Volunteering in National Parks?


Senior Member
Jul 22, 2010
camping somewhere in the Sierra Nevada range
Hi All - with retirement about 2 years away, I find my mind wandering to 'whats next' occasionally. I've enjoyed the national park system immensely since spending much of my childhood summers in Yellowstone with my folks, and vacationing there and many of the other parks in the west ever since. I remember interacting with many NPS volunteers over the years and thinking that would be a great way to give back to not only the Parks, but also to oneself. It seems like a great way to ease out of the full-throttle work world as well as spending a season in a Park and really getting to know it.

Just curious if any folks here have gone that route and any thoughts, tips, suggestions or???
While I have never been a volunteer for the NPS, I used to work for them (ok I volunteered time but was compensated better than volunteers). The volunteers I used to manage/work with were some of the best people I have known and I still stay in touch with many of them.

Some volunteers only stay 4-6 weeks (sometimes volunteering in 2-3 parks a summer) while others come back season after season.

Each park is run differently but there are normally several basic positions at every park.

- Campground Host: Can be adult babysitting, but is a great way to meet lots of new people from all over the world. Helps with keeping campground clean and things orderly. With NPS if something gets out of hand there are usually LE Rangers nearby to handle it.

- Meadow Rover/Trail Patrol/Trail Head monitor: Hike around or stay in one designated place and answer questions from the general public. Discourage unprepared people from doing stupid things. Also during SARs (Search and Rescues) monitors trail heads & junctions and such.

- Trail maintenance: Normally through an outside non-profit.

- Visitor Center: These can be with the NPS or the park affiliated non-profit. Answers questions sells things at the non-profit's store etc.

- Biology/ecology samplingg: the scientists often have volunteers to help them gather data, cameras, plants, etc. These can be hard to find but they do exist.

In addition to those positions you may be able to do a "Ranger talk" in the campground amphitheater. With budget cuts and under staffing most parks are cutting back on ranger talks(I will save my rant for another time). My volunteers were key to making bi-weekly ranger talks happen.

SAR. If you are willing you can always help out and due to park policy you are actually paid for hours worked on the mission. This could include hiking trails, shuttling people, staff command post, etc. It doesn't have to be physical.

Each park has their own unique opportunities depending

Long story short the NPS would grind to a halt without volunteers. When I retire I will volunteer for the fun of it. Some parks are great to volunteer at and unfortunately some parks are not depending on the administration. Some have housing available others may just have full hook up sites. Normally you will get a free place to stay and a small stipend for food.

Don't forget to check out the affiliated non-profits working in the parks.
I haven’t volunteered at a National Park, but I’ve volunteered at three state parks. I love it and each time I think I’ve gotten more out of the experience than the park has gotten out of me. I've learned a lot about the park, people, and community. I tend to live a pretty isolated life with friends and neighbors being all very similar to me. The volunteering experience introduces me to so many interesting people. Some thoughts:

  • Volunteer.gov has a lot of opportunities posted. But know that many of the “good” volunteer jobs never are posted. If you are at a place that you think you may like to volunteer at, ask about positions. Two examples are Bears Ears National Monument and the Riddle Ranch at the Steens, neither one ever posts positions. The Bear Ears job is to staff the visitor center and walk the trails in uniform. They provide lodging. At the Riddle Ranch, the BLM wants a caretaker staying at the ranch and they provide a cabin to live in.

  • Many (or most) of the states have their own web sites where they post volunteer openings and don’t use volunteer.gov.

  • The common knowledge (right or wrong?) is that some positions are very competitive and hard to get. I treat a volunteer application like I would a paying job. I call and talk to the person hiring and if I want the job I follow up with an email and my resume. Yup, I created a volunteering resume. It didn’t have much in it at first, but I though just simply having a resume would help me stand out in a crowd.

  • I’m guessing at least 95% of the volunteers are appreciated but I’ve run into a few stories where the thinking was since they weren’t paid the volunteer’s work was worth less. An example was a couple showed up and what they would do had not been identified. A job was quickly identified for them to work on. After a couple of weeks, the park changed their mind and their work was abandoned and not used. Make sure there is a defined task(s) before you agree to the position.

  • This seems simple and obvious, but match your interests and skills with the position. I was surprised at my last position that I found I didn’t like the responsibility of open/closing the till and handling money. I’ll stay away from money handling in the future. An other couple told me they were bored because they were manning a site that had low visitation. They wanted more action.

  • National Parks generally require 4 - 8 hour shifts per week (32 hours/week). State parks usually have a shorter work day and require 24 – 28 hours/week.
Enjoy your new adventure.
I've been a trail crew volunteer on the Pacific Crest Trail for 20+ years. It's a National Scenic Trail and may not fit your wanting to be in a central National Park setting. The beauty of working on the PCT is you can choose work projects anywhere up or down it's 2650 mile length stretching from Mexico to Canada. Projects are generally 3,5,or 7 days long but can be shorter or longer. You'll have the opportunity to meet and work with like minded passionate lovers of the outdoors. You'll learn the technical aspects of trail building and maintenance as you work with professional, equestrian and regional volunteer trail crews. Project schedules can be seen at the PCTA.org website. The project schedules evolve during the year as priorities are determined by assessing damage caused by wildfires, blowdowns, floods, torrential rains, snowmelt, illegal encroachment, etc.
As previous posters have stated there are several ways to volunteer, whether it be scientific,advocacy, outreach, educational, administrative or just plain old hard labor. There's something for everyone. Just try some things out and you'll discover what fulfills your need to give back!!
I agree with Ronin, Meet him while I was building on a new trail, creating a masterpiece of a new rock wall. I spend a whole lot of hours on the Tahoe Rim Trail and that spills onto the PCT. Volunteering with hard labor to maintain the trail system is needed everywhere. As a Crew leader / Sawyer it is great to share how to do things and the workers understand what goes into a trail and gain respect for the surface people walk on.. They walk away with pride that they created / repaired a section of trail. Not to mention getting out and using muscles instead of sitting indoors.
Thanks all - these are great tips.

Good ideas on testing the waters and building up a volunteer resume. I think the next step will be to try and find a short-term 'project' commitment over the next year, test the waters myself and see what catches my fancy. I'm not sure I could commit to a summer of trail building but could probably get these old muscles to do a short term activity. Unfortunately no science training but I figure those field projects can always use grunt labor too.

Thanks again - sounds promising.
I have no science training but good with back country navigation and a team player. Between that and showing a genuine interest in peoples work I have had very good luck with being able to participate in fun activities (a lot were volunteer). If you are interested in learning you will be fine. I have been able to help collar cougars, check cameras and fur traps in the middle of nowhere, wondering up and down streams counting fish, collecting water samples and looking for plants in remote areas.

Also trail crews need a good cook and the food is often times packed in on a mule train or occasionally flown in.

It really is getting your foot in the door and getting to know people. The longer your work at a park the more you get to know people and the more connections you can make.
For the past several years I have been volunteering a couple days a week at a National Park near my home. I enjoy it but as others have already said there are lots of different volunteer positions, duties, schedules and living arrangements. Finding one that matches up with your interests and needs can be a challenge. Certainly the Volunteer.gov website is a good place to start for both NPS and other federal land management agencies.
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