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Volunteering in National Parks

by Rebecca Watson
A volunteer at Governors Island National Monument plants flowers at Fort Jay / NPS Photo

With over 85 million acres to protect, the National Park Service (NPS) has many projects that could use an extra hand. Volunteer opportunities in national parks abound, and whether it’s a one-time service project or volunteer event or a long-term volunteer position, NPS is grateful for its VIPs – Volunteers in Parks. As a volunteer, you can work behind the scenes on maintenance projects or as a park ambassador greeting and guiding visitors. Let's explore just some of the ways you can get involved at a national park near you!

Getting Started

Volunteer Gina Mazahreh and Park Guide Paul Lenci
Volunteer Gina and Park Guide Paul at Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site (NPS Photo / Bill Urbin)

There are more than 420 national parks sites across the country and most Americans live within 100 miles of a national park. Identify a park close by, then visit or search NPS volunteer events to find upcoming volunteer opportunities. You can also visit a park’s website to search for volunteer opportunities and contact information.

If you’re planning on volunteering with a group or are volunteering with a child, make sure to contact the park in advance to ensure they can accommodate a group of your size and have age-appropriate activities available. Nothing available at the moment? Stay in touch with the park and sign up for any volunteer newsletters to keep informed of any new opportunities!

Lending a Hand at Visitor Services

a volunteer in a visitor center greets guests
A volunteer at Denali national Park & Preserve greets a guest (NPS Photo / Mary Lewandowski)

Some parks could use an extra person or two in visitor centers to help answer guests’ questions, give directions, or work the park entrances. Friendly encounters at visitor services help people get acquainted with the park, and you can help connect them to ranger programs, new exhibits, nearby trails, and more. Some of these visitor service volunteer opportunities require longer shifts or extended time spent on your feet, so make sure you’re ready to make that commitment before signing up at the park.

Tree Planting

Volunteers plant trees at Cuyahoga Valley National Park (NPS Photo / Danielle Bauer)

In some parks, the restoration of habitats starts with the planting of a seed, and volunteers can be a part of these long-term projects. For example, the wildfire resistant longleaf pine tree is home to nearly 3,000 bird and plant species, and though forests of longleaf pines once covered 90 million acres of land, only 3% of original longleaf pine forests remain today. NPF and partners like Arbor Day foundation, American Youth Works, and more are supporting seedling planting activities across the country. In 2019, NPF, in partnership with the Student Conservation Association, supported service corps crews who planted longleaf pine seedlings at Big Thicket National Preserve.

In 2019 NPF also supported the annual Plant a Tree at Flight 93 event at Flight 93 National Memorial. In partnership with Friends of Flight 93 National Memorial, this event hosted nearly 500 volunteers who planted a total of 13,600 seedlings in the park. The success of the planting led to another volunteer initiative with Penn State arborists, who will tend to the planted seedlings throughout the year. This volunteer work is part of a larger reforestation project that seeks to reclaim wildlife habitats, create a windbreak for the memorial groves, and ultimately cultivate a living memorial in honor of the passengers and crew members of Flight 93.

Playing Host at Campgrounds

Volunteer campground hosts in Harpers Ferry National Historical Park (NPS Photo)

For a unique volunteer experience, sign up to be a campground host at a participating park. Assist people with the ins and outs of camping on public lands and lend a hand with light maintenance and monitoring work. Campground hosts are often the link between park visitors and NPS, acting as a trusted resource for information about the park, the local area, and the basic rules and regulations at the campground.

The exact responsibilities for a campground host will depend upon the campground and park, so make sure to read the volunteer application fully before volunteering. This is often a seasonal volunteer opportunity with a regular schedule and training required. Certain parks offer housing or amenities for campground hosts, such as cabins or RV and trailer pads.

Maintaining Trails

A trail volunteer at Mount Rainier National Park (NPS Photo)

There are countless trails and paths within park lands, and all of them require constant work to make sure parks are safe and welcoming to visitors. Trail maintenance volunteers help improve safety and prevent long-term deterioration on park trails by performing various tasks, from the collection of debris to cutting away brush to clear the pathways. Many parks offer Adopt-a-Trail programs, which are great for groups looking to volunteer. A trail adopter can select a trail and then are responsible for the patrol and maintenance of their trail throughout a year.

Trail clearing and maintenance is a major undertaking in many parks, whether it's done by volunteers, park staff, or paid service corps crew opportunities. NPF supports several programs that help with this work, such as service corps programs. In 2020, NPF invested more than $3.8 million in service corps programs that help engage young adults and veterans. Following in the footsteps of the Great Depression-era Civil Conservation Corps (CCC), today’s service corps undertake a range of projects in parks, from invasive species removal to historical preservation and trail restoration, and get on the job training, skills, and a stipend, all aiding in the conversion of their experience into a real world career.

Clearing Invasive Species

Volunteer wearing an orange vest holding a piece of debris
Volunteers in Anacostia Park (NPS Photo / Rachel Hendrix)

Invasive species – non-native species that cause harm to the environment, economy, or human, animal, or plant health – are a complex challenge for parks, and the way parks address the threats they pose to natural habitats continues to change as we learn more. Volunteers can learn about how to spot invasive species in their local park and how to best report or clear out the invasive species, as well as the risks they pose to the park’s greater habitat. Whether it’s spending a day volunteering in a park or a more regular commitment, these efforts are important to maintaining our parks' natural habitats.

Invasive species can play a major role in a park’s natural ecosystem, and NPF supports a variety of programs to help park’s landscape and wildlife conservation efforts. From the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park and bison to Badlands National Park, to the restoration of wetlands in Everglades National Park and the preservation of Antelope Flats in Grand Teton National Park, NPF and conservation partners have helped conserve over 135,000 acres of park lands.

From sewing and library and archival assistance to trail maintenance and grounds care, there are plenty of ways to lend a hand in a national park for those willing to help. There are virtual volunteer opportunities as well – explore all volunteer options on Plus, volunteers with 250 service hours with federal agencies like NPS, the U.S. Forest Service, and more can earn a free Volunteer Pass to parks. Roll up your sleeves, find a volunteer opportunity in a park near you, and get out there!