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5 U.S. National Parks Where You Can Be a Citizen Scientist

Help staff by collecting water samples, snapping photos or recording a bird call — for the good of science

spinner image The full moon rises over mountain with saguaro cacti in front
Robert Gallucci/Getty Images

If you are planning a trip to a national park and would like to help out with environmental research, consider pitching in as a citizen scientist. Often, all you need is a cellphone and natural curiosity, and you can help scientists and naturalists gather vital data about the area. 

“We can’t do all the research that needs to be done without the help of ordinary citizens,” says Seth Benz, bird ecology program director for the Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park in Maine. Benz orchestrates citizen science efforts to document and protect the park’s biodiversity.  

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Citizen science allows park managers and scientists to collect more data than they could on their own to answer real-world questions. Tapping into volunteer citizen scientists, parks can crowdsource data collection to help them determine when certain plants start to flower or if specific invasive species are in a park. Citizen science projects may be run by a national park or an education-focused partner. Most national parks offer some type of citizen science program. Some projects involve checking in at a nature center or signing up beforehand. Current projects and requirements are listed on, and

Another way to get involved is through iNaturalist, a free mobile app (on Google Play and iOS) where visitors can share what they see or hear in the wild — including plants, insects and birds. The app identifies objects by name and tags the time and location of each observation. Users can easily upload a photo or sound recording from a hiking trail or scenic overlook, and this information can contribute to ongoing scientific studies. Nature’s Notebook (on Google Play and iOS) is another free app that partners with the park service to connect people to citizen science projects and tracking opportunities.

“I recommend just staying in one spot and kind of letting life come to you. Watch things living their own lives,” says Tony Iwane, community and support coordinator for iNaturalist. “Every observation represents at least a few seconds of someone noticing, stopping and caring about an animal or plant or fungus or bacteria.” Now is a great time to get involved since April is Citizen Science Month. Here are five national parks where you can be a citizen scientist.


spinner image Pond surrounded by all different colored trees; Inset photo on right of branches of hemlock trees
Main Photo: Anand Goteti/Getty Images; Inset Photo: Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

1. Acadia National Park, Maine

Acadia National Park works with the Schoodic Institute on citizen science projects such as counting birds that fly over Cadillac Mountain during fall migration. Year-round, visitors can help measure the success of restoration efforts and monitor for invasive insects and plant species.  

Get involved: Stop in the Sieur de Monts Nature Center to ask for the handout that lists the 10 most unwanted invasive species at Acadia. From here, start an easy 1.5-mile hike on Jesup Path and Hemlock Path Loop. To participate, simply snap photos of any invasive species you see with the iNaturalist app.

“Our newest effort is an early detection system for the park. We’re having people home in on the idea of invasives,” Benz says. One such invasive species is the hemlock woolly adelgid, an aphid-like insect that feeds on hemlock trees and depletes them of nutrients, causing them to die. A rise in temperature over the years has caused these insects to move east into Acadia National Park where hemlocks are a source of food and shelter for wildlife. 


spinner image Scenic view of field against clear sky; left inset photo of Gila Monster; right inset photo of Saguaro cactus
Main Photo: Ken Carper/Getty Images; Inset Photo (L): Mary Ann McDonald/Getty Images; Inset Photo (R): Thomas Roche/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

2. Saguaro National Park, Arizona

At Saguaro National Park, citizen science helps the park better understand the vegetation and biodiversity of the Sonoran Desert. It also helps protect natural resources, including water sources, native wildlife, such as Gila monsters and, of course, the saguaro cactus. 

Get involved: Seasonal, hands-on projects allow volunteers to help naturalists learn about saguaro growth. Citizen scientists measure cactus arms from November to April or track flower blooms from April to mid-July. Contact the park directly for the project and other citizen science programs. 


spinner image Lake with sand dunes and trees; inset photo of marsh and tree
Main Photo: Larissa B/Getty Images; Inset Photo: Marsha Williamson Mohr/Getty Images

3. Indiana Dunes National Park, Indiana

At Indiana Dunes National Park, citizen science helps park staff monitor ongoing restoration efforts of natural habitats, including dunes, bogs, oak savannas and marshes. The park uses a crowdsourced time-lapse technology called Chronolog, which tracks changes and measures the health of ecosystems.  

Get involved: Take photos at any of the five photo stations throughout the park, then email photos to Chronolog, following instructions on the photo station. Your pictures will be added to the project, and you will receive an updated time-lapse video by email. 


spinner image Lake with mountains behind it; inset photo of Western Toad
Main Photo: Getty Images; Inset Photo: J.N. Stuart/

4. Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

Mount Rainier National Park is home to some 400 lakes and 470 streams. Citizen scientists collect water samples to test the water quality of a stream, which can be adversely affected by precipitation and recreational impacts. Volunteers also can evaluate aquatic habitats of native amphibians such as western toads and cascade frogs to identify environmental stressors, such as diminished water resources. 

Get involved: While hiking or backpacking, make notes on paper surveys about amphibians and toads, including location, size and developmental state at nearly 200 sites across the park from July through September. Citizen scientists also can collect water samples and dragonfly larvae using tools from a provided kit to help scientists measure mercury levels in the habitat. Contact the park for more information.


spinner image Streams of water falling over mountains; inset photo of orange and black monarch butterfly
Main Photo: Dean Fikar/Getty Images; Inset Photo: Gabriel Perez/Getty Images

5. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina

The Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont coordinates science-based volunteer programs at the national park. Projects study air quality, weather, wildlife and phenology, which is the study of the timing of natural events such as flowering and egg laying.

Get involved: Hike, bike, fish or camp anywhere in the park. Take photos of any organisms that interest you with the iNaturalist app to contribute to the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory, a long-term effort to identify and map up to 80,000 species scientists believe are at the park. Erin Rosolina, marketing director at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, notes that the data “is used by a variety of scientists ... so we can better protect our natural resources.” Another project involves capturing eastern monarch butterflies with nets and placing a tiny sticker (a tag) on their wings during the fall migration to track timing of migration, survival rates and any pattern changes because of climate change.


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