Geek’s Guide to National Parks

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BioBlitz – Photo by NPS

Last week, President Obama launched “Every Kid in a Park” –  a new initiative to provide every 4th grader and their families free access to national parks. Each 4th grader will receive a special pass in September, good for access to all 405 sites across the nation. The President is also pledging $45 million dollars to support field trips and new resources for K-12 students. Interest in parks is by no means waning – a whopping 293 million people visited national parks in 2014.

I’ve already had amazing experiences with my 4-year-old son at parks – from camping to hiking and beyond. But too often, a visit to a national park is simply a tourist venture – a shallow experience just visiting the few key landmarks. Ok – you may not be able to fly your drone at parks, but there is amazing nerdery still available, if you know where to look and when to go. Here’s a short roundup of some of my favorites, but feel free to share yours in the comments.

Field Trips & Youth Programs
Junior Rangers
Virtually every national park offers a junior ranger program for kids 5-13. While the workbooks can feel dated, most of the programs offer kids a chance to interact with a ranger and participate in guided walks. Yosemite’s (CA) annual Earth Day celebration is especially wonderful, with opportunities to see brown bear pelts, participate in clean ups, and go on special bike rides. For the wee ones, there are resources from Sesame Street including activity guides for home.

Summer Camps and Adventures
For middle and high school kids, there are numerous opportunities for more immersive camps and expeditions. Yellowstone (WY) offers a 5-day expedition, which includes field explorations, wildlife journals, and unparalleled access within the park.  If I could turn back time, I’d jump at the chance to join ParKids, a week-long experience camping, boating, and caving in Carlsbad Caverns (NM).

Third-party non-profits have partnered with parks to deliver special scientific experiences, like NatureBridge, which hosts summer field research backpacking adventures for high school students. Acadia National Park recently established a new program focused on bringing more technology into the park led by a group of local teens.

Electronic Field Trips
Can’t make it to a park? Bring the park to you with virtual explorations for both students and teachers. The program is a few years old with much of the archived content not in HD. Luckily, Ken Burns recent documentary and YouTube channel 58NationalParks have you covered with stunning footage.

Citizen Science
Citizen science is a catch-all for scientific research project involving non-professionals, with projects ranging from counting pollinators to identifying new galaxies. Within National Parks, there are many opportunities being appropriate for families.
Any discussion of citizen science in parks starts with, the premier app for recording what you see in the environment. There are numerous great guides for different flora and fauna in parks. Each is filled with scientific information, including great pics and taxonomy.

Glacier National Park
Glacier NP Climate Change

Glacier National Park (MT) is literally melting away before our eyes due to climate change, with only 25 glaciers remaining down from 150 in 1850. There are numerous efforts underway to track how this change is affecting local species and track invasive plants. My favorite is the High Country Citizen Science project, which provides training to spot and track mountain sheep and goats. It does requires some photography skills and a commitment, but this is an excellent way to teach climate change while tracking some of the cutest species in parks.

BioBlitz 2015 at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park May 15-16
Each year, National Geographic hosts a mega citizen science day in a different national park. Volunteers and scientists team up for a weekend of inventorying species, tracking lava flows, and even conducting biological analyses. 2014’s celebration in Golden Gate National Recreation Area (CA) included a 2-day hands-on nature festival and species inventory blitz that identified 2,300+ species (80 new to the park). Numerous scientific organizations collaborate on the blitz leading to novel opportunities, like the first ever tree canopy survey of the redwoods in Muir Woods National Monument (CA).

Night Sky at Great Basin NP - Photo by NPS
Night Sky at Great Basin NP – Photo by NPS

I live in the heart of San Francisco. With Karl the Fog and light pollution, I’m lucky to see two dozen stars on any night. The parks offer some of the best night sky viewing in the nation. Great Basin National Park (NV) holds an annual astronomy festival in early September, featuring talks, night sky photography workshops, and lots and lots of telescopes. Supposedly, there are 15,000 visible stars on a clear night, due to the altitude and 360º unobstructed view.

Bryce Canyon (UT) hosts 100 astronomy programs a year, with 3 night viewings every week in the summer/fall. While it may be remote, you can even catch a glimpse of the Northern lights in Denali (AK) in the early spring, fall, and winter.

LARPing in Parks

Civil War Days at Fort Point – Photo by NPS

The NPS has 71 historical sites and battlefields representing different aspects of the Civil War. Officially, the NPS doesn’t support reenactments on its land, but many parks host “living history” days with authentic activities and role players. In March, the Civil War Trust sponsors an annual park day, a day of service and learning at dozens of sites throughout the park system. Living history volunteers at Andersonville National Historic Site (GA), the largest Confederate prison site, provide visitors an experience as Union prisoners of war at Camp Sumter. They have a 20-page guide that covers period appropriate fashion, weapons, and language for their celebrations. While not technically in the park, Gettysburg holds a large reenactment adjacent to the park ever July 4th weekend. There are numerous family activity tents ranging from civil war medicine to military fashion.

This barely scratches the surface of the amazing opportunities available within parks. As the National Park Service turns 100 in 2016, I hope you find a way to use them as a laboratory for learning over the next year.

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