Inspiring New Yosemite Leaders, Year-Round

Inspiring New Yosemite Leaders, Year-Round

Two young visitors take the Junior Ranger pledge on an October day in Yosemite Valley. Photo: Yosemite Conservancy/Keith Walklet

With summer winding down and the school year revving up, you might think that early September marks the end of the season for student-focused activities in the park. It’s true that June, July and August are busy months for the youth programs our donors support. That’s when, for example…

  • Adventure Risk Challenge teens embark on their 40-day Yosemite immersion.
  • Parks in Focus middle schoolers explore their surroundings through photography.
  • WildLink alumni shadow park pros through “Career Connection” experiences.
  • Yosemite Leadership Program interns gain exposure to potential public-lands careers.

The youth-program schedule tends to heat up in the summer, but opportunities to inspire the next generation of park stewards continue throughout the year. With support from our donors, an array of park-focused programs help young people, from kindergartners to college students, connect with nature in every season. Here’s a look at just a few of the activities on the year-round-youth calendar!



Autumn marks the end of the season for Yosemite's young California Conservation Corps trail crews, who spend months living and learning in the backcountry. Photo: NPS

Toward the end of September, California Conservation Corps trail crew members, all in their late teens and early twenties, pack out of the wilderness after spending months off the grid. By the time they emerge from the backcountry, these crews have learned from and worked with top-notch Yosemite restoration experts, explored remote parts of the park with their peers, and developed valuable skills for future endeavors on and off the trails.

Mackenzie, a 2017 Student Conservation Association intern, takes a break from restoring historic vistas on an autumn day in the Valley to admire an orange and black Sierra Nevada ensatina. Photo: NPSLate September also marks the end of our children’s art classes, but creative activities continue for another month. Daily drop-in art sessions at Happy Isles give kids the chance to create their own Yosemite-inspired crafts and artwork, and to consider their natural surroundings from a new perspective. The art and nature center closes at the end of October, and reopens in the spring.

Student Conservation Association interns work on many projects in Yosemite, including wilderness restoration (through donor-supported Keep It Wild grants) and historical preservation (like the students who helped research and digitize thousands of vintage park photos earlier this year). In 2017, five SCA interns spent October and November pitching in on key projects, including efforts to reopen classic views and make room for native black oak trees in Bridalveil Meadow, and to improve monarch habitat in Cook’s Meadow and near Cascade Falls.

For those students and other SCA interns, spending a few weeks or months in the park means ample opportunities to learn about Yosemite’s natural resources and history, explore potential conservation-focused career paths, and discuss how they can address environmental concerns beyond Yosemite (and beyond their SCA terms).




On some winter days, rangers like Jessica Rivas (a Yosemite Leadership Program alum!) get to introduce young visitors to a hushed, snow-covered Yosemite that many visitors never experience. Photo: NPS

Young visitors can earn their Junior Ranger badges in any season, even when snow coats the cliffs and frazil ice flows below Yosemite Falls. The Junior Ranger activity schedule slows down a bit after the busy summer months, but park rangers continue offering weekend talks in the Valley throughout the winter, encouraging kids to explore, learn about and protect the natural world all year.

Learning doesn't stop when the temperature drops in Yosemite. Programs like WildLink and Adventure Risk Challenge help teens connect with the natural world in every season — including winter. Photo: NPS For older students, WildLink provides high-caliber career-exploration programming during summer break, but also helps high schoolers connect with nature year-round through outdoor expeditions.

In 2018, for example, WildLink students from the New Village Girls Academy in Los Angeles spent the final days of winter and the first of spring hiking up the John Muir Trail and camping in Little Yosemite Valley. They ran into cold, slushy conditions, but still had fun! Later in the spring, they applied some of their newfound nature knowledge to a WildLink ambassador project back at home, where they planned a hike in Griffith Observatory Park and led a discussion about access to the outdoors.  

Like WildLink, Adventure Risk Challenge offers an extended summer experience while also engaging California teens (and, sometimes, their families) in outdoor activities throughout the school year – including on snowshoe trips in Yosemite. On a late-winter weekend in 2017, six ARC student-parent pairs from Merced County spent a weekend snowshoeing above Yosemite Valley and connecting with each other through one-on-one interviews. The experience gave the teens a chance to share their past park experiences with their parents, many of whom had never visited Yosemite.




Second-year Yosemite Leadership Program students from UC Merced enjoy a spring day during a trip to Yosemite Valley. Photo: NPS

Student rangers at the Wilderness Education Center at the University of California, Merced, serve as a Yosemite resource for the campus and surrounding community – and they had a busy spring semester this year! Here are just a few of the ways they helped people connect with the park during the second half of the 2017-18 academic year:

  • Led 18 trips to Yosemite and other parks for more than 850 students.
  • Delivered 13 educational programs at local elementary schools, reaching hundreds of young learners.
  • Connected with thousands of students, faculty and other Merced community members at the Wilderness Education Center desk.
  • Helped the 16 undergraduates selected for Yosemite Leadership Program internships prepare for a summer in the park.

A Parks in Focus participant looks up one of her Yosemite photos during the program during a special exhibit at the Palo Alto Art Center. Photo: Courtesy of the Udall FoundationSpeaking of the Yosemite Leadership Program (and UC Merced), spring ushers in a second semester of campus-based learning for YLP students. Over the course of two years, YLP students complete rigorous academic coursework and a capstone project, learn about leadership styles and environmental stewardship, and participate in wilderness experiences and restoration projects.

For Bay Area middle-school students gearing up for summer Parks in Focus trips, spring means time to start looking ahead to pre-Yosemite camping expeditions, where participants can practice outdoor skills before their national park adventure. And for some alumni of the 2018 Parks in Focus trips, next spring will bring the chance to see their best photos displayed at an art gallery near their hometown. Stay tuned for announcements about all upcoming Parks in Focus photo exhibits!

Finally, we can’t wrap up this spring section without mentioning a few more WildLink ambassador projects. As the weather warmed toward summer in 2018, WildLink high schoolers planted milkweed to improve monarch habitat at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge (Merced County), coordinated a recycling competition at Venture Academy (Stockton), taught family and friends how to “Leave No Trace” during a day hike in Caswell Memorial State Park (San Joaquin County), and more.


In addition to helping young people connect with nature year-round, the youth programs Yosemite fans support reverberate for years into the future. Participants often note feeling more connected to and comfortable in the outdoors after their youth-program experience. For many, a youth program is their first visit to a national park, first camping or backpacking experience, or first time contemplating, and feeling confident in, their role in protecting places like Yosemite.

And for some, those "firsts" turn out to be the first steps on paths toward roles in parks or with partner groups, in California and beyond. Case in point: Mark, on our wilderness team, first experienced Yosemite's rugged backcountry as a CCC trail crew member, and Lora, our art center assistant, got her start in the park as a Yosemite Leadership Program intern! A spring camping trip, summer photography lesson, autumn restoration project or winter nature talk might not take up much space on a young person's calendar — but each moment spent exploring, learning about and taking care of the natural world, in any season, can plant seeds of stewardship that last years into the future. 


Above: Two young visitors take the Junior Ranger pledge on an October day in Yosemite Valley. Photo: Yosemite Conservancy/Keith Walklet

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