tide pools.

TIP: Research when the tide goes out and get a parking pass early if possible. IMG_20160721_133116045

The water was coming in.  I didn’t see much of anything in the tide pools, but the kids liked exploring.  We walked around the lighthouse and it was much colder and windier around the point.  There were some great views and the kids always love a beach. IMG_2337

6. Seattle Center: International Fountain

We headed back down town for Seattle Center.  Here you can find the children’s museum ($10/person), the space needle($22/adults, $14/kids), Chihuly glass garden($27/adult, $16/kids), the international fountain (free) and lots of art and gardens (free) to see and explore.

This international fountain was amazing.  Look at the little people next to it.  Even though I had researched it I thought it was a small splash pad.  It is HUGE.  The fountain is choreographed to music so it is unpredictable and exciting.  One song the fountain sent water spraying SO high I got wet sitting above it and a hundred yards away.  It was so entertaining and fun.  Despite the weather being mild (in our humble Texas opinion) the kids were delighted to get soaked and run and play.  Such a great time was had here.  (and yes, my daughter is picking her nose for the pic… reality of having kids)

TIP: Swimsuits and a towel on hand would’ve been great!  It worked out just fine since kids are amazing, but if you are more prepared, stash some suits in your pack.IMG_2347

The space needle was a bit underwhelming.  It wasn’t nearly as high as I thought it would be.  The cost was astronomical though, so we passed.

We went into a “Center of the center” Seattle armory to find a restroom and in the process saw a lunch area with a bunch of places to eat.  There were giant games set out to play for free.  Giant scrabble (complete with beanbags for participants, connect 4, chess, checkers and other games).  I wish we had time to stay and eat and play.  Looked like a blast (for free too!).  We met a balloon guy and left the center with happy kids, ready for a rest.

TIP: Eat lunch or dinner at the Armory while the kids can be free to roam and play games here. IMG_20160721_153907039_HDR

 7.  Ferry ride across the Puget Sound

An hour ferry ride getting across the Puget sound would take 1 1/2 hours (waiting time) and driving all the way around would take 1 1/2 hours.  I was so glad we opted for the more expensive ferry ride ($32), because it was a fantastic experience.  Mariah fell asleep on our drive to the ferry and was able to stay asleep in the car while we waited.  The kids and I explored around the ferry waiting area and looked at motorcycles and different cars (and changed into dry clothes).  IMG_2351IMG_2353The ferry views were indescribable.  Seeing the Seattle skyline and then the amazing homes along the Puget sound was so beautiful.   We even got to chat with a local about how his experience was moving from Cali to Seattle.  I loved getting an insider’s perspective.

Snacks to tide the kids over until dinner

8.  BBQ at the Hotel

You’ll have to  check with your hotel to see if they have a grill or eating area, we called while we were in line for Brats at the public Market.  Without any  intentional planning on our part, our hotel (we got free with Marriott hotel points) was only 3 minutes from the ferry port.  Once at our hotel, I  set up the hotel room and headed out to set up dinner near the grill, while Dave headed to the grocery store to get some extra fixings.  We couldn’t visit Seattle without a little rain, so with no warning and beautiful blue skies, the rain started falling moving our BBQ inside.

Our knight in shining armor tames the fire-breathing dragon for dinner.

Salmon, brats, chips, grapes, pickles and juice.  I LOVED having our own space to enjoy dinner together without having to get on the kids for perfect restaurant behavior.  This was the perfect end to our day.  We really wanted to swim, but it was late (and even later in TX) so we headed to bed with visions of Seattle city in our heads.  This time we split the kids up to fall asleep and then moved them together for the night.


In all of our travels, we’ve found that we don’t enjoy the city scene as much as others, so we tend to hit the main sites in a day or two and call it a success.  There were many family friendly venues we could’ve visited, but we felt like we got a great overview of this city in a full day of adventures (and only spent money on a bit of food, ferry ride and parking, maybe $65 total!!) and we were ready to take a road trip out to Olympic National park in the morning.