14 national parks in a fortnight
With the school year back in full session, it can be a nice breath of fresh air to reminisce about summer vacation. Going to the beach or cabin filled many kids' calendars in the summer months, but for Red Wing fifth-grader Flora Wegner, 14 days of summer were filled by visiting 14 national parks and monuments.
Flora spent 14 days on the road with her parents, Stacy and Luke Wegner, travelling the country courtesy of Every Kid in a Park. A variety of agencies in the U.S. government support the program, allowing fourth-graders the opportunity to visit any national park, land or water free of charge during the school year or the summer after the student finishes fourth grade.
"Right now every fourth-grader in Red Wing could apply for the program," Stacy said. "It's nice because it not only gets the child in (the parks) for free, but the parents, too."
The Wegners left Red Wing on Aug. 10 and started their journey in the Badlands of South Dakota, with a few stops at area highlights Wall Drug, the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D., and the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. After the Badlands, the Wegners went to Devil's Tower National Monument, museums in Cody, Wyo., Yellowstone National Park for three days, Grand Teton National Park, Flaming Gorge National Park, Rocky Mountain National Monument, then camped in Loveland, Colo., drove to Guernsey, Wyo., for the solar eclipse — which was in the zone of totality — and then started making their way back home.
Junior Ranger Program
Upon entering the Badlands, the family was introduced to another program that gave extra meaning to their trip — the Junior Ranger.
"We were aware of the Junior Ranger Program, but just had forgotten about it until we went to that first park," Luke said.
The idea behind the program is to give kids a chance at learning more about the parks while visiting. Unlike Every Kid in a Park, the Junior Ranger Program can be done by kids of any age capable of completing the required workbook. Once the workbook is completed, the child is eligible to receive a badge.
"Some of the books rangers have you say: 'as a Junior Ranger I promise to appreciate, respect and protect the national park and all wild places wherever I go,'" Flora said. "But there are different ones, I think every Junior Ranger badge that I got that I got sworn into had a different pledge."
There's more to the workbooks than just saying a pledge though. Junior Rangers are encouraged to get outside and search for objects while hiking, do puzzles and mazes, and more.
"They had all of these activities but you're learning about the park," Stacy said. " They even had a 90-something-year-old Junior Ranger at Yellowstone."
"Sometimes you had to go through caves," Flora added. "Like the one from Jewel Cave (National Monument) which had you figure out what you should and shouldn't do while exploring a cave."
What struck the family most, is how the Junior Ranger Program took on a life of its own.
"It became sort of a mission or a quest to find all of these things to find and cram into our vacation," Stacy remarked.
"Once we started getting them (park ranger badges), it was kinda fun to do the book and work on them and learn," Luke added. "I thought it was kinda cool to get as many of them as we could."
"I got two wood badges, one from Pipestone and another from Grand Teton National Park," Flora said. "I got two patches — one from Yellowstone with the buffalo on it and then the other is from Flaming Gorge. A lot of them are plastic ones, but they are still really cool."
Stacy said that one of the most interesting tasks Junior rangers had to do was locate another Junior ranger in the park. It was easy for other JUNIOR RANGERS to find Flora since she had so many badges on her hat.
Every summer vacation creates memories that will last a lifetime, and Flora was quick to name quite a few highlights.
"It was all really, really fun. I do recommend going (on Every Kid in a Park)." Flora said. "I liked going to Colorado National Monument because we were up so high. I took a video going all the way down and it was like six minutes and 30 seconds long. There were some sites that it was like 'here it is and there is the dropoff.'
"At Yellowstone I got to see Old Faithful shoot off twice and my dad saw it three times and near Custer, (S.D.), there was a scenic wildlife trail and as we were driving up a hill there was a buffalo walking up it near us."
Flora was just as excited to greet her friends as the Wegners arrived back in Red Wing, though. As excited as she was to see her friends, Flora said she would recommend any fourth-grader who likes the outdoors to go to any national park. Helping to put the trip into perspective, Stacy added that anyone can make the trip happen thanks to Every Kid in a Park.
""We couldn't have done this without the Every Kid in the Park pass," she said. "I don't know how much money we saved."
To apply for the program, visit www.everykidinapark.gov/get-your-pass/, fill out a questionnaire and you will receive a digital printout proving that you registered. The fourth-grader will receive a pass at the first park visited.