For many outdoorsmen, working as a National Park Ranger is a dream job. Rangers get to work and live in some of the most spectacular wilderness areas on earth: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Big Sur and Denali, among 54 other US National Parks. They don’t sit at a desk in an office bound by sheetrock walls and flooded with fluorescent light; they wander the trails, paddle down rivers and breathe in the fresh air. Any city-dwelling outdoorsman would be envious of such a job. The good news is, you don’t need to have a degree in forestry to find a dream gig in a National Park — all you need to do is volunteer.
“National Park volunteers do just about anything you can imagine,” says Kathy Kupper, a spokesperson for the National Park Service. “When you think of a typical park ranger, out contacting visitors or staffing a visitor desk or leading programs, volunteers help with all of that.”
Last year, 443,000 volunteers collectively worked nearly 8 million hours with the NPS — work that Kupper says is vital to maintain the greatness of National Parks. “We have volunteers that help track wildlife and participate in other aspects of various research related to wildlife. We have photographers, videographers — we have people that do the library collection. We have volunteers that help plant gardens, maintain properties and do archeological digs,” Kupper says. “Really, anything that goes on in a National Park, volunteers can help with.”
Depending on the size of the park, the type of work and how often they’re volunteering, the National Park Service may provide volunteers with free housing and a monthly stipend. But the prospect of a paycheck is not what draws people to volunteer in National Parks. Kupper says it’s all about the experience: “You get to have this incredible beauty around you all the time. And you get the energy from sharing what you’ve learned and know with other people, and you see that you can help other people connect to these places,” Kupper says.
National Park volunteers are not paid in cash — they’re paid in beautiful sunsets. If that sounds like a dream gig to you, read on to find out how to become a volunteer.
Decide on a park. No matter where you are in the country, a National Park likely isn’t more than a state or two away. Consult this interactive map to find out which park is closest to you. Of course, you don’t have to settle for whatever’s within a day’s drive — if you’re on, say, the East Coast, and you’re dying to volunteer at Big Sur, don’t hesitate to apply. Any park will be happy to have you.
Skip the online application. A bit of insider information from Kupper: “We always recommend going to the website, but a lot of the opportunities are not listed on the website. So, if somebody’s really interested, I would say contact the park directly, and ask to speak to the volunteer coordinator.” According to Kupper, every National Park has a designated volunteer coordinator — even the tiny parks with only a few employees. Once you’ve decided on a park, call the volunteer coordinator and have a chat. Share with them your skills and interests. Odds are they’ll have a project for you to get your hands dirty.
Apply online. If you couldn’t get a volunteer coordinator on the phone, apply online at volunteer.gov. You can search for job listings by state, your personal interests and whether or not the posting offers housing.