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?


Passport Picks for Fall

Fall is a great time to experience America’s national parks! Cooler temperatures, beautiful Fall foliage, and a variety of programs and events are great reasons to grab your Passport book and experience the parks! We’ve put together this short list of events happening in parks across the system- check the National Park Service website to find events at parks near you.

Enjoy the last fee-free day of the year on November 11th. Many parks will hold special events honoring America’s veterans. Details here.


Star Party at Mojave N PRES

1. Experience Springfield Armory NHS and all other 14 Massachusetts national parks at “The Big E,” the Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield, MA, from 9/12-28. Details here.
2. If you’re a rock climber, you’ll love the Idaho Mountain Festival, 9/25-28, at City of Rocks National Reserve. Contests, live music, and giveaways will be sure to excite visitors. Details here.
3. Celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act at Mojave National Preserve on 11/1. Mojave Fest 2014 will feature special programs, Native American crafts and ceremonial dancing, and a star party. Details here.

MABI Foliage

Fall foliage at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller NHP

1. Behold the glory of New England’s Fall foliage at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller NHP on 10/4, 11, and 13, for a special three-hour walking tour. Details here.
2. Calling all amateur paleontologists! Don’t miss National Fossil Day on 10/15 at Agate Fossil Beds NM. A special Junior Ranger badge will be available, and visitors can explore the park’s historic excavation sites and trace fossils. Details here.
3. Celebrate Sleeping Bear Dunes NL’s 44th anniversary by attending a Star Party on 10/21. Other dates are available as well. Details here.

1. Enjoy authentic Hispanic food, festive music, traditional dances, arts and crafts, and a children’s carnival at La Fiesta En El Parque, on 10/4 at Jimmy Carter NHS. Details here.
2. San Francisco Maritime NHP will hold a series of sea music concerts, on 9/20, 10/25, and 11/15, aboard the historic ship Baclutha at Hyde Street Pier. Visitors will experience the driving rhythms of chanteys and the beauty of seafaring ballads, for the 26th consecutive year. Details here.
3. Experience Brazilian Jazz at Saint Paul’s Church NHS on 11/6, with the sounds of The Janet Grice Trio. Details here.

1. A unique educational experience awaits students during Home School Day at Valley Forge NHP on 10/8. Rangers and volunteers will bring history to life through interactive learning stations and hands-on activities. Details here.
2. Kids will have an opportunity to learn to make Native American coiled pottery at Ocmulgee NM during a special children’s craft program on 10/25 and 26. Details here.
3. White Sands NM is offering a special program entitled Crafty Kids, on multiple days, 11/26-30. Rangers will share surprising facts about the creepy crawlers, amazing adapters, and out-of-this-world geology of White Sands while guiding kids through a take-home craft project. Details here.


Apple orchards at Hopewell Furnace NHS.

1. Experience chocolate as you never have at Cumberland Gap NHP on 10/11-12. Learn how it’s made and share its evolution. Sponsored by Mars Chocolate North America and American Heritage Chocolate. Details here.
2. Step back in time, and learn the time-honored tradition of preserving harvest time apples by making cider during a special event at Harpers Ferry NHP on 10/18-19. Details here.
3. Pick your own pesticide-free, organic apples at Hopewell Furnace NHS from their historic apple orchard, many of which are heirloom varieties. Early September through October. Contact the park for details: (610) 582-8773.

1. Who doesn’t love a good ghost story? Take a Ghost Walk with costumed rangers at Cuyahoga Valley NP on 10/11, on the rolling unpaved Lake Trail. Details here.
2. Pumpkin Sunday will be held at Grant-Kohrs Ranch NHS on 10/19. The event will include hay rides, a hay maze, cider making, and much more. Details here.
3. Halloween Tales, spooky story-telling programs, will be held at Minute Man NHP on 10/25. A special, less-scary lantern walk will be available for younger children. Details here.


Battle Anniversary Encampment at Saratoga NHP

1. History comes alive at Saratoga NHP on 9/20-21, at the park’s Battle Anniversary Encampment. See what life was like in a Continental Army camp through special programs and demonstrations. Details here.
2. Commemorate the 234th anniversary of the Battle of Kings Mountain on 10/4-5 at FestiFall at Kings Mountain NMP and Cowpens NB. A special wreath-laying ceremony, musket and rifle demonstrations, and a dramatic presentation are planned. Details here.
3. Did you know? More than 5,000 African Americans served in the Continental Army. Attend this special program on 11/1 at Morristown NHP to learn about their valuable contributions. Details here.


Former NPS Chief Historian Ed Bearss

1. Cedar Creek and Belle Grove NHP will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Cedar Creek with a variety of events, including cannon demonstrations, living history programs, and reenactments. Details here.
2. Living History Weekend at Andersonville NHS on 10/25-26 will afford visitors the opportunity to experience what life was like for prisoners at the infamous prison camp, through special programs, artillery demonstrations, and costumed interpreters. Details here.
3. Join former National Park Service Chief Historian Ed Bearss at Richmond NBP on 11/23 for a special presentation on the Petersburg Siege. A book signing will take place afterwards. Details here.

Guest Post: Why We Love America’s National Parks

PREFACE: Don and Shelly Hafner (of have set out on an epic journey- one that many people only dream of; To visit all 59 national parks within 59 weeks. We were so inspired by their quest, we asked them to write a guest post about why they love the parks and what inspires them when they visit a park. Here is their story:

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park

Many people and organizations have asked us why we love the National Parks.  It turns out that we had never addressed this question in writing, so we committed to writing about it as Eastern National’s guest.  Readers know that we do love the Parks to undertake what we have.  The reasons we are doing this are complex and (we think) compelling.

Our reasons for planning our 59 National Parks were ultimately fueled by our love as husband and wife.  We found so much common ground and enjoyment together visiting the National Parks.  There were so many things that we enjoyed doing together at the Parks, such as hiking, photographing and learning new things.  When we first met, we spent many evenings in Rocky Mountain National Park picnicking and enjoying the wild life.  Ultimately our love of the Parks is personal.

 These are the characteristics of the National Parks that we want to call attention to and that we personally love and value:


We believe that America’s National Parks are manifestations of the freedoms we enjoy as Americans.  Take, for example, our freedom to travel to them–it is a birthright all Americans enjoy.  History teaches us that special places were often reserved for the elite of society.  That is not true in America.  Our National Parks are just that–ours.  Perhaps that is why there was so much unhappiness last year when our government enforced a shutdown of the Parks.  In addition, we are free to travel to them.  We enjoy the freedom to travel in the United States which is not a universal right throughout the world.


Devils Tower National Monument

Devils Tower National Monument

Do your family and friends humor you when you show them pictures of your children or grandchildren?  How about pictures of your dogs?  Are they just being nice?  Perhaps.  Show them a picture of Half Dome, Devils Tower or Old Faithful and they are involved, perhaps enchanted about the idea of visiting the spot.  We are drawn to sharing the experience of National Park visitation through photography with others as a result.

The National Parks offer opportunities to practice so many different kinds of photography in one place that few other venues offer.  In one day at Yellowstone National Park it is possible to photograph Old Faithful, trout fishing in the Lamar River, roaming bison, and goofy family pictures around the evening campfire.  As much as we enjoy where we live, we cannot accomplish that at home.  In addition, National Parks provide for photographic diversity.  We can take photos of sweeping landscapes, wildlife, seascapes, and the power of nature in action.  The National Parks are also great places to hone and improve our abilities with Macro photography. The great thing is, anybody else can too.


The Ken Burns film The National Parks: America’s Best Idea brilliantly and beautifully presented how the fabric and history of America was influenced by the National Park movement.  We value all 401 of the National Park units because they tell the story of our country.  The movement to preserve special places didn’t start in 1872 when President Grant signed the law that made the area a public park.  His act was in fact a realization of a dream and a movement shared by the American people.  As an aside, it is worthy to note that the area we know as Hot Springs National Park was  set aside as a “public reservation” in 1832.  Our National areas are rich with history.  Many, such as George Washington Carver National Monument and the USS Arizona Memorial are primarily devoted to American history.  We recommend that our readers never skip the Visitor’s Center or drive by a sign that beckons you to a Park Service site.  They are always worth the stop.


In our experience, the National Parks are great places for families with children.  We have never heard someone to tell a child to be quiet at a National Park!  Our boys still talk about our trip to Arches and Yellowstone which was about twenty years ago.  We notice well-behaved children learning about and showing respect for nature when we visit the National Parks.  The Parks provide activities for children that they may not have at home such as snorkeling at the Virgin Islands National Park or watching a lava flow at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.  Kids are always captivated by the wildlife.

Buffalo Herd

Buffalo Herd

We notice that kids are not preoccupied as much with social media when we see them at a Park.  Expect a few complaints about the number of “bars” they have though.  The National Parks have programs for those children who want a social media experience and, of course, there are lots of apps for the parks.  The Park Service has a Junior Ranger program at every site which kids enjoy.  Eastern National administers the Passport To Your National Parks® program, which kids are crazy about- We are too.


The National Parks offer something for everyone!  For visitors who just want to park and look, it’s not only okay—it’s encouraged.  No one is second guessed or judged for their actions.  From that jumping off point there is so much to see and do at our National Parks.  At the Parks it is possible to go fishing, rock climbing and snow shoeing in the same day.  Visitors can go horseback riding, birding (try it—it’s harder than you think), or just sit in quiet reflection.  We find that we spend much of our time at National Parks in quiet reflection.  There is just something about being awestruck while being at peace at the same time.

So, why do we love the National Parks?  We are blessed that the Parks have helped us to come closer together and to increase our love for each other.  We can think of nothing better.

-Don & Shelly Hafner