Have you ever wanted to volunteer in a national park? It’s easier than most think and living close by isn’t necessary. Even though Gatlinburg, Tennessee is seven hours away, I’ve helped out in various locations around The Great Smokies. It takes a little planning and flexibility, but here’s how I do it.
*Oconaluftee Visitor Center and Mountain Farm
(A clean-up day in Smokemont Campground on the North Carolina side was cancelled due to weather two months ago, just prior to the Covid19 shutdown. It will hopefully be rescheduled at some point.)
How much time is involved? Usually just a half day, but others may be longer. Nine to noon is common.
Where to sign up?
First, you’ll need to join the Great Smoky Mountains Association and a basic one year membership is only $35. Here’s the link.
You can read their mission statement, but know that they’ve been helping The Great Smokies for a long time. Emails for volunteer opportunities are sent out to members. Be sure to look around the site and see what else your membership covers—great guided hikes (eleven miles in Cades Cove under a full moon is on my list) discounts, and the good feeling that comes with supporting America’s most visited national park.
*Incorporate a volunteer day into your vacation, or any other trip that takes you close to the park.
*Plan your lodging; stay close to your volunteer location the night before and you’ll have a short drive the next morning. Camping works well, but so will a hotel room.
*Wear old clothes, a hat, gloves, sunscreen, and take bug spray. Other tools will be provided. Take a towel or small stool to sit on in case weeding is one of your jobs.
*Have a small backpack to keep tissues, keys, water, and snacks close by.
*Talk a relative, spouse, or friend into joining you. My sister and I had a great day in Cataloochee after using the trusty old van as our camper there the night before. No hookups, no showers, but there is a flush restroom and cold water. Take your own bottle of soap and consider leaving it there for the next soapless visitor. What better way of making Kodak moments and memories—even though Sis prefers a Holiday Inn. She’s a trooper.
*Note: Cataloochee is a remote area of the park on the North Carolina side. Getting there requires extra time. Approximately twenty minutes of the drive is on a narrow, gravel mountain road with few railings. This is why camping there makes sense when volunteering the next morning—you cannot (!!) be in a rush, especially on the white knuckle section. That said, my travel tribe loves Cataloochee.
*Most volunteer sessions I’ve attended see a turnout of around thirty people. Each donated hour saves the understaffed park employees much time, and as the saying goes—many hands make light work. Time well spent.
*There’s no cell service in the park but keep your phone handy for a quick snap. The photo below was taken as I looked up while weeding the asparagus patch at Oconaluftee Visitor Center. A memorable moment.
Who knows—maybe we’ll see each other at a volunteer day down the trail. Hope so!