A Cheaper Way to See the USA: Volunteering in Parks

How to Reduce Travel Costs by 50%

By Jim Gold

You could camp this summer at Yellowstone National Park for $22.50 a night, if you can get reservations, or you could park your RV free by volunteering as a campground host. This is just one of the hundreds of volunteer opportunities that come with some sort of lodging via the National Park Service this year.

Often referred to as "work camping," thousands more volunteer opportunities with amenities you might find amenable also are available through federal agencies such as the Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the Army Corps of Engineers. Many states offer free stays for their park volunteers, too. Duties vary widely. For example:
  • Campground hosts at Yellowstone maintain campsites, tell visitors about park programs, explain how food storage regulations help keep black bears at bay and assist in special operations like looking for little campers gone astray. In return, NPS offers free hookup (water, sewer and electricity) for your RV or full trailer in the large campgrounds and partial hookups in remote campgrounds. Propane is reimbursed after the season.
  • Interpretive guides at Garnet Ghost Town in western Montana lead visitors back in time and tell them about the area's mining heritage and Montana history. They work in the visitors center and conduct guided tours through the hills. In return, BLM offers a cabin with no electricity, running water or bathroom. It does provide propane for a cooking stove and wood for wood stove.
  • An "enthusiastic couple" at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Georgia will help staff a visitors center where they will greet tourists, operate the bookstore and run interpretive and environmental education programs. Besides "beautiful sunrises and sunsets," the Fish and Wildlife Service offers an RV pad with full hookup as well as a laundry facility.
Other volunteers who often tow their housing with them may conduct wildlife population surveys, assist in laboratory research, photograph wildlife and habitats, present living history demonstrations in period costumes, build fences, paint buildings, make cabinets, clear trails or even work behind the scenes on agency websites.

Three Days to Three Months

Some assignments require just three days of work a week, others more, to qualify for housing or RV space. Many volunteer posts with lodging require time commitments -- often one to three months.

At Grand Portage National Monument in Minnesota, RV pads, hook-ups, and laundry are available to friendly, active living history volunteers who commit to stay through Labor Day and portray the year 1797 with third-person interpretation and demonstrations.

If you haven't got a whole season, some travel volunteer opportunities take just a week. Trash Tracker participants help clean up along the 1,960-mile Lake Powell shoreline in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area along the Arizona-Utah Border. In return, they get to spend five to seven days aboard a houseboat donated by park concessionaire Aramark. They bring their own food.

The National Park Service alone in 2014 tallied 246,000 Volunteers-in-Parks, who donated about 6.7 million hours of service working side-by-side with rangers so 292.8 million visitors could enjoy their jaunts. "This is the equivalent of having about more than 3,200 additional employees," the NPS says.

Testimonials

"I enjoy the opportunity to use my skills and talents as both an artist and a teacher to bring the conservation message to the public," volunteer Donald Davidson explains in a 2014 NPS video about volunteering.

"Even the work we did on the trails, I've never done anything like that before," Rex Gresham of Dallas said in a 2011 NPS video he'd never backpacked or been in the wilderness before volunteering for the first of 140 service projects in which he participated. ​"We wasn't getting paid, and I couldn't get enough of it."

Volunteers come in all ages, as families, couples or individuals. Some duties and time commitments lasting weeks or months better suit empty nesters and retirees. To get started, visit Volunteer.gov to apply. You can search for opportunities based on keywords, location, agency, interest or even housing type: bunk house, cabin, campsite, RV/trailer pad or even a trailer. You could connect people to their parks while staying free in one yourself.

If you don't volunteer, consider free or really cheap camping or 13 simple ways to save on summer vacation.

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