Volunteer Vacations in the National Parks

Many non-profit organizations partner with the National Park Service (NPS) to provide unique visitor experiences that support conservation. Volunteer tourism is a growing trend where visitors engage in service that benefits park natural and cultural resources. The National Park Service assists organizations that offer this form of tourism by providing access, staff supervision in the field, equipment, and other forms of support. To tell the story of these partnerships, the following is a collection of stories highlighting three non-profit organizations that offer tourism experiences that benefit conservation in the parks.

By Peter Bidigare

American Hiking Society

American Hiking Society/Wesley Trimble

American Hiking Society’s mission is “empowering all to enjoy, share, and preserve the hiking experience.” They are a non-profit advocacy group that works with Congress and various federal agencies to increase hiking opportunities for Americans everywhere. Through a cooperating agreement with the NPS, American Hiking Society provides different opportunities for hands-on stewardship focused on trails. Their Volunteer Vacations program invites students, professionals, and retirees to experience the parks while helping in conservation efforts.

This year, the program has visitors doing trail maintenance at destinations like the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, Gulf Islands National Seashore, and Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Interested volunteers can sign up for trips on their website, where they can get a breakdown of the trip details, fees and other logistics. Upon arrival, volunteers are in good hands in the parks. Each trip is led by a crew leader and NPS staff provide supervision to ensure safety at project sites. Though there is some down time to experience the parks, volunteers put in a great deal of labor. In 2018, 78 volunteers worked on 9 week-long Volunteer Vacations in national parks. In total, that means they logged 3,120 hours building and maintaining trails in national parks.

In addition to the Volunteer Vacations program, American Hiking Society also offers special trips for college students, a popular demographic for volunteer tourism. For those students that are seeking adventure and the opportunity to give back, they offer their Alternative Breaks program. According to Libby Wile, Senior Director of Programs, these student-focused trips are “part volunteer work, part kick-back outdoor vacation.” Outside of multi-day programs like Volunteer Vacations and Alternative Breaks, American Hiking is the main organizer of National Trails Day®.

Occurring annually every first Saturday of June, National Trails Day® is a nationwide day of stewardship that invites hikers, cyclists, paddlers, and other day-trippers to make a difference at their favorite local trails, parks, and other natural areas. The NPS and all of the federal land managers work in partnership with American Hiking Society to make National Trails Day® possible. In 2018, 108,947 volunteers participated in 1,203 events spanning all 50 states. As a result of their efforts, 3,954 miles of trails were improved.

Through their mixed offering of both multi-day trips and special events like National Trails Day®, American Hiking Society draws visitors of all ages of the parks for the volunteer experience of a lifetime. Their work, in junction with the NPS, shows the continued success of a public-private partnership charged with maintaining trail access to some of our nation’s most prized landscapes.

Conservation Volunteers International Program

ConservationVIP/Barbara Kennedy

Conservation Volunteers International Program (ConservationVIP) is a non-profit organization that provides volunteer experiences that benefit the protection of natural and cultural heritage worldwide. In the United States, they work in partnership with the NPS and other federal land managers for their service trips. Currently in the national parks, they offer trips in Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, Yosemite National Park, and Virgin Islands National Park.

Conservation VIP draws visitors that want a park experience that is outside of the norm, where they can engage in stewardship. Volunteers that come on their trips “are people who love to travel with purpose” said Chris Braunlich, Director and Chief Executive Officer. In contrast to the visitor seeking relaxation, volunteer tourists want to be active and work. For these folks, “their idea of a good time includes getting their hands dirty” added Braunlich. To draw in these unique park visitors, ConservationVIP uses a multi-faceted approach to marketing.

ConservationVIP’s website and social media community provides information about upcoming trips. When volunteers are ready to sign up for a trip, a partnership with Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI) allows volunteers to register on the REI Adventures website . ConservationVIP is a completely volunteer-run organization, so their partnership with REI helps assist them with registration and marketing. In planning these trips, NPS staff help coordinate with ConservationVIP in scheduling and selecting work projects for volunteers. Fees that volunteers pay just cover all costs related to organizing and managing the trips. For years, the efforts of this organization on a minimal budget has brought visitors to the national parks in the name of volunteerism. In Yosemite National Park, they have been organizing trips with the NPS since 2009.

In the Yosemite Valley, ConservationVIP works alongside the NPS trail crew on trips in the months of May and September, when the crew are working in that region of the park. Ed Eads, ConservationVIP’s Chief Operating Officer and Program Manager in Yosemite, spoke highly of working with the NPS. According to Eads, the NPS volunteer office diligently works on logistics for their trips and the trail crew “are safety conscious and clearly love what they do… every volunteer group comments about their time with the trail crew.” Eads added that ConservationVIP trip leaders also provide excellent leadership alongside NPS staff in the field. Safety is a priority, as the nature of the work presents risks. “Our volunteers in May worked in falling rain with temps in the 30s” said Eads, speaking to the dedication and resilience of their volunteers. Likewise, Dave Kari, Trails Supervisor for NPS, commented that their volunteers are “a diverse mix of enthusiastic, fun people with great attitudes” that are “eager and willing to help on trail construction projects or maintenance.”

For readers familiar with Yosemite, volunteers have done work on trails such as the Bridalveil Fall, Happy Isles, Lower Yosemite Fall, Mirror Lake, and the Valley Floor Loop. To give some scale to their efforts, between 2008 and 2018, 325 ConservationVIP volunteers contributed 7,874 hours of volunteer work on trails in the park. Their efforts have included work to maintain 55.8 miles of trail and helping in the construction of 2,640 feet of new trail. These outcomes are the fruits of the labor of hardworking volunteers, but they also show the value of this long-standing partnership between ConservationVIP and the NPS.

Sierra Club Outings

Sierra Club/Elaine Stebler

The Sierra Club is a non-profit organization with a long legacy of advocacy for the national parks and the conservation of natural resources everywhere. The club’s founder, John Muir, was instrumental in the late 19th century campaign to create Yosemite National Park. Muir was also a proponent of encouraging tourism for the benefit of the protection of wilderness. He thought that if people were able to visit wild places, they would be more likely to want to support conservation efforts. In that spirit, the San Francisco-based organization decided to start an annual summer trip to the Sierra Nevada mountains for members in 1901. That first journey, a sojourn to Tuolumne Meadows (Yosemite National Park), marked the first trip of the Outings program.

Today, Sierra Club Outings carries on Muir’s legacy by still hosting trips in the Sierra, many U.S. national parks, and international destinations while supporting their mission to “explore, enjoy, and protect the planet.'' The NPS works with the Outings program in providing access through about 20 commercial use authorizations and support in the field for special service trips. Sierra Club Outings volunteer service trips balance the recreational side of a park visit with tangible work projects that benefit the parks. Their 2019 schedule includes service trips that focus on different projects in Grand Canyon National Park, Point Reyes National Seashore, and Mt. Rainier National Park, to name a few locations. The Outings program has a lot of variety, but they are also inclusive in offering volunteer vacations for the LGBTQ+ community, women’s only service experiences, and recreational outings for specific age groups. Interested Sierra Club members can browse and sign up for trips on the Outings website and through their printed annual catalogue. Stewardship on service trips can take different forms, and visitors can choose what suits their tastes and abilities.

During volunteer vacations, members have the opportunity to take part in stewardship by assisting in a number of different tasks like trail maintenance, trash cleanups, campsite maintenance, and habitat restoration. The work is deeply rewarding for both park and participant, says Michel Northsea, a longtime Sierra Club volunteer. “Whether you uproot invasive plants, build new trails, or work on existing trails, crawl around gathering native grass seeds, or work with rangers on fire prevention...service trips allow you the opportunity to leave behind more than your footprints in the best way.” Doing the work that Michel described would not be possible without the coordinated leadership between skilled Outings trip leaders and NPS staff.

Outings trip leaders work in the field at project sites alongside NPS staff and personnel from other agencies depending on the location. Trip leaders are integral to the program. According to Outings Director Tony Rango, trip leaders “scout, plan, and lead all of our trips out of a love for the land a passion for sharing them with others.” The organization puts leaders through a robust training program that includes multiple workshops, training in the field like backpacking trips, and certification courses like Wilderness First Aid and CPR. Once they have completed training, trip leaders go out on their first trip as a trainee, where they are mentored by seasoned leaders.

Looking at the numbers, service-focused Outings trips annually involve about 1,000 volunteers doing an estimated 25,000 hours of work. Whether a volunteer vacation or recreational trip to the parks, the Sierra Club Outings program is dedicated to inspiring visitors to support conservation and to having lasting results. “Our goal is to bring people together to experience the outdoors and provide them with the tools to create change” said Rango. Considering the partnership between the Sierra Club and the NPS is now over 100 years old, the success of the Outings program is a testament to the commitment of both partners to the conservation of our nation’s national park lands.

Visit the National Park Service Volunteer Website for more information.

Part of a series of articles titled Tourism Stories.

Last updated: August 19, 2019