More than a decade ago, Sue Kaufmann took a career sabbatical to pursue her interest in storytelling and signed on as a volunteer interpreter near her home in Cranford, New Jersey, at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, the inventor’s home and laboratory, and at Ellis Island, part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument.
“I always wanted to be a park ranger,” says the 57-year-old, who used the experiences to transition to a new career with a heritage tourism nonprofit. “I wanted that flat hat.”
She’s not alone. In an average year, nearly 300,000 volunteers staff the National Park Service, donating 6.5 million hours of service valued at more than $185 million. Full-time employees, by comparison, number nearly 20,000.
“Volunteers are an incredibly important part of helping us fulfill our mission,” says Shari Orr, the NPS’s servicewide Volunteers-in-Parks program manager.
Volunteering opportunities span a broad range of skill levels, interests and time commitments. Over a few hours, volunteers may remove invasive species or pick up trash. With some training, reenactors in period clothing demonstrate blacksmithing and 19th-century gardening. Seasonal rangers may commit to several months manning visitor centers, guiding hikes or giving interpretive talks.
The park service also engages those with specialized skills as volunteer museum curators, librarians, historians, archaeologists and even scuba divers.
“One of the coolest things I have seen is people who utilize skills and experiences gained through a lifetime of work and choose to dedicate that in a new way or explore a new field,” Orr says.
While the NPS recruits volunteers across the age spectrum, seniors are the workhorses of the volunteer corps.
“Seniors are experienced and full of wisdom, and their hearts are open to sharing this wisdom and helping others to discover the wonders of national parks, nature and the star-filled universe,” says Matt Johnson, volunteer coordinator at Curecanti National Recreation Area near Gunnison, Colorado, who has been supervising volunteers for the past 20 years in parks including Yellowstone National Park.
A range of opportunities
Of the 423 sites managed by the NPS — which include 63 official national parks as well as monuments, battlefields, seashores, recreation areas, rivers, trails and more — at least 400 have volunteer opportunities. Positions are posted at volunteer.gov, the government website that also lists outdoorsy opportunities in the Forest Service, Fish & Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management. But they don’t necessarily end there.
“There are a lot more volunteer opportunities than you see listed,” says Sue Wise, 62, who currently lives a nomadic life and spends three to six months a year volunteering in parks. “If one wanted Yosemite, there may or may not be a listing and it’s better to call the volunteer coordinator.”
Volunteers and park managers say necessary skills vary by position, but all require enthusiasm. For Curecanti’s Observatory Night programs, volunteers guide stargazing sessions, but the park encourages both hobbyists and professionals to apply.
The ideal candidate “is someone who still retains a capacity for wonder about the marvels of the universe and wants to share this passion with others,” says Johnson.
Helping locally or remotely
So you want to be a park ranger?
For people considering a second career as a park ranger, volunteering can be a bridge to permanent employment with the NPS.
Full-time as well as seasonal ranger jobs are posted at USAJobs.gov, a federal website that lists openings across the spectrum of government work. Applicants can filter results by searching for NPS and by state.
On the application, volunteer experience counts as career experience.
“I can’t tell you the number of people who started as a volunteer,” says Orr, whose own boss was originally a volunteer at Rocky Mountain National Park. “A lot of people do it as a way to explore a passion and realize that their passion can be a career.”
The park service’s “Work for Us” web page includes links to employment for those 55 and over who qualify for the Experienced Services Program, where jobs might be available in budgeting, engineering, information technology, mentoring and more.
Like herself, frequent volunteer Sue Kaufmann met other career-changers “looking for something to light them up,” she says. “They come in as volunteers and end up hired as seasonal rangers.”
Many volunteer gigs — such as tour guiding or trail maintenance at a local park site — don’t require travel. Some parks also use remote volunteers.
While he lives 120 miles from park headquarters, Kent Schlawin, 62, of Johnston, Iowa, who is “99 percent retired” from his work in advertising, has written five stories a week for the past five years posted to the social media channels of the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail. He periodically travels with the rangers to explore the 4,900-mile route pioneered by early American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
“It’s fun for me,” says the self-professed “history geek.” “I want people to understand this is a pretty darn cool part of our history.”
For volunteers willing to travel, housing —usually shared with park staff — may be included, though hiring can be competitive. Karen Garthwait, who coordinates volunteers at Arches and Canyonlands national parks in Utah, receives dozens of applications per position, particularly for jobs that include park residency.
“We see a lot of applications from folks who dreamed of being a park ranger when they grew up but their careers took a different path,” says Garthwait.
Some campground hosts, whose appointments generally last a few months and require volunteers to handle questions from campers and enforce camp etiquette, often arrive with their own RV dwellings.
“It’s possible with an RV to skip around, staying three months at one place and three months at the next, touring by slow travel while volunteering,” Orr says.
Traveling in a truck camper, Wise has had extensive volunteer terms at the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site in Montana, where her duties included giving house tours, and Pipe Spring National Monument in northern Arizona, where volunteers did everything from guided walks to collecting fees. This is her third summer volunteering at Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, a Bureau of Land Management property on the Oregon coast that’s home to the state’s tallest lighthouse and extensive tide pools, where she offers information on the ecosystem, whales and birds.
“I’m doing it for nature,” she says. “I want people to learn to love nature so they’ll take care of it.”
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Artists in residence
Another path into the park system is to become an artist in residence. More than 50 NPS sites offer artist-in-residency programs, in which creatives in fields from music and painting to poetry and comedy spend inspirational weeks in a park, creating and sharing their work with the public in exchange for free park housing.
The artistic class of 2022 includes Jack Wilkins, 64, a jazz composer, saxophonist and director of jazz studies at the University of South Florida School of Music in Tampa, who has previously composed site-specific works in the Blue Ridge Mountains and Banff National Park in Canada.
“I tend to get inspiration from nature and places,” says Wilkins, who will be in Acadia in October and plans to offer a visitor talk on how he translates his impressions into song. “I’m going to explore and take it all in and figure out what inspiration I can turn into music.”
Elaine Glusac writes the Frugal Traveler column for The New York Times and is a national parks enthusiast based in Chicago.