A Cheaper Way to See the USA — Volunteering in Nation’s Parks

Most of the top wilderness and historical destinations in the country offer hookups or other lodging to volunteers. Here's how to get in on a rewarding and inexpensive travel opportunity.

A Cheaper Way to See the USA — Volunteering in Nation’s Parks Photo (cc) by Grand Canyon NPS

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 of volunteer opportunities with amenities that you might find amenable also are available through federal agencies, including 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.

Denali National Park & Preserve campground hosts volunteer to stay for free and manage a campgroundCampground hosts volunteer to stay for free at Denali National Park & Preserve and manage a campground. Photo by National Park Service

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 hookups (water, sewer and electricity) for their RV or full trailer in the large campgrounds and partial hookups in remote campgrounds. Propane is reimbursed after the season.

Rob Nurre playing the role of Frank Davey, a turn-of-the-century storekeeper in Garnet, waits for a young customer to choose her candyRob Nurre playing the role of Frank Davey, a turn-of-the-century storekeeper in Garnet, waits for a young customer to choose her candy. Photo by David Abrams, BLM, Western Montana Zone

  • 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.

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, hookups 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 spend five to seven days aboard a houseboat donated by park concessionaire Aramark. They bring their own food.

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