Yosemite National Park Draws Professionals and Volunteers

By Ron Stauffer

YOSEMITE, Calif. — Judy Craig retired from teaching 18 years ago. But she’s spent a month each summer for the past eight years volunteering at Yosemite National Park.

Sporting khaki shorts, a dark blue shirt and name tag, she spends each day volunteering at one of the many information booths located throughout the park.

Judy Craig, a volunteer at Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove has been volunteering for the past eight years.

For the past seven years, she worked in Yosemite Valley, the picturesque area in the park most famous for its views of El Capitan and Half Dome. This year, she’s working outside the valley, attending the information center at Mariposa Grove near the park’s southern entrance where the Giant Sequoia trees grow.

Leaning back in a director’s chair, she answers questions for visitors, hands out maps, gives detailed directions on hiking trails and clicks a tally counter button to record the number of people she talks to. This season, she’s counted between 300 and 400 visitors per day.

Craig is one of the volunteers who works with the Yosemite Conservancy, a nonprofit that gives grants to the park and facilitates education outreach and volunteerism within the park.

She warns people to use the restrooms at the welcome center by the over-full parking lot before taking a shuttle up to Grizzly Giant Loop.

“They tell me for some reason, the restrooms up there are locked. We don’t know why,” Craig tells a group of people waiting for the bus.

Visitors at Yosemite National Park get a “hands on” feel for the Giant Sequoia in Mariposa Grove.

Helping visitors who come to the park each year (over 4.3 million in 2017) is a passion for Craig and one she’s well suited for. Before retiring, she spent her career as a school teacher in Stockton, about 100 miles west of Yosemite.

“I was a teacher for 30 years. I did high school, but my last 20 years, Kindergarten. I loved it. LOVED it,” she recalls.

One thing she’s always been passionate about is riding her bicycle.

In Stockton, “I rode my bike every day. When I’m in [Yosemite] Valley, I only ride my bike.”

Volunteers like Craig live and work in the park for a month at a time, averaging 32 hours a week.

They get to spend their time exploring the park without having to pay for a park pass and receive other small perks such as access to swimming pools, campsites, showers and more.

A brochure aimed at recruiting volunteers states perhaps the most obvious perk.

“Participants in the program gain work experience in one of the world’s most beautiful places.”

It’s no surprise that retirees like Craig have found a calling in helping others enjoy the beauty of Yosemite.

People in the prime of their working years are also drawn to the magnetic natural splendor of our national parks.

Seasonal Park Ranger Jeff Lahr explains the extremely shallow roots of the Giant Sequoia.

Park Ranger Jeff Lahr also works in Mariposa Grove. Like Craig, Lahr also has a background in education. Lahr, however, has worked in Yosemite since 1991 and is still teaching full time.

“This is my 28th year. I’m just here during the summer. I teach school when I’m not here,” he says. “For me, it starts the Sunday after school and goes until the Saturday before school.”

As a seasonal ranger, he’s a full-time paid professional but only works during the summer season when school is out.

Lahr is a middle school art teacher in Arroyo Grande, about five hours south of the park, and spends his days teaching seventh and eighth-grade students a variety of skills that include public speaking, performance art and visual art.

He began his career as a ranger when he saw an ad in a magazine.

“I saw, in a teaching magazine… a call for volunteers [at Yosemite]. And that was my first year as a volunteer. I was in the history center which is in Wawona.”

Park Ranger Jeff Lahr leads a group of park visitors to the grove’s California Tunnel Tree.

The Pioneer Yosemite History Center in Wawona is an area near the Giant Sequoias where historic buildings are gathered. Lahr worked with a team of people who impersonated historical characters for visitors of Wawona. His volunteerism eventually became an opportunity for a second career.

“My boss said ‘I’d like to have you on my paid staff,’ and I said ‘OK, I wouldn’t mind.'”

The application process was far more stringent than that initial job offer, though.

“It was a huge application,” he recalls. “I remember it was twenty-three pages long. They ask you [about] every single skill that you might need in any park. Like spelunking, if you can use a motorboat.”

The skills he listed on his application were backpacking and public speaking.

“Public speaking because I was teaching it at the time, and I had backpacking experience because I grew up hiking,” he said.

Lahr likes having the two careers he’s had for the past 21 years, but he is aware of the toll it can take.

Park Ranger Jeff Lahr leads a group of park visitors to the grove’s California Tunnel Tree.

“The downside is if you have anyone you care about at home. You can’t take them up here with you. I grew up leaving my family behind. Ironically, my first Sunday that I usually left home was Father’s Day. So, Father’s Day, my little girls [were] crying, waving to their dad.”

His children eventually grew to love Yosemite, like him, though.

“That was kind of sad, but I go home on my days off every week, and one of my daughters now is a ranger here. Actually, we are housemates this season.”

The park service’s mission is to preserve places like Yosemite “for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” It’s the volunteers and park rangers like Craig and Lahr who are helping make this possible.