That iconic shot of Half Dome, the selfie at the Grand Canyon, the walk around Yellowstone's Upper Geyser Basin: They're all ways to get to know the national parks. But submerging yourself in one as a volunteer — for a week, a month or even a year — well, that's experiencing the parks in a totally different way.
In 2014, 246,000 people (40 percent of them seniors) donated 6.7 million hours as volunteers for the National Park Service in the more than 400 units of the system (which include historic sites, seashores, parkways, battlefields and more). They sold postcards and travel mugs in visitor centers, shoveled dirt as members of trail crews, performed living history plays, built websites and did search and rescue. Do you own an RV? You could be a campground host with free accommodation in a world-renowned setting.
What to do
- Go to "www.volunteer.gov" to find volunteer positions for federal, state, county and local agencies; you can use a filter to zero in on positions within the national park system, if you'd like. You'll see a general job description, responsibilities, the knowledge and skills needed to do the work and the time commitment.
- Fill out the online application form. If you're selected, you'll hear from a VIP coordinator who oversees volunteers at your selected destination. From there you'll learn about any training you'll need.
What you need to know
- Anyone can apply, from teenagers on up. Those who are not U.S. citizens but who live in the U.S. may volunteer if they are lawful permanent residents. International students residing in the U.S. are eligible, too.
- Volunteers are responsible for their own living expenses and travel to and from the location of their assignment, although some parks do provide housing.
- Volunteers who put in 250 hours or more qualify for a volunteer pass, which covers entrance fees to all national parks and other federal lands.