Last week marked a couple of trip milestones for us. We entered California, our first time in a west-coast state. More excitingly, though, we crossed our halfway point: #30 of 59 parks.
As we’ve gone about planning out each of these thirty parks, we have used a couple of approaches. Some we plan out well in advance, some we plan out as we drive there, and sometimes, we have zero plans until we are standing at the visitor center counter. It’s hard to plan 59 consecutive vacations in a row in advance, so we’ve learned to be flexible and plan on the fly.
One way we schedule out our days at the parks is by basing our time around ranger programs. We’ve tried to attend at least one guided program or lecture at each park when they are available, and we’ve had amazing experiences. We knew we wanted to write more about ranger programs, so it was our mission to attend as many at Joshua Tree as we could squeeze in.
Here are a few facts that apply to ranger programs at the national parks:
- They are free (with a couple of exceptions)
- They are led by knowledgeable rangers
- The topics range from history to geology to astrology
- The difficulty level ranges from very easy to very strenuous
Most parks offer some kind of ranger programs at least during their peak season. Depending on the park, there are several types of ranger programs available:
- Short educational talks
- Short guided walks
- Drop-in programs
- Evening programs
- Junior Ranger programs
- Long guided hikes
- Exclusive-access programs
- Larger events
- Centennial challenges
Joshua Tree offered almost all of these types of programs, so we thought this would be a great time to chat about one of our favorite things about the national parks: the ranger programs.
- Short educational talks: If nothing else, most national parks offer an opportunity to get acquainted with the park through a short lecture. These often occur daily in a casual “porch talk” atmosphere, with rangers chatting about the park nearby the visitor center. This is convenient for getting oriented to the park, as well as get quick interesting facts about why the park is important and how it protects the environment. Sometimes, short talks occur away from the visitor center at a popular point of interest. In Joshua Tree, daily porch talks are available at all three visitor centers and provide information about how the park became protected through the hard work of Minerva Hoyt, and about the famous Joshua Trees.
- Short guided walks: Next popular in the parks are these short guided walks, which add just a little active element to the educational talks. Rangers likely stop often along a short hike to chat about various topics. These are structured and allow for time to ask any questions you may have about the park. At Joshua Tree, we attended an interesting walk called “I Speak for the Trees,” which focused on all things Joshua Tree, to the tune of Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax.” We also learned all about the geology of the park and how the rocks get their spherical sculpted look from a 1 1/2-hour walk called “Joshua Tree Rocks!” which I appreciated.
- Drop-in programs: These are much more rare, but super flexible. Since we are immersing ourselves so deeply in each park we visit, we often have burning questions that can quickly be answered via these drop-in programs, which plops a ranger in a point of interest for a few hours to be available for random questions. Very helpful! Joshua Tree offered a 2-hour drop-in program at the Cholla Garden (a place that inspired a lot of questions from us).
- Evening programs: When you sleep and wake with the sun, you tend to appreciate anything going on at night. Most park campgrounds offer evening ranger talks covering various topics. If you are already staying in the campground, these can be a fun way to add a little entertainment to your stay. The Joshua Tree evening programs we attended in Cottonwood Campground were very good: one covering constellation legends and one covering the park’s creepiest animals.
- Junior Ranger programs: While we don’t have personal experience completing these, we’re always a little jealous of the kids who work through them. These are available at every park and most NPS sites. Usually, you are given a booklet and tasks to complete (like going on a hike and joining in a ranger program) that earn you a badge when completed. We peeked at the JR booklet at Joshua Tree (very fun) and we also saw they had a junior-rangers only guided program offered.
- Long guided hikes: For more seasoned hikers who want a workout or simply more time with a ranger, a longer guided hike can be more enjoyable than a short one. These can vary greatly, and can sometimes last all day, so always read the description and difficulty level. We joined a ranger for a three-mile hike to Mastadon Peak in Joshua Tree, and though it was nice for most visitors, we found ourselves wanting to go faster and beat the crowds of middle-school kids that we followed through the trail. Parks offer very interesting options, and we’re excited to join a ranger in Kenai Fjords for an 8-hour glacier hike.
- Exclusive-access programs: As opposed to most other ranger programs, even long ones, exclusive-access programs are not free. Some parks have areas that are not open for self-guided exploration. This frequently happens in caves throughout the system and historic areas of parks like Mesa Verde, but several other parks have areas like this too. In the middle of Joshua Tree, near Hidden Valley, there is a locked-gate road that leads back to Keys Ranch, and requires a ranger-led tour to access. Tickets are $10, but were well worth it in our opinion. The 1 1/2-hour program was a tour of the fascinating Keys Ranch, which belonged to one of the most successful ranchers in the area. (Read more about it here)
- Larger events: Especially during this centennial year, many parks have larger events going on. Some of these are annual, like the Astronomy Festival in Great Basin, and some are centered around a specific event, like centennial celebrations. We know that Joshua Tree has an annual Night Sky Festival every October, and also is planning specific events for the park service’s centennial celebration in August.
- Centennial challenges: And, speaking of the centennial, a few parks also offer fun separate challenges for this centennial year. We encountered this at a few parks already, like in Big Bend, so we knew to check at Joshua Tree. Park to park, these challenges can be completely different. Joshua Tree is celebrating with a Hiking Challenge, requiring you to record your miles in a provided booklet. Once you hit 5, 10, 25, 50, and 100 miles total, you receive a sticker. It’s just a fun time.
Ranger programs exist for a reason. They are for us! Every once in awhile they are cheesy. Sometimes they are something you already know. But overwhelmingly, ranger programs are well worth the time and effort. You get time to ask a ranger questions. You get secrets about the park. You get oriented.
And, who knows, you just might learn something. 🙂