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Family Fun and Learning in Parks in the Southwest

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 the Grand Canyon, Glen Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Zion parks.

July 14, 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 2; but for an in-depth learning vacation, consider joining a field institute or camp. Park educational institutes offer outdoor seminars and multiday programs for adults or families on subjects such as art, science, and outdoor skills. While the kids join in structured outdoor activities, parents enjoy the park or otherwise amuse themselves, and then the family reunites for meals and evenings in family dorms. For any of these opportunities in Point Reyes National Seashore or Olympic National Park, we suggest you plan well ahead.

Grand Canyon National Park (www.nps.gov/grca)

Kolb Studio, Grand Canyon Village at the Bright Angel Trailhead. Daily 8am-5pm, till 7pm in peak season. Free admission.

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The Kolb brothers were early photographers of the canyon, and this house over the Bright Angel Trail was their studio and shop. A good bookstore is on the upper level, and there are frequent art exhibits down below.

Tusayan Museum, Rte. 64, 3 miles west of Desert View. Daily 9am-5pm. Free admission.

The small museum and nearby Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) ruin make up the park's best cultural display. The museum occupies a single room in a small stone building, with artifacts from the site displayed to show how the native people of the region lived and used their environment. The ruin amounts to low lines of stones where a pueblo stood for about 30 years 800 years ago. Signs do a good job of helping you imagine what it was like. The bathrooms are limited to portable toilets, but Desert View has full facilities. There are regular ranger-led tours of the ruin.

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Yavapai Observation Station, Yavapai Point, on the rim between Canyon View and Mather areas, east of the village. Daily 8am-5pm.

The station is a place to look out on the canyon and compare its layers to a geological cross section, and to see a few other exhibits. There's also a small bookstore.

The Park Service has a series of ranger programs aimed at children. Pick up a schedule at the visitor center.

The Junior Ranger program is aimed at kids ages 4 through 14, with an activity booklet, divided into three age levels, that you obtain at a visitor center. To earn Junior Ranger awards, kids complete worksheet activities in the booklet and attend a ranger program. They receive a badge and a certificate that entitles them to buy a patch at a park bookstore. The material for the younger children is good, but the program offers much more exciting educational opportunities for children ages 9 to 14, who can join special ranger-led programs and earn additional patch awards. The Dynamic Earth program includes a guided geology walk near Hermits Rest (offered in the summer only). The Discovery Pack program starts with a 90-minute ranger program, and then kids set off independently (with parents, of course) with a set of real naturalist's tools and a field notebook. Another special program, and special patch, is offered at Phantom Ranch. It's available only to children 4 to 14 who make it to the bottom of the canyon. Information on all the programs is at www.nps.gov/grca/education/kids/jrranger. Given the time and effort involved, it's a good idea to plan your involvement into the schedule for your trip.

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Rangers offer walks and talks every day during the visitor seasons at the North Rim, Grand Canyon Village, and Desert View/Tusayan Museum. Schedules appear in the park newspapers and online. Some walks range as far afield as Cedar Ridge on the South Kaibab Trail -- a good day hike. Programs on fossil finding, archaeology, and geology will interest older kids. Walks aimed specifically at children are mentioned above.

Evening programs take place in the North Rim Campground and Lodge. On the South Rim, evening programs are in the Shrine of the Ages Auditorium in the colder months, and in the Mather Amphitheater after it gets warmer in May.

Grand Canyon Field Institute, P.O. Box 399, Grand Canyon (tel. 928/638-2485; www.grandcanyon.org/fieldinstitute.

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This nonprofit organization, affiliated with the Park Service, offers a catalog of multiple-day workshops, backpacking, and float trips, all with educational themes about the canyon or learning backcountry skills. Difficulty ranges from stationary workshops to trekking beyond the trails for more than a week. Most classes are for adults only, but the institute also has a series of family classes, for adults and children over 7, including short day hikes along the rim, multiday camping and river trips, and photography workshops. Rates for the family classes range from $95 to $190 per person. Reserve well ahead.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (www.nps.gov/glca)

Lees Ferry, Rte. 89A, 14 miles west of the Bitter Spring junction with U.S. 89 in Arizona (tel. 928/608-6404; www.nps.gov/glca/lferry.htm). Entry fee $10. Navajo Bridge Interpretive Center (www.azsce.org/history-navajo_bridge.shtml): Apr 15-Oct daily 9am-5pm; Apr1-14 and Nov Sat-Sun 10am-4pm. Closed Dec-Mar.

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The area where the Paria River and the Colorado River meet is part of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Even if you plan to skip Lake Powell, you might want to stop here to get close to the river and see this section of unflooded canyon.

Glen Canyon Dam, U.S. 89, just north of Page (tel. 928/608-6404). Daily 7am-7pm summer, 8am-5pm rest of the year. Last tour starts 1 hr. before closing.

Guided tours go over and inside the 700-foot-tall dam that holds back Lake Powell. It's fun to walk high on the dam and then ride the elevator far down to the base, where you can watch the generators spinning.

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Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) and Fremont people left stone dwellings, granaries, and rock art all along the canyons. Several of these sites are open for exploration, and you can visit but not enter others. Pick up directions and explanatory handouts from the rangers at the visitor centers, and use a good map like Stan Jones' Boating and Exploring Map. Note, however, that access to many sites is more difficult when lake levels are very low, while others may be newly uncovered. Check with the rangers for the latest. Defiance House, (www.nps.gov/glca/dhouse.htm) a small Ancestral Puebloan pueblo found in the middle fork of Forgotten Canyon in 1959, is one of the open sites, with several well-preserved rooms and pictographs. The canyon is up the lake from Bullfrog Marina, (www.nps.gov/glca/bfrog.htm) 106 miles from the dam. Hole-in-the-Rock is the site of a trail built by early Mormon settlers seeking to colonize the area. It's 66 miles up from the dam, with displays that attest to their hardships.

The national recreation area does have a Junior Ranger program for children to learn about the area's resources, but at this writing it was under revision, so I cannot provide a review. Check the website (www.nps.gov/glca) or visitor centers: Carl Hayden Visitor Center (tel. 928/608-6404); Bullfrog Visitor Center (tel. 435/684-7400) or Lees Ferry Ranger Station (tel. 928-355-2234).

Zion National Park (www.nps.gov/zion)

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Zion Human History Museum, 1 mile from the south park entrance on Rte. 9. Daily 8am-5pm.

The park's former visitor center is now a museum on the area's pioneers and natives. Permanent exhibits explain how the area's water, wildlife, plants, and geology relate to the human use of Zion through history. Temporary exhibits change a few times a year. The museum also has an information desk, and an auditorium that shows the park's orientation video on the hour and half-hour.

Zion Nature Center (tel. 435/772-0169), at South Campground, is a miniature natural-history museum for kids and their families. It's open only in the summer. The exceptional Junior Ranger Explorer Program operates here in the summer for children 6 to 12. Parents leave their kids with the rangers for active half-day educational sessions. Morning and afternoon sessions are different, so you can come back at midday, feed your children, then leave them for the afternoon session. They'll learn a lot and have fun, and it may be the cheapest child care in the world ($2). By attending one session, children earn a certificate and pin; after two sessions (or a session and another ranger program) they get a patch. You must sign the kids in personally. Registration for the 9-to-11:30am program is at 8:30am, and for the 1:30-to-4pm program at 1pm. Call for details or check www.nps.gov/zion/JuniorRangers.htm.

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Children under 6 can become Junior Ranger Helpers by completing an activity sheet with their parents and receive a decal. Off season, the program for the older kids is self-guided, too. Get the materials at the visitor centers.

Ranger-led programs in various areas of interest, including guided hikes, are available from April to October. You can find out when and where only by checking the bulletin boards at the campgrounds and the visitor center.

Bryce Canyon National Park (www.nps.gov/brca)

The park offers a daily program for children at the visitor center. It starts at 3pm, but be early for sign-up, because space is limited. One parent has to stay.

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The park's Junior Ranger program, mostly based on worksheet activities such as a crossword puzzle and a word hunt, is available free from the visitor center. Kids who do the activities, attend a ranger program, and collect a bag of trash or recycle goods get a badge and certificate.

During the busy summer season, five or six ranger programs run every day. In addition to guided hikes, rangers lead evening sky viewing, which is exceptionally good thanks to the clean air, elevation, and lack of pollution. Evening talks are at Bryce Canyon Lodge, and campfire programs take place nightly at both campgrounds. The schedule of programs is posted at the visitor center.

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