Vacation free in the great out-of-doors in our nation's most incredible natural settings
When I was in college, several friends worked summers in a national park. I kick myself now that I didn't join them. They got a fun-filled vacation with pay. I returned each year to a waiting warehouse job in my hometown. It seemed like a prison sentence. Come fall, my buddies regaled me with tales of exciting outdoor adventures and the gorgeous coeds they met. I kept my mouth shut. Like mine, their jobs weren't great-washing dishes, serving tables, hauling trash. But those perks sure sounded terrific. Imagine it! Spending an entire summer at Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or dozens of other parks. (Or working in the winter. The South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park never closes, and winter is prime time for exploring the exotic corners of Death Valley National Park.) Lots of great times with new friends. For outdoor addicts like me, it's a dream vacation. And you earn while you play. Now that's a travel bargain.
Nowadays, students, retirees, and other folks still sign up for temporary park jobs as a way to see the country, have fun, and bank a little money. In most park jobs, count on receiving cheap lodging and meals. On days off, hiking, fishing, or swimming hardly cost more. It's a fact of park work: If you can't spend, you'll save.
The big change in recent years is the Internet, which makes it easier to track down seasonal jobs. A number of Web sites offer updated details on temporary employment at parks and other outdoor destinations. Read on for a list of the most useful ones. And keep in mind some of the drawbacks to park work. If you can't handle being stuck in a remote wilderness outpost, try elsewhere next summer. Maybe my old warehouse job is open.
Where (and what) the jobs are Park officials-the human resources managers who hire summer help-tell me that if you want a job, you almost certainly will find one. That is, if you're not picky about what park or (especially) the job you get. Generally, you will be asked to commit to a three-month stay. Think how amazed your parents-or spouse-will be to see the skill and speed with which you can make a bed after three months of cleaning lodge rooms.
Sean LaBarge, 23, thinks he lucked out in his first park job. Unhappy pushing burgers at a fast-food outlet in Yuma, Arizona, he spotted a Web posting for a front-desk job at the famed Bright Angel Lodge at Grand Canyon National Park. The chance to enhance his resume with an interesting white-collar job appealed to him. So did the Grand Canyon's cool summer temperatures, a sharp contrast to the scorching heat of the Yuma desert.
When I talked to him, he had been on the job a month and was still enthusiastic about it. As a newcomer, he was paid $6.50 an hour, but raises could be expected. His two-person dorm room, just steps from the canyon rim, cost him $16 a week, and he ate well at the employee cafeteria for less than $10 a day. At these prices, "You can save a big bundle here," he told me. Uniforms are provided, but no health coverage. Employees must be at least 18 to live in a dorm.
In his time off, LaBarge hiked into the canyon on the popular Bright Angel Trail. But Xanterra, the company that runs the Grand Canyon lodges, also maintains a staff recreation center, where he can use the fitness room or watch movies for free.
Off-duty workers often unwind at the sports bar at nearby Maswik Lodge.
A park job can be "a rich life experience," advises Bill Berg, 49, of Gardiner, Montana, and he ought to know. He launched a career at Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park in 1972 by pumping gas on his summers off from college. That's where he met his wife; she was pumping gas, too. His wife became a ranger, while he recruited employees for one of the park's concessionaires. That led in 1995 to CoolWorks.com (see its Web address below), the job-listing firm he founded. It was one of the first online databanks for seasonal park employment.
"The parks are a real melting pot," Berg assures the adventurers, young and older, eager to follow in his footsteps. "You meet people from all over, and it's not at all hard to make friends. For people who live in an urban area, it's a great way to get to know the wilderness."
Sometimes, as happened with Berg, the lifestyle gets in your blood. Some people swing from summer work in the parks to a winter job in a ski town. The big resorts routinely lure Yellowstone's summer temps with visions of deep powder and endless runs on the slopes.
Still, what seems like a dream job for some might prove to be a nightmare. Dorm life can be a drag if you prefer privacy. And the nearest mall to the Grand Canyon is 90 miles away. The isolation gets to some people. LaBarge lost his first roommate early on. "I've had my fill of the Grand Canyon," the disgruntled young man told him. "I'm going home."
Where to apply
There are two basic alternatives.
Ranger Ruth: The National Park Service, the federal agency that oversees more than 380 parklands, regularly hires seasonal help. Depending on your experience, you could spend the summer doing archaeological research; patrolling trails as a substitute ranger; leading campfire talks; fighting fires; staffing a search-and-rescue team; serving as a lifeguard; or tackling tasks such as collecting fees, planting shrubs or, yes, hauling trash.
Housekeeper Harold: The other major alternative is to work for a concessionaire-one of the firms that manage the lodges, restaurants, and gift shops. A lucky few become fishing guides or kayak instructors. But first-timers are more likely to wait tables, wash dishes, or make beds.
National Park Service jobs tend to pay more than the concessions jobs, but openings are fewer. At the Grand Canyon, one of America's busiest parks, the National Park Service employs about 540 people. Of these, 100 to 200 are seasonal and only work in summer, according to Larry Thompson, the park's human resources specialist. In contrast, Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the official concessionaire, keeps a summer work force of 1,200-about 400 of whom are seasonal, says Patrice Armstrong, its staffing manager.
At Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, the Grand Teton Lodge Company hires about 1,000 temps each summer. Choice jobs include boat captain (three to five slots per season), cowboy/wrangler (25), and van driver (six). At Yosemite National Park in California, the Yosemite Concession Services Corporation takes on 800 seasonal temps. You'll probably be an "unassigned hire," which means you take whatever job is open when you show up. Chances are you will clean rooms or dish up cafeteria food.
If you want confirmed summer work, start looking by late winter. At Virginia's Shenandoah National Park, lodges line up temps as early as January or February, according to Debbie Zinn of ARAMARK Sports and Entertainment Services, the concessionaire. For a winter job, get moving by early fall, since fewer openings are available. But don't be discouraged if you miss out. Some hires fail to show up, and dropouts create last-minute openings.
For a National Park Service job, consult the Web site of the park that interests you. Shenandoah, for example, is at www.nps.gov/shen and www.shenandoah.national-park.com/jobs.htm. Addresses for other parks with jobs include the Grand Canyon, www.nps.gov/grca; Yellowstone, www.nps.gov/yell; Yosemite, www.nps.gov/yose; Glacier, www.nps.gov/glac or www.glacier.national-park.com; Bryce Canyon, www.nps.gov/brca; and Redwood, www.nps.gov/redw-you'll easily be able to find or deduce others.
For a national overview of positions, check the agency's seasonal employment site: www.sep.nps.gov. If you don't have Web access, call the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., at 202/208-5074.
For a concessionaire job, check the concessionaire's Web site. (You can usually find it from the park's Web site.) Also check third-party sites listing openings. They include: CoolWorks.com (www.coolworks.com), the most comprehensive site, lists positions at more than 35 parks. Fun Jobs.com (www.funjobs.com) has fewer listings, but is useful. ResortJobs.com (www.resortjobs.com) and ActionJobs.com (www.actionjobs.com) sometimes post something interesting.
So, now that I'm well out of college, is it too late for a temporary park job? A summer at Montana's Glacier National Park might be a great way to beat the heat. "Go for it," urged Alex, a clerk I met at the Bright Angel Lodge. A retired heavy-machine operator, Alex and his wife now hold temporary Grand Canyon jobs. "We're on a great adventure."