Cool (and likely free) National Park Ranger programs.

Heading to the National Parks has become seemingly more and more popular in the last few years. While you don’t need to do anything more than just take in the amazing beauty of the park, did you know you can do more?

There are an abundance of National Park ranger programs and they add something extra to your National Park adventure, and often, they are free or offered at a very nominal charge.

What is a National Park Ranger Program?

It seems to be a fairly well kept secret that from park to park, there are some fantastic, unique and often times free or really cheap things to do to explore our National Parks in ways that you may never have thought of doing before.

The reality is, this information isn’t particularly easy to find online (let’s face it, the National Parks websites aren’t the best in terms of user experience.) Often, even past the information being available online, the way that vistors find out about a special event or activity, is through an old fashioned brochure that is handed out as one passes through the gates to the parks.

While there are a wide variety of programs that change on a very regular basis they change with the seasons and even with the weather.

Ranger programs are offered primarily in summer and fall, and occasionally winter and spring.

In other words, use this as a suggestion to call ahead and check on the event that you are most interested in.

National Parks Night Sky Programs:

First, let’s tackle what the International Dark Sky designation means in general and what that means for your next trip.
By definition: “An IDA International Dark Sky Park (IDSP) is a land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment. The land may be publicly owned, or privately owned provided that the landowner(s) consent to the right of permanent, ongoing public access to specific areas included in the IDA designation.

The National Parks that are considered International Dark Sky parks, have ranger led star gazing programs

What National Parks are in International Dark Sky?

Arches National Park

In Arches National Park at Panorama Point there are wide-open views of the night sky. The park is far enough from the nearby communities to provide natural darkness with excellent views of the Milky Way.
The Windows Section and Balanced Rock can also make for excellent stargazing spots. The farther you are from Moab and the park entrance, the darker the night skies will be.

Big Bend National Park

The park rangers at Big Bend offer a variety of night sky programs during the year. The programs range from star parties, to moonlight walks all while educating the participants during each event.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Black Canyon of the Gunnison park rangers and volunteers work together to provide astronomy programs at the park. The events occur weekly at the park during the summer. The best part about the programs is that once you’ve paid the park entrance fee, the programs do not incur an additional fee. Programs include a wide variety of experiences including talks, night sky viewing with telescopes, or both. 

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon offers a ton of astronomy programs, to the tune of 100 per year, presented by the park’s astronomy rangers. Head to Bryce Canyon to celebrate the wonders of the night sky – the programs have ranged from the life cycles of stars, space exploration missions, the stories written in the constellations, and more!

Canyonlands National Park

The Canyonlands Park Rangers conduct stargazing events at the National parks throughout southeast Utah. You can find more information on what to expect and the schedule of stargazing events at Arches and Canyonlands national parks and more.

Death Valley National Park

Join a Death Valley Park Ranger for an intro to the cosmos at a famous Death Valley location. Important Note: Programs are offered during the winter at Death Valley National Park.

Grand Canyon National Park:

At the Grand Canyon you can pass time with the knowledgeable rangers who are more than willing to pass on the lore of canyon country in the form of nightly lectures, films, and talks.

Topics range from the night skies over the canyon, the history of the gorge and a lot more.

The park rangers also offer a few guided night walks including a spooky but informative tour of Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery.

There are night programs at both the South and North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

It is important to note that the night programs at the South Rim are extremely popular, so make sure you plan ahead. In the summertime the programs start at 8:30pm, but to secure a place you must pick up a free ticket at the Shrine of Ages starting at 7:30pm.

The Grand Canyon’s North Rim has fascinating evening events including lectures and talks every night from 8pm to 9pm in the Grand Canyon Lodge auditorium. The you can find out the details of each night’s program posted in the lodge, campground, and visitor center.

Great Basin National Park:

Star Train:
Great Basin National Park and the Nevada Northern Railway in Ely, NV are teaming up to offer the NNRW’s Star Train! Riders begin their journey at the train station in Ely and ride the historic northern train route through Ely. Great Basin’s dark sky rangers will be onboard to talk trivia, give out prizes, and answer questions. The train will stop out of town where passengers can disembark and look through high-powered telescopes to see planets, deep space objects, and more (weather permitting). The train will then return to the train station later that evening. Tickets are required.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Did you know that half of the Great Sand Dunes Park is a great place to see the stars? A night at Great Sand Dunes can include dunes exploration under a bright full moon, viewing thousands of stars on a clear moonless night, listening for owls along the foothills, or observing migrating amphibians on a wet night.

Mammoth Cave National Park

At Mammoth Cave you can participate in ranger-led stargazing programs which are offered throughout the year to provide an opportunity to experience unfettered views of the starry night. Attendees will get to view planets and other night sky delights through telescopes provided by the park. 

White Sands National Park

Sit back, relax and enjoy the serenity that is White Sands National Park, after dark. Join a park ranger for a guided full moon hike. Full moon hikes are offered once a month on the night before the full moon.

Details on the hike from the website:
“The Full Moon Hike follows the Dune Life Nature Trail and is rated as moderate. It requires hikers to climb steep dunes and walk on soft sand. The trail starts down on the desert plain and is level for the first 300 yards before going up a steep slope onto the sand dunes. The trail is one mile (1.61 km) long. You must be able to hike the entire trail and the group must stay together for safety concerns. No one is permitted to leave the program early to return to the parking area by themselves.”

Zion National Park

Zion National Park is a great place to re-connect with the night sky, or maybe even get your first view of the Milky Way. Zion protects this dark sky resource for future generations by not lighting up the night. But this means that after sunset, the park is very dark! Be prepared! A lot of the national parks offer night sky programs, the programs can range from telescope astronomy events to full moon walks with park rangers.

Full Moon Hikes:

Bryce National Park:

During full moons, (1-2 consecutive nights each month), when the mix of shadows and moonlight cause the hoodoos to take on spooky personalities, Bryce Canyon offers 1-2 mile-long moonlit hikes.

There is an option for a two mile hike, but they are dependent on the staffing. The park offers two hike options–a more strenuous hike that descends down into the canyon along steep and rocky trails and an easier hike that travels along the rim of the plateau.

Yosemite National Park:

The Yosemite Full Moon guided night tour is one of the most popular tours that the park offers. The hike is a fairly easy grade hike to the Sentinel Dome, so that means that visitors of all ages can experience the dramatic can enjoy the moonlit hike. Under the light of a full moon the park is even more breathtaking than in the daytime hours.

White Sands National Park:

Full moon hikes at White Sands National Park are offered once a month, April through October, on the night before the full moon. Reservations for the hike have to be made one month prior on www.recreation.gov. The cost is $8 per adult and $4 per child.

Ranger Led Snow Shoe Walk:

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park

Snowshoe walks are offered on both the east and west side of Rocky Mountain National Park. Join a ranger-led snowshoe walk and explore the park off-trail.

First, a ranger will demonstrate how to put on your snowshoes and how to move safely on the snow. Once basic techniques are covered, the group will head out into the snow and the adventure begins!

An important note: snowshoe walks travel through hilly, uneven terrain within Rocky Mountain National Park.

East Side Snowshoe Walks (via Estes Park)

How to Participate: Reservations are required. Call 970-586-1223 to reserve a spot. Reservations may be scheduled up to 7 days in advance. There is a limit of 6 people per reservation. Space is limited to a total of 15 people per program. Snowshoe walks often fill, especially if the day is forecast to be warm and sunny. We strongly recommend reserving a spot early.

When: Starting January 18, every Tuesday and Thursday, at 12:30 pm. Ranger-led snowshoe walks begin promptly at 12:30 pm and are appriximately two hours long. Since the walks do not follow a distinct route or visible trail, we are not able to accommodate late-comers. Please plan to arrive at least 10-15 minutes early.

Additional Details: Snowshoes are NOT provided for East Side programs. Participants must bring their own snowshoes or rent snowshoes prior to arriving. This program takes place at 9,449 feet of elevation and may not be suitable for individuals sensitive to high elevations.

West Side Snowshoe Walks (via Grand Lake)

How to Participate: A free ticket is required to participate. You can pick up a free ticket the day of the program at the Kawuneeche Visitor Center. Tickets are offered on a first-come, first-served basis, beginning at 9 am on the day of the walk. Each participant must obtain their ticket in person, on the day of the snowshoe walk. Visitors may not request extra tickets for people arriving later. Tickets will not be given out prior to the day of the program. Space is limited to a total of 20 people per program.

Snowshoe walks often fill, especially if the day is forecast to be warm and sunny. If you are concerned about getting a spot, we recommend arriving before 11 am to secure a free ticket.

Walks begin promptly at 1:00 pm and are appriximately two hours long. Since the walks do not follow a distinct route or visible trail, we are not able to accommodate late-comers. Please plan to arrive at least 10-15 minutes early.

Additional Details: Snowshoes ARE provided, free-of-charge, for West Side programs. Snowshoes are only provided for the ranger-led activity and must be returned at the end of the program. This program takes place at 8,864 feet of elevation and may not be suitable for individuals sensitive to high elevations.


Olympic National Park:

At Olympic National Park, ranger-led snowshoe walks are offered for individuals and families are offered at 2:00 p.m. on Saturdays, Sundays and some holidays through late March, snow permitting. The walks lasts approximately 90 minutes and are less than one mile in length. 

Space on the walks is limited to 25 individuals, so you will want to make sure that you get signed up ahead of time. Sign-up begins at the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center information desk 30 minutes before scheduled walk. 

There is a a cost associated with the snow shoe walks at Olympic National Park:
Adults are $7
Youth 6 -15 are $3
Children 5 and under are free.

Grand Teton National Park:

Grand Teton National Park

At Grand Teton National park you and your family can participate in a ranger-led snowshoe hike. A snowshoe hike is a fantastic way to see Grand Teton’s wild beauty while feeling safe in the hands of a park ranger.

Weather conditions in Jackson can be drastically different than the park, so be sure to come prepared. You will travel roughly 1.5 miles or less on your hike, but you’ll be outside for two hours or more.

Yosemite National Park:

Join one of the Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service’s knowledgeable and friendly guides on a moderate snowshoe hike to discover the wonders of Yosemite’s winter environment. Plan to hike 3-4 miles in the snow in this 3 hour program.

Bryce Canyon National Park:

There are free guided snowshoe hikes when there’s enough snow at Bryce Canyon National Park. Which is possibly as early as November, to possibly as late as March. As always the weather/snowfall are very dependent on when the snow shoe hikes take place. As you are prepping for a snowshoe hike, it is important to notes that the basic gear you need for snowshoeing (snowshoes and hiking poles)are provided free of charge on the ranger-led snowshoe hike at Bryce Canyon.

So what about your family? Have you ventured out and done any of these really fantastic activities at our National Parks?

Want more to read about the National Parks?

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Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Dry Tortugas National Park

Take a look at some of the really cool National Park Ranger programs offered at some of the National Parks. Most are free or very low cost!