Image credit: NPS

Summer 2024

A Badge of Wonder

By Joe Mullich

A tale of 40 junior ranger badges, a lost hat and an ageless pursuit.

Ten years ago, I stood in the visitor center at Death Valley National Park, watching a ranger swear in a trio of boisterous 7-year-olds who had just completed the booklet to become junior rangers. The ceremony ended with the kids high-fiving each other while their bemused parents looked on. After the group left, I sidled my 50-something self over to the ranger and said, “I am so jealous. I would love to become a junior ranger.”

The ranger replied, “Well, you know, there’s no age limit.”

I looked him square in the eye and said, “Don’t toy with me, ranger.” A little flustered, he assured me he wasn’t.

[SUMMER 24] Badges Joe

“Junior Ranger Joe” at Lyndon B. Johnson
National Historical Park in April.


Since then, I have become a junior ranger in more than 40 national parks, some state parks and even in New Zealand, which has a Kiwi ranger program. The educational program is aimed at those under 13, so I sometimes get an odd look when I respond to queries about how many booklets I need for my children or grandchildren.

“Just one for me,” I say.

To become a junior ranger, you need to fill in a park’s custom booklet, which includes puzzles, mazes and other activities about the site in question. Given the colorful, cartoon-filled pages, it’s easy to dismiss this as a frivolous pursuit. But not all things designed for children are childish. Being a junior ranger, I found, is an exercise in cultivating mindfulness, presence and wonder. A booklet might ask you to go to places around the park and complete sentences that begin with phrases such as “It makes me feel …” or “It reminds me of …”

For example, the Joshua Tree National Park junior ranger book directed me to sit on a rock, imagine I was a lizard, and draft a one-page essay about what I thought, heard and felt. What started as a lark turned into a meditation on how the twisting branches of the surreal-looking Joshua tree demonstrated resilience and hope in the harshest conditions and how that grit could be applied to my own life.

In times of stress, rereading that little essay has actually calmed me and helped me put things in perspective. As I’ve filled out more of the junior ranger books, I’ve come to think of them as a pathway to considering the things around me in a new way.

If I’m being honest, this contemplative mindset, which epitomizes the junior ranger motto of “explore, learn, protect,” is secondary to another program perk: handsome, park-specific badges. Over the years, I’ve also discovered there’s something about an elder collecting junior ranger badges that delights people.

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When I received my California state junior ranger badge on a busy day at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, the ranger asked for everyone’s attention, and the place instantly fell quiet. My ceremony was filmed by a TV news crew there to do a story about the poppies. When it was over, cameras flashed from all over, and a dozen people shook my hand.

Some junior rangers put their badges in a scrapbook or display case. Every time I received a badge, I’d affix it to my hiking hat. Festooned with memorabilia from my travels, the wide-brimmed hat became something of a celebrity in the Southern California hiking community. Rarely did I finish a trail without at least one passerby stopping to ask me about it or launching into a discussion about their favorite parks. Mothers pointed to the camel-colored chapeau and said to their small children, “Look, he’s a junior ranger, too!” Soon its reputation preceded me, leading strangers on trails to declare, “You must be Junior Ranger Joe.”

I officially became a senior-junior ranger on my 62nd birthday when the National Park Service declared me a senior citizen and I picked up a lifetime pass to the parks and monuments. Park rangers have been tickled when I’ve introduced myself with this title. At Lassen Volcanic National Park, a ranger insisted I wear an actual ranger hat during my swearing-in ceremony, saying my senior-junior status warranted such an honor.

Being a junior ranger, I found, is an exercise in cultivating mindfulness, presence and wonder. 

As sharp as I looked in that ranger hat, I preferred my own because it was a testament to my travels and experiences in the national parks. So, you can imagine my devastation when I lost my treasured hat somewhere in Joshua Tree. I tried to take the loss in stride, remembering the essay I’d written in the park’s junior ranger booklet years before about the impermanence of all things. My hiking pals would have nothing to do with such philosophical rationalization, saying my head looked “barren” without the badges.

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Swayed by their logic, I put together a strategy for restoring my hat and its good vibes: I would email all the parks I had visited. The messages began with “I am distraught” and ended with a plea for a replacement badge.

Candidly, I wasn’t sure if I’d get a response. Rangers are busy, and I worried they’d consider my request too trifling. To my delight, virtually everyone responded to my SOS with some version of “Don’t be distraught! We’re sending a replacement badge immediately.” (The sole exception was a ranger at the Grand Canyon who politely said it was against their policy.)

Over the next few weeks, my mailbox was flooded with packages from dozens of national parks. Each recovered badge reminded me of my various adventures, from navigating through hundreds of bison in the backcountry of Yellowstone to scuba diving through a kelp forest in the Channel Islands to spending the night in the middle of the Everglades on a raised platform called a chickee.

I was touched by the many personal notes from the rangers. A Death Valley ranger commiserated with me about the loss of my hat, while someone at Manzanar National Historic Site thanked me for supporting the park system. The most unexpected response came from the staff at Carlsbad Caverns. When I opened their manila envelope, two little bundles tumbled out. One was the junior ranger badge I had requested. The second was a metallic “senior ranger” badge from their gift shop.

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All those badges needed a new home, so I bought myself an identical replacement hat. It looked as good as ever, but I wondered if it would have the same meaning to me — the same pizazz — as my previous hat. I decided to debut it at a special event. When the total eclipse passed over Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park in Texas this April, you better believe I was in attendance. No sooner had I pinned on the special eclipse badge — complete with LBJ sporting sunglasses — than a kid screamed, “Hey, look at his hat!” He and his friends hurried over to examine my bevy of badges. They quizzed me on where each one was from, before heading to a Park Service tent to become junior rangers themselves. A middle-aged sheriff sauntered over and asked, “Where can I get one of those badges?” And then he became a junior ranger, too.

I think this new hat is going to work out just fine.

About the author

  • Joe Mullich

    Joe Mullich is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. His writing has received more than 40 awards and appeared in more than 400 publications, including Time, Cosmopolitan, Wired, Men’s Health and The Onion. 

This article appeared in the Summer 2024 issue

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