Ranger Lisa and young scientists explore Big Cypress Natural Preserve in Florida.


Tribune Media Services

The best souvenirs are free.

Just ask my young cousins Ethan Sitzman, 6, and his sister Hannah, 4, proudly showing off their National Park Junior Ranger badges in Arizona. Everyone who sees the kids with the badges prominently displayed on their shirts are effusive in their praise, which makes the kids all the more pleased with themselves.

The free Junior Ranger books — packed with age-appropriate activities — aren’t too shabby either. They kept Ethan and Hannah busy offering a mixture of geology, Native American history, and animal questions and pictures, while their parents and I recently enjoyed an unexpectedly relaxing dinner with them at the Grand Canyon’s historic El Tovar hotel. I spied other kids at neighboring tables busily working on their books, eager to finish the required activities so they could be sworn in as Junior Rangers before they left the park.
“The Junior Ranger program gets them interested in what they are seeing,” explained Seattle resident Sean Moriarty, visiting the Grand Canyon with her daughters Rory and Kyra. “It’s exciting for them to learn something and then be able to spot things left and right!”

Saturday, April 25 is National Junior Ranger Day, the culmination of National Park Week, and more than 225 National Park Service sites will host special activities — everything from learning nautical skills at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, joining military drills at Civil War sites and learning how to “leave no trace” at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. (Visit www.nps.gov/npweek for a list of activities at a national park or historic site near your home.)

I’m convinced there’s no better way to spur a child’s interest in nature and national parks than these 300-plus Junior Ranger programs around the country, which draw some 500,000 kids every year. At the Grand Canyon, their Junior Ranger books and pencils in hand, Ethan and Hannah checked off the rocks they’d seen (smooth, flat, bigger than you!), played Canyon Bingo, placing an X on what they’d seen — a ranger, a raven, a recycle symbol — drew their own pictograph, as ancient people might have painted on rocks. They even sat quietly, eyes closed, “listening” to the sounds of the canyon.

There are different activities for different ages. And this summer, Junior Ranger “ambassadors” — college interns — will initiate some 30 new programs — everywhere from cruise ships in Glacier Bay, Alaska to Independence Hall in Philadelphia to Yosemite National Park in California. “There is a real push to get kids up and outside and into nature,” said Wendy Davis, the educational program coordinator for the National Park Service.

Parents, including first lady Michelle Obama, who used the activities at the White House Easter egg roll to teach children fun ways to exercise their minds and bodies, certainly would agree. “Getting kids outside is the most important thing for me,” said Katie Dorschel, from suburban Denver, as she hunted fossils with her two young sons, Franklin and Sam. They were on a ranger-led fossil walk with 50 other parents and kids, many clutching their Junior Ranger books.

“You don’t always need a rollercoaster,” added Debi Fieri, who had driven eight hours from Oceanside, Calif., to tour the Grand Canyon with her family over spring break. They were staying at a hotel just outside the park that provided free breakfast and made themselves brown bag lunches to keep their vacation spending down. “There’s a lot to see in the wilderness,” she said.

This year, the National Park Service (www.nps.gov) anticipates more than 275 million visitors to the 391 parks, historic sites and wilderness areas — more than 1 million more people than last year. Where else can you get so much bang for your family vacation buck — world-class sites, reasonably priced lodging (and camping sites) and plenty for you and the kids to do together — whether they’re four or 14.

Of course, thanks to the Web, you can get them started — and motivated — before you even leave home with WebRanger (www.nps.gov/webranger) the National Park Service’s online Junior Ranger program. More than 72,000 kids from 106 countries are registered, reports Tom Davies, who manages the site. Teachers have also begun to use it.

On the WebRanger site, kids are encouraged to post their own park stories and pictures. “We shared trivia around the campfire … it was fun for me and my sister just to hang out at the campsite,” Auliyana wrote about a trip to Acadia National Park in Maine.

Kjojo, another WebRanger, wrote about a friend’s not so pleasant interaction with a squirrel. “We all came to the conclusion that it attacked her because people feed them too much.”

These Web musings are a long way from the first “Junior Nature School” at Yosemite National Park in the early ’30s, acknowledges Wendy Davies. To this day, though, each park develops individual programs to interpret and celebrate that park’s story and surroundings to “tell the story of America’s natural and cultural history,” said Dan Wenk, acting director of the National Park Service. He praises the Junior Ranger program as, “The National Park Service’s signature program for children.”

By the end of our Grand Canyon fossil walk, Ethan and Hannah (with her brother’s help, he made sure everyone knew) had at last finished the required activities to become Junior Rangers.

“Do you promise to do your part as a Junior Ranger and discover all you can about Grand Canyon National Park?” asks veteran Ranger Marker Marshall.

“Do you promise to share your discoveries and pledge to protect the Grand Canyon and the other parks and to be a friend of the planet Earth?”

The kids nod solemnly. They clutch their new certificates and pin those shiny badges on their fleece jackets, along with the stickers Ranger Marshall gives them.

Before we leave the Grand Canyon that day, Ethan and Hannah clean up, souvenir wise — everything from Grand Canyon key chains with their names on them, storybooks about animals who poop in the park, national park pins to put on their stuffed animals and the requisite T-shirts and hats.

But nothing, they agree, is better than those Junior Ranger badges.

I hope in a decade or so they find them stuck in the back of a drawer someplace — as we have in our house — and smile.