So, You Want To Be A Park Ranger?

So, You Want To Be A Park Ranger?

Just back from the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market the business of adventure is very much front of mind. With a major push underway within the industry to expand the diversity of outdoor recreation and environmental conservation I am especially thinking about how a person might begin a career. After almost 30 years steeped in the community of outdoor professionals it’s hard to fathom where to begin turning your passion into a vocation.

I recently received an email from a reader who asks the same question:


This is a long shot for me but I have to put this out there.  I am a 58 yo Black woman. I work as a program manager for a child and adolescent mental health agency.  I have been working with kids on some level for over 30 years. However, I have always wanted to work in the outdoors as a park ranger/interpreter.

  I love being outdoors and have always want to work outdoors. I am intrigued by botany and wildlife. I read your book and was so jealous that you were brave enough to follow your passion. Growing up, my self esteem was so low that I needed the guidance and approval of others to make decisions.   I look upon the young people of color who are fearless and are making their mark in outdoor rec with envy. Where were these options when I was growing up? Were they there, but in a different part of the country?

I guess I’m writing you for your input and thoughts.  Is it too late for me? What are my options. I see all of these opportunities for young people of color in the NPS. Is there any room for me as an adult?  What would I have to do…what steps must I take to make my dream come true?

I often say that I have far more questions than answers. There is always someone out there who can offer a more nuanced and insightful response to even the most vexing queries. Having never been a National Park Ranger I naturally reached out to someone who is  and asked what she thinks.

Betty Reid Soskin is an interpretive ranger at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Homefront National Historic Park in Richmond, California. An African-American woman at the age of  96, she is the oldest ranger currently on active duty with the National Park Service.  Here’s what she suggests:

NPS Ranger Betty Reid Soskin

“I can think of no better way than to find the nearest National Park and enter their docent training.  Volunteering at a park puts one in a position of both learning the protocols, practices, lore of the site, in order to see whether they fit with one’s own life goals.  It also allows park staff to evaluate your capabilities and talents in ways that no other method offers.

“As a volunteer, it’s possible to get into the rhythm of the NPS while in complete control of how much time and energy you’d like to invest.  The opportunities for learning are plentiful, and varied.  Though not paid positions, they offer other advantages in later years, advantages of community, friendship, a sense of giving back at a time when the need for financial compensation may be less than at an earlier time.  It sure beats Friday night Bingo at the Senior Center!

“My having become an interpretive park ranger at 85 has less to do with anything but the fact that, uniquely, the Rosie the Riveter park was celebrating and memorializing the WWII Era when I was a 20 year-old member of the Home Front work Force, making me a valuable primary source of the history of the site.  This would probably not have been true otherwise.  The NPS placed a value on my personal history that few could have matched, at any age.

“There certainly are no guarantees, but I’ve met so many docents over the years, people who have become invaluable to the mission and intent of the National Park Service.”

Regardless of one’s age, this is excellent advice for anyone starting a career in outdoor recreation. There are very few direct paths into a full-time job with professional organizations like the National Park Service. Of the many rangers I know personally all of them began first as a volunteer. Most first-time paid positions are part-time at best and each of my friends and colleagues spent years working up to earning that green/gray uniform and steady paycheck.

Even with years of education and professional experience a career in outdoor recreation is hard to come by. But it is NOT impossible. Anyone who has tried to navigate the USAJobs.Gov web site knows what a deeply frustrating and discouraging experience it can be. Persistence however does pay off in time. Resources available online at ParkRangerEDU for example provide detailed information on where and how to apply for the latest positions. And sometimes just being present as a regular visitor to the National Park or Historic Site where you most want work is best way to start the career you’re looking for.

Do you have questions about outdoor recreation or environmental conservation? Ask James! Drop me a note with your questions at and I’ll do my best to answer them. If you’ve got some advice or resources to share on this or other topics please leave them in the comment section below.