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June 16, 2004 -- All the parks have ranger programs for children and adults, and some will even take the kids off your hands for an hour or two; but for an in-depth learning vacation, consider joining a field institute or camp such as these in and around Yosemite & Sequoia national parks.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Museum and Indian Village of Ahwahnee, next to the visitor center, Yosemite Village. No phone. Museum: Summer daily 9am-noon and 1-5pm; off season daily 9am-noon and 1-4:30pm. Indian Village: Open daylight hours.

    Ongoing talks and native craft demonstrations are the great attractions of this little museum. Our son was fascinated. The small gallery displays a collection of southern Miwok and Paiute artifacts. Outside, a nature trail re-creates the tribes' buildings and shows their ways. Families shouldn't miss it. Sometimes demonstrations take place there; other times, you can follow the self-guided path with a booklet. Another gallery, open daily 10am to noon and 1 to 4pm in the summer and sporadically the rest of the year, shows a collection of art on the valley or revolving exhibits.

Nature Center at Happy Isles, in the upper valley. Summer daily 10am-noon and 1-4pm; closed off season. Hours and seasons vary; check at the visitor center or log onto www.nps.gov/yose/trip.

    This one-room nature center has up-to-date exhibits on the park's plants and animals and on bear avoidance. Younger children may enjoy the animal dioramas, but it's not a hands-on place. The wooded streamside trails welcome a few minutes' ramble.

LeConte Memorial (tel. 209/372-4542). May-Aug Wed-Sun 10am-4pm. Closed Sept-Apr.

    The Sierra Club runs a library, a children's corner, and education programs (listed in the park newspaper) from this former visitor center.

Ansel Adams Gallery, next to the main visitor center (tel. 209/372-4413; www.adamsgallery.com). Summer daily 9am-6pm; off season daily 9am-5pm.

    Adams' black-and-white photographs of Yosemite helped to popularly define the area and made him one of our best-known photographers. The shop sells his prints and those of other photographers, as well as inexpensive gifts and cards.

Pioneer Yosemite History Center, on Hwy. 41, Wawona. No phone. Open-air displays always open. Check park newspaper for hours of demonstrations and coach rides.

    Kids enjoy this little village of old cabins and other buildings brought from all over the park, the covered bridge, and the collection of antique carriages. In July and August, Wednesday through Sunday, volunteers often dress in costume and play the roles of historic park figures. (Check the park newspaper-this is a volunteer program, and plans can change.) We talked with a blacksmith hammering away at a horseshoe. You can take a short stagecoach ride at times, too ($3 adults, $2 children 3-12). At other times, pick up the guide booklet to find your way around; it's not nearly as interesting without people in it.

Children's Programs

The Park Service, Sierra Club, Yosemite Institute, and Delaware North concession all offer programs for kids, which are listed with other family and adult programs in the Yosemite Today park newspaper and start from many different sites.

The park's Junior Ranger program takes two forms. In the summer, children can join a 2-hour ranger-led session for ages 7 to 13. At the end, participants receive a badge. Generally, parents have to go along. The other way for your children to earn a badge is by completing a booklet of activities, attending a ranger program such as a campfire, picking up trash, and handing in the work at a visitor center. The booklets, published by the Yosemite Association, are the Little Cub Handbook ($3), for ages 3 to 6, and the Junior Ranger Handbook ($5), for ages 7 to 13. These are excellent educational materials, spiral bound, printed on stiff paper, and amusingly illustrated, with activities that help children use their own senses to deepen their appreciation of the park, not the typical busy work you would want to do only on a rainy day. Pick up a copy for your children even if you don't intend to work toward a badge.

Family & Adult Programs

Check Yosemite Today for the schedule of programs at each park area offered by a variety of organizations. Park rangers lead activities at Yosemite Valley, Wawona, Mariposa Grove, Crane Flat, Big Oak Flat, White Wolf, and Tuolumne Meadows. Campfire programs take place nightly at many campgrounds. Many of the offerings are guided hikes that take much of the day and include casual natural history commentary. In Yosemite Valley, painting and photography classes for adults, families, and kids take place many summer days. Because some programs have size limits, check the park newspaper when you arrive to decide what you might want to do, and sign up at the visitor center.

Yosemite Theater -- Live dramatic performances take place several nights a week in the summer at the visitor center auditoriums. They're staged by professionals and sponsored the park concessionaire. Tickets cost less than a night at the movies. Shows last 60 to 90 minutes. Past performances have included music about the park and the environment -- great for kids -- and one-man shows on the life and thoughts of John Muir. The park newspaper lists times.

Yosemite Field Seminars

The Yosemite Association (tel. 209/379-2646; www.yosemite.org) offers dozens of hikes, natural history lessons, art and writing workshops, and backpacking trips that use the park as a classroom. The sessions, which typically last a few days, are offered from March through October. Only a few sessions are intended for families, but teens can join others with their parents when appropriate -- call and ask. A typical 3-day session is $225.

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

The new Giant Forest Museum, on Generals Highway in Giant Forest (tel. 559/565-4480), contains exhibits about the giant trees that surround it, their natural history, and how they are being protected. The museum occupies an old market in a park village that used to stand here among the sequoias (the park service wisely decided to demolish the other buildings to bring back the trees' natural setting). Hours are daily 9am to 4:30 pm year-round. Admission is free.

The Walter Fry Nature Center, in the Lodgepole campground (no phone), is a simple but engaging children's natural history museum, with hands-on displays that could keep a curious kid's attention for more than an hour. The center is the base for a children's program that's as good as any we encountered at the parks we visited; check there to find out what your kids can get involved in. The center is open in July and August, daily from 10am to 5pm. Admission is free.

Children's Programs

The rangers at the Walter Fry Nature Center, in the Lodgepole campground, run summer sessions that children enjoy and learn from. Programs change annually, but often a ranger leads a daily Kids' Walk for children ages 5 to 8, without other grown-ups along. Our son loved it. The park newspaper, the Sequoia Bark, lists times. Sign up in advance at the center. Outside the center, a campfire program just for kids takes place on summer afternoons.

The Junior Ranger program at Sequoia is simple and nicely pitched at the right age levels. The Jay Award is for children 5 to 8; it uses a booklet with activities that don't require much reading. The Raven Award, for ages 9 to 12, gets into more complex natural-history topics and involves more writing. In addition to the workbooks, kids collect trash and attend at least two programs or go on a nature walk; it's not difficult to do in a day. The best part is getting the award, a patch. Go to a campfire program 20 minutes before it starts so that the ranger can check the child's work. When the program begins, each patch winner is called in front of the whole audience to receive the patch and get a round of applause. Pick up the booklet for $2.30 at the visitor center or nature center.

Family & Adult Programs & Camps

Besides these options, Montecito-Sequoia Lodge, 2225 Grant Rd., Suite 1 (tel. 800/227-9900 or 650/967-8612; www.mslodge.com) and Hume Lake Christian Camps, 64144 Hume Lake Rd., Hume (tel. 559/335-2000; www.humelake.org) offer some great family choices with structured activities and camps.

Park Service

The schedule of ranger walks and talks changes often. Current offerings are listed on bulletin boards at campgrounds and visitor centers. Generally, they're casual -- you just show up at the time and place.

Campfire programs happen most summer nights at Lodgepole, Dorst, Sunset (at Grant Grove), and Sentinel (at Cedar Grove) campgrounds, and less frequently at Potwisha Campground, Mineral King, and Silver City Lodge. The programs usually involve an outdoor slide show and lecture and, depending on the ranger, some singing or other fun.

Field Seminars

Sequoia Natural History Association, HCR 89, Box 10, Three Rivers (tel. 559/565-3759; www.sequoiahistory.org) offers Field Institute sessions with qualified leaders teaching natural history and outdoor skills. Most sessions are 1 to 3 days long, and many include group camping. Generally, they're aimed at adults, although teens would enjoy some of the offerings; call and ask before signing up. Often, some sessions are especially for families, but the lineup changes annually. Prices range from $15 to $60 for a 1-day session, up to $500 for a weeklong trek.

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