The Life of a “Gift Shop Ranger” (or: How to Tell People You Work for Eastern National)

by David Eberle, Craggy Gardens Site Manager (Eastern National—Blue Ridge Region)

“So…what do yDavidEberleou do?” It’s a fair question whether it’s asked in small talk at a party, or not so small talk around your family’s dinner table, or fairly large talk with a significant other, or even if it’s innocently posed by a confused visitor to the helpful person on the other side of a National Park Service information desk. “What do you do?” is a question that everybody should be ready to answer, because everybody does something. For me, the answer always starts out “Well…”  And then I try to explain.

I work for Eastern National. As an Eastern National employee I take an enormous amount of pride in what we do and why we do it. My job is to enhance the experience of the National Park visitor and offer a friendly and welcoming greeting. Whether they’re on their way home or their day is just getting started, I want to hear about where they came from and why they are here; what about this park are they most excited about? How can I help them get the most out of their experience?

I keep the store displays stocked with products that try to capture the feeling of being at the park, whether it’s a photobook, a park history, a field guide, a coffee mug or a postcard. Visitors often want something tangible to bring home with them, and I show  them products that may be relevant to them. I also explain how Eastern National is a non-profit partner with the Park Service and that store  purchases help support the park. If they have questions about anything from directions to Park history, I find an answer for them. When I see visitors with children, I mention the Junior Ranger program because it’s never too early to get serious about national parks. I tell everyone about the Passport To Your National Parks®,  which is literally a list of all the amazing places that people should see, experience, know about, and protect in America. Every park has unique meaning and is endlessly explorable. (Not to mention, who doesn’t love to stamp things?)

After I explained all this to people, which in truth is just the tip of the iceberg of what an Eastern National employee does, the responses inevitably run along these lines:

The partygoer: “That’s so interesting! My cousin is a Forest Ranger.” Me: “Well…”

Dad at the dinner table: “Okay…government work, huh?”  Me: “Well…”

The significant other: “I’m just going to tell my parents you’re a ranger” Me: “Well…”

With the park visitor: “Soooo…you’re like a gift shop ranger?”  Me: “Well…kind of.”

When I first started with Eastern National it would always baffle me when people got confused about what I did. “What do you mean you never heard of Eastern National?”  Over the years though, as I’ve had the privilege of promoting the beauty and significance of the National Parks to so many visitors from every walk of life and from all over the world, I’ve almost started to take the confusion as a compliment. If people don’t get that we are not Park Rangers, it’s because we put the Park experience first. If people haven’t heard of Eastern National, it’s because Eastern National exists to serve the National Parks. Visitors are just happy to be in these protected places.

Gift shop ranger? I’ll take it.


Little Blue Books

By Abby Ponder, senior at Western Kentucky University and marketing intern at Eastern National

Your eyes dart around the store, taking everything in at once. Sunlight is streaming through the windows overhead, and the Visitors Center is bustling with frenzied movements and excited chatter.

Despite the crowds, and the booming voice over the building’s loudspeaker announcing departing tours, you feel grounded in place from your position in the park store.

Across the room, you can see a family of four gathered together, flipping through a children’s book on monarch butterflies with happy giggles and whispered laughter. On the other side of the room, near where you’re standing, there is an older man thumbing through a thick tome about the region’s geography. In the space in between, a school group is rushing between the various displays. Some are wearing Junior Ranger hats and clenching Junior Ranger certificates, and others are sharing stories and tokens with their friends.

You, meanwhile, are waiting for your friend to finish chatting with the sales associate.

You are tired as you wind through the shelves of books and rows of pins and magnets. You spent the previous day hiking through a number of trails before taking to the river in a kayak. Your arms are sore and muscles ache that you never knew existed, but you are still thriving on the adrenaline of the experience.

See, you want to get out more. You want to see the world and everything in it.

Ever since you were a child, the National Park Service has fascinated you. It is an organization dedicated to preserving history and conserving the environment. Furthermore, though, the national parks allow you to step through history and outside your comfort zone to see more of the country—of the world—than you ever envisioned.

Aching arms are more than worth it for this experience.

Your friend is still deep in conversation with the sales associate, so you glance at the cabinet next to you. Inside is a cupboard full of little blue books with a rainbow of colors along the sides: “Passport to Your National Parks,” the book’s cover reads in shining gold print.

You pick up the display copy, flipping through pages lined with organized splatters of ink stains. Looking closer, you realize the ink stains are actually stamps—and there are a lot of them. You glance up as you see one of the sales associates moving closer to you with your friend in tow. Both are smiling.

“I see you found the cancellation station,” the sales associate says, gesturing towards the cabinet with the little blue books. “Have you stamped your Passport today?”

You shake your head.

“Are you familiar with them?” the man continues, picking up the discarded display copy.

Again, you shake your head.

Your friend beams at you, rummaging in her bag. A few moments pass as you and the sales associate watch her dig through the bag’s contents before she finally pulls out her own little blue book. It is a little rough around the edges, a water stain on the cover, but it is largely intact.

Updated Passport

“They’re the coolest things,” she says.

This is your first time branching out to the national parks, but this certainly isn’t her first. She has always been an explorer at heart: ready to take on the world at a moment’s notice with a grin splitting her cheeks the entire time.

“Do you go to a lot of national parks?” the sales associate asks.

“No, not really,” you say. You pause for a moment. “I’d like to go to more of them, though.”

Your friend smiles encouragingly at you.

“Then this is perfect,” the associate says. “See, you can take the Passport everywhere you go. It’s this tiny little book, I know, but it contains so much more.”

Turning the book over in his hands and flipping to a page lined with bright images and circular ink stains, he says, “All national parks in the United States have the Passport. So, at each park you visit, you can find the cancellation station. Sometimes it’ll be folks like me, the ones working behind the counter, who will stamp it for you. Other times, like here, you’ll do it yourself. Regardless, at each park you go to, you’ll gather your own token, your own memory, of the time you spent there.”

Your friend is nodding along enthusiastically, “Yeah, and you really can take them anywhere because they’re so small. It’s the perfect way to collect things without having to find a home for the collection afterwards.”

“But what if you forget the book at home?” you ask. You’re forgetful sometimes, whether you’d like to admit it or not.

“You can always just stamp a piece of paper and staple it in later,” the sales associate says. “You never have to worry about a store selling out of them either.”

You nod, reaching for one of the books. It is wrapped in plastic, protected from the elements. It’s an appealing offer, you can’t deny that, but what if—

“I don’t go to enough national parks.”

The sales associate smiles kindly at you.

“That’s okay, too,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how many parks you go to or how fast you get to them—just that you go. There’s no right or wrong way to do it.”

He glances to the other side of the store, noticing the family of four beginning to make their way to the checkout counter. With a final smile, he leaves you to make your decision at your own pace. You glance at your friend as she flips through her own ink-stained pages, and you know that you don’t need time to decide.

A few moments later, receipt in hand, you make your way back over to the stamping station. As you turn to the correct page, following the tabs along the side, you come to the first page of your region.

With a satisfied smile, you lower the stamp onto the ink-pad before positioning it above the pristine white page for the first of many more stamps to come.

For more information about the Passport to Your National Parks®, be sure to visit our online store at

Lasting Impressions at Mammoth Cave National Park

By Abby Ponder, senior at Western Kentucky University and marketing intern at Eastern National

I honestly don’t remember the first time I went to Mammoth Cave National Park.

Growing up in South Central Kentucky, the park—which is home to the world’s longest cave—hosted several class field trips. On more than one occasion, I remember exploring winding tunnels lined with history and sediment and listening to park rangers share stories of people who once called the park’s boundaries home.

In many ways, however, those field trips were where my relationship with Mammoth Cave began and concluded. While I had an appreciation for the park, it wasn’t a place I would routinely visit in the subsequent years.

It was simply Mammoth Cave: sturdy, despite the sinkholes, and omnipresent.

It wasn’t until my first year of college that I became reacquainted with the park. That summer, I started working as a seasonal sales associate in Mammoth Cave’s Eastern National park store, backed by a group of extraordinary individuals.


Visitors from around the world come together to see the maze beneath the surface, and I, too, wanted to better understand this infinitely complex system. As such, I toured the winding caverns and poured through pages of beautiful images interspersed with rich text that conveyed a vision unlike any other.

Over the course of that summer and the subsequent seasons, I learned more about the wondrous place that exists in my own backyard.

Ultimately, though, the thing that seems most significant about this journey through Mammoth Cave over the last three years has been seeing how this park—and the entire National Park System—touches the lives of countless individuals.

This giant of a park has the ability to bring people of all backgrounds together regardless of race, religion, language, or socioeconomic status. In this beautiful and uplifting place, people can see the caverns and the surrounding area through a natural or historical lens in more ways than one. History can sometimes feel abstract and intangible, but visiting the national parks allows people to learn in a real-life setting, following the footsteps of those who came before them.

This park, which I first took advantage of as a child, provides history and solace to a host of people waiting just outside its metaphorical doors. I wish I had realized its beauty before I did but, in the end, I am grateful that I found Mammoth Cave and Eastern National at my own pace. My appreciation for them is that much greater as a result.


This year marks the Centennial Anniversary for the National Park Service, as well as a host of other anniversaries for Mammoth Cave: 200 years of guided tours, 75 years as a National Park, 35 years as a World Heritage Site, and 26 years as a part of the Biosphere Reserves.

Now, more than ever, is the perfect time to get out there and explore the national parks. Whether your park is in your own backyard or waiting for you across state lines, a visit to a National Park is an experience unlike any other. Speaking from my own experiences, I can promise you one thing: you’ll be glad you did.

In the meantime, you can begin planning your own adventures by perusing the options on the National Park Service’s webpage. From there, it’s up to you. You can obtain a Passport To Your National Parks® book and when you visit parks around the country, get your Passport stamped! Also, be sure to follow the Passport to Your National Parks on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest to get even more ideas about what to do once you’ve landed—or, in my case, trekked into the backyard.

So, take a deep breath. Are you ready?


Millennials: What they Really Think of National Parks

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PREFACE: At E20150806_090329astern National’s (EN) headquarters office, we were fortunate to have an extremely bright, energetic individual as an intern this past summer. Jess C. interned in our Creative Department, which encompasses our Production, eCommerce, and Marketing teams. Her contributions to our department, including her work on special projects and initiatives and her upbeat attitude, made an indelible impression on us.

To support the National Park Service’s efforts to encourage interest and visitation of national parks by people of the millennial generation, we were very interested in her impressions of national parks. So, we sent her on a field trip to Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, located in Elverson, PA, and asked her to write about her experience. What do Millennials think about national parks? Read on to find out:

-Andie S., Social Media & Marketing Specialist

For the last month of my senior year of high school, I interned at the Eastern National Headquarters in the Creative Department. It was really interesting to me to see how my interests, such as photography, can be applied in the real world. Lucky for me, I was offered a summer job to continue the work I had done in May. I’ve really enjoyed my time here, especially the “field trip” I took to Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site.

Prior to my visit, I researched the park out of curiosity: I had never heard of Hopewell Furnace before. To my surprise, I learned that it was only an hour from our Headquarters office, and that it was an important iron plantation during America’s early industrial period. Honestly, I’ve never been one for history (strange, I know, for someone who works for a company so closely related to national parks), but from the pictures 20150805_113557I saw, Hopewell Furnace seemed very scenic.

And scenic it was. Just on the drive there, I saw cows and sheep, lakes and farms. Already I was put in a good mood: I’ve always loved going on drives, and I was excited for my visit. When I arrived at the park, the first thing I noticed was the apple orchard. I saw tiny, organic apples growing on gorgeous green trees lined up along the hill. I parked, and proceeded to the visitor center. It was small, but the museum had a lot of information about what life was like during the time Hopewell Furnace was in operation. I watched a short video about the long, hot process of creating charcoal, after which I thought that it was nice to be living in the 21st century.

After touring the museum, I toured the rest of the park. The park ranger in the visitor center told me about a live demonstration of how the workers created the iron molds, but I stopped to check out some of the farm animals first– horses, chickens, and sheep. I was giddily taking pictures and talking to the animals as if they were children, and they wanted absolutely nothing to do with me. Regardless, I pet a sheep, and it was awesome.

I rushed over to the building where the demonstration was taking place, and arrived just in time to hear about how the workers created the molds for 20150805_110542the ovens. We learned about the workers’ treatment, pay, and lifestyle. Then the group moved to sit on different benches and we learned how the huge furnace operated. It was amazing to hear about the precision in the whole process, considering at the time, people didn’t even understand the science behind it. After the program concluded, I checked out the giant water wheel that fueled the furnace, too.

I went on to tour the rest of the grounds, and I walked up and down a path that led to a few houses that the families would have lived in. I stopped in at a charming little shop that sold items made from iron and wool from right there in the park.

Heading back towards the visitor center, I came upon a giant, black pile of earth; I’d walked in on one of the two yearly charcoal-making demonstrations. It was really interesting to see what I had seen in the video in the visitor center happening in real life. I was impressed with the volunteers doing the demonstration, considering I personally would never choose to do that long and arduous process even for fun.20150805_120756

Finally, I made my way back to the visitor center and watched a 15 minute video about what life was like at Hopewell Furnace. It was a great way to wrap up my visit.

In all, Hopewell Furnace was beautiful. Putting aside the fact that it wasn’t 95 degrees for the first time in weeks, I was happy to be there because I hadn’t realized what a beautiful place it was. I took pictures of everything I saw and the places I explored: I’m incredibly interested in photography and regretted leaving my camera at home. Even still, the pictures I took with my phone helped me connect to the park. There were so many buildings to explore, and with each site came a little plaque or a button to press and hear audio for information about where we were. I learned how the women cleaned and cooked, how men would make horseshoes for the working horses, how the families would stay in two room houses, and how the iron was made. The visit was so interesting, and like I said, I’m not even interested in history.

IMG_0110I think that when my generation thinks of national parks, Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon comes to mind. We don’t think to look up more local national parks when making plans with friends, not to mention we’re a generation of quick information and social media, so slowing down for a second and, say, having a picnic in a national park, doesn’t cross our minds. But – at least in my experience – we’re also a very visual generation. We take pictures of everything – ourselves, each other, nature, cities, and everything in between. Had I known about Hopewell Furnace before working at Eastern National, I would have definitely convinced my friends to visit.

My friends and I are always looking for fun excuses to get together and go places, but we usually look towards Philadelphia because, conveniently, there’s a train station just down my street. But, also conveniently, we live a half hour from Valley Forge National Historical Park and an hour from Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site. The same could be true for teenagers across the United States, considering there are more than 40IMG_01320 national park sites. If only for a summer afternoon, a visit with friends or family to a national park is a great way to get outside, be together, and learn a little something, too.

My visit to Hopewell Furnace was incredibly fun. I always love visiting beautiful places, and to learn about one so close-by was a treat. Next time I’m near another national park, I definitely plan to visit and take pictures, especially if it’s a more nature-oriented park. And that, I think, is a good moral to take away from my visit. National parks are no doubt centered on the historic importance of the site or monument or park. But even a person like me who originally has no interest in the historical aspect of the place can enjoy their time, inadvertently learn about the park, and enjoy what they’ve learned. There’s something for everyone when it comes to national parks, and I think everyone – including my generation – should embrace that.

To learn more about America’s national parks, or to find a park near you, visit the National Park Service’s website. #FindYourPark