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June 21, 2016 4 minute READ

Volunteering in the National Parks

tags Adventure | Inspiration | Local Flavor
locations All

Throughout 2016, we’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of the National Park System by exploring the history of the parks, offering ideas about how to Find Your Park in the southeast, as well as tips to help you make the most of your park adventure.

nps-volunteer-3.jpgOver the last few months, we’ve explored the National Parks in North Carolina HERE, South Carolina HERE, and Tennessee HERE. This month, we're exploring volunteer vacations in the National Parks. These unique travel and service opportunities give volunteers the chance to travel to new destinations, experience nature up close, meet other outdoor enthusiasts, and take a vacation that nourishes the body and spirit.

Charlie, who works in the Asheville Store, spent a week working with a volunteer trail crew in an area of the Smokies between the Cataloochee Valley and Mount Sterling.  This stunning part of the park is just over the Tennessee state line in a portion of the Smokies that rests in North Carolina and is about an hour north of the Waynesville Store. The valley is nestled among some of the most rugged mountains in the southeast and is surrounded by 6,000-foot peaks.

nps-volunteer-4.jpg"Led by a park ranger, our volunteer crew created fixtures, gutters, and berms for water management and to the keep trails from eroding away. We also installed railroad ties to reinforce earthworks," shares Charlie.

"Even though the Blue Ridge Mountains and Smokies are similar in many ways,” he continues, “they feel quite different. The climate is wetter in the Smokies; therefore, the flora and fauna in the region is quite unique. Biologists on my volunteer crew were fascinated by the variety of salamanders, geckos, and newts in the Park.

“The Smokies are also dotted with many historic buildings like schools, homes, churches, and outbuildings from the early 20th century, when prosperous settlements grew up around commercial apple orchards and small farms. 

tn-nps-8.jpg“One of our most memorable days in the Cataloochee Valley was during the elk breeding season. The bulls came down from the woods to the pastures and meadows to mate with the females. We could hear their mating call for miles around,” Charlie marvels. [Elk were reintroduced to the park in 2001 and have had great success. You can read more about it HERE.]

Deb Lazenby, community outreach manager at Mast General Store, served on the American Hiking Society (AHS) Board of Directors for many years. “The AHS works directly with the National Park Service to help maintain our nation’s trails. Since 1976, this non-profit has been dedicated to preserving trails, the areas that surround them, and the hiking experience.

 “National Trails Day is AHS’s signature event. This day is celebrated the first Saturday in June at city, state, and national parks across the country. Some communities hold a festival and others use that time to service and repair trails.”

nps-volunteer-2.jpgThe American Hiking Society’s other main focus is volunteer vacations. You can join them for a week of building and maintaining trails in exciting and diverse locations across the country. Volunteer Vacations foster public land stewardship and provide volunteers the opportunity to give back to the trails they love, meet new people, and have a great time doing it.

Deb shares, “Trail crews are made up of 6 to 10 volunteers and are led by a crew leader. Volunteer vacations involve day hiking or backpacking and accommodations vary from primitive campsites to cabins and bunkhouses. Tools and supervision are provided by the host agency or organization.

“I had an incredible volunteer vacation experience on the Mountains to Sea Trail in North Carolina,” Deb continues. The group I worked with hailed from Mississippi, Arkansas, and Georgia. In fact, my group originally connected during an earlier volunteer vacation, and they meet at a different location every year to help restore trails across the country. It’s a wonderful way to meet new people and explore natural places across America.

nps-volunteer-1.jpg“During our volunteer vacation, we repaired and reconstructed switchbacks along a section of the Mountain to Sea Trail.  Alan DeHart, founder of the AHS, lead our group. He’s a gentle leader, incredibly interesting, and shared a great deal of information about the vegetation and history of the trail section where we were working.

“What makes the American Hiking Society so special is that they’re dedicated to the conservation as well as maintenance of our country’s trails. Whether urban or back-country, they’ve become a leading voice in helping preserve our natural places for generations to come.”

If you’re interested in exploring service opportunities in our national parks, click HERE. You can also find volunteer vacations with the American Hiking Society by clicking HERE.

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