They should hire me as a recruiter for the parks, as my sixth friend just submitted an application. I feel like I’m perpetually telling people to go work in national parks, so I figured I’d create a post on the topic to save myself from repeating the same information multiple times.

Whether you’re looking for a fun way to make some extra cash over summer, whether you want to have a working vacation after graduation, or whether you’re looking for a long-term post where you’ll be happy, working at a national park can be one of the most rewarding experiences.

I’ve worked two summers in Yellowstone and one summer in Zion for Xanterra Parks and Resorts, and have friends working in other parks.

Note: This post applies to working for concessionaires, not to being a park ranger!

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Canyon Area, Yellowstone.

When should I go?

The longer, the better. If you can commit to at least three months, you’ve got a really good chance of being hired. The dates you put on your application, however, will most likely be the dates you are contracted to work.
But be realistic. If you finish up with school or another job on May 15, don’t say you can work May 16. You’ll want to leave at least a day for travelling, and you might want to consider if you’ll need a break.
Likewise, be realistic with your end dates. There’s nothing to stop you from quitting or leaving the park early–if you give at least two weeks notice, you’ll leave with a favourable report and can still be rehired. However, most parks offer a bonus upon completion of your contract, some per day and some per hour. For example, Yellowstone offers a bonus of $3 per day of your contract, which can be a nice $250 bonus on completion of a three month contract.
Typically, the parks need a lot of help at the end of summer when students return to college or people quit. If you want to get a foot in the door, go up for a month in late August/September.

If you apply early, have long dates, and are willing to accept an entry-level position, I’ll eat my hat if you don’t get a job.

Bunsen Peak, Mammoth Area, Yellowstone.

What job should I apply for?

Think about your skills and experience. Do you like working with people? Do you like being busy? Have you studied anything related to the hospitality industry?
If you have serving experience, I really recommend applying to be a server in F&B. They have by far one of the most stressful positions, but they make more money than most other positions thanks to tips. If you want to go to a bigger park, you could also apply to be a server assistant, which is an entry level position. However, in smaller parks like Zion, these are very coveted positions and much harder to get.
I’ve kind of engrained myself in Retail now, and for the most part, I enjoy it because it involves a lot of interacting with people, and I do enjoy that for the most part. My best work days are always the ones on which I get to talk to a guest about which hikes they should attempt, and it’s a really rewarding feeling to have someone come back and tell me they enjoyed their experience. However, I’m equally an extrovert and introvert, and I often found that after work I had to go and hide from everyone because it took a lot out of me. Handling a cash register and a bank comes naturally for me, but for some people, it was very stressful.
Other cushy departments include Front Desk (less exciting than retail, but still involves a lot of guest interaction), Maintenance (if you can work a wrench), Accounting (if you have the background), and HR/Recreation.
Housekeeping is a safe department to go for that’s entry-level. The work is rather menial, generally involving cleaning rooms and cabins, but if you’re there long enough, there are opportunities to become an inspector and move up. It’s not typically very stressful, and the department/areas within the department tend to get pretty close with those they work with. In the nicer hotels and occasionally in the cabins, you’ll also find tips.
F&B (food and beverage) is normally one of the biggest departments and thus gives you some flexibility if you don’t like your job to try and switch areas. I worked as a dishwasher for three weeks, and I loved it. It took a little getting used to–I was coming from working for a lawyer and a museum, pretty kushy jobs–but once I befriended my coworkers, we had so much fun yelling over the machines and singing (and annoying the line cooks!) After that, I worked in the employee dining room, and I hated it. Had I been there another two weeks or so, however, I would have received a server assistant position, so.
But honestly, don’t sweat the job. If you’re going up for the job, you’re going up for the wrong reasons–or you need to add reasons to be going! Be excited about the park. If you’re working with guests, having enthusiasm about your surroundings and knowledge about the area will improve their experience, and thus, yours.

The Subway, Zion.
The Subway, Zion.

Which park do I pick?

A big thing to take into consideration is the type of environment you want to be around. I had very different experiences working in Canyon Lodge in Yellowstone and in Zion because of the size. A quick search will tell you the size of the park–Zion is 593km2 and Yellowstone is 8,983km2. You can understand why I ran out of hikes in Zion in less than a fortnight, while I still haven’t explored half of Yellowstone.
As such, Zion was a much more intimate experience. Since it’s also open year-round, there are a lot of employees who are there fulltime and less college-age students. I was kind of stuck with the people (love you guys!)
Also, depending on how social you are naturally, take into consideration if the park has a transit system or if you’re bringing a car. If you have a car, you will be everyone’s best friend! My first summer in Yellowstone, I was very shy and as such I didn’t get to explore much until I opened up. In Zion, the first week I was very antisocial, decompressing from an emotional semester, but since there’s a shuttle in Zion, I was able to get out a lot.
Be aware that some parks have various locations within them. Working at Roosevelt Lodge (with about 50 employees) in Yellowstone is much different from working at Old Faithful (with two separate locations equating to around 800 employees) will elicit two very different experiences. If you’re allergic to horses, don’t work at Rosey!
Another thing to think about is the weather and the terrain. If you hate hot weather and you hate climbing up and down hills like I do, you should not work in Zion. (What was I thinking? I do not know.) It doesn’t get much hotter than 20 degrees in summer in Glacier, so if you want a nice tan, you should not go there.
But screw formulaity. I recommend just google imaging the parks and picking whichever looks prettiest to you. I went to Zion because friends had posted photos and I was sooo envious, so I decided to do it myself.

Pelican Valley, Lake Area, Yellowstone.
Pelican Valley, Lake Area, Yellowstone.

What’s the food and housing like?

This does depend on park and company. Most Xanterra properties operate with dorms and Employee Dining Rooms (EDRs.) However, some parks don’t have a set meal plan and give you more freedom–Yosemite, for example, has no EDR, but has employee kitchens and gives employees 50% off all menu items. The food in the EDR sucks. Deal with it. Most of them have salad or sandwich bars open all day, so you can always make a bagel or eat cereal. (Zion had ice cream. That was dangerous.)
Most parks allow you to bring your RV, so if you’re retired and looking for an adventure, that’s an easy way of keeping some privacy and having a mini-home. This is also generally the only way you can have pets in the parks.
For most people, however, dorm living is the life. Expect a roommate–or two, if you’re in Zion, where tourism is growing exponentially yet the NPS won’t allow for construction of new dorms! This isn’t college, however. In Yellowstone, I roomed with my male best friend platonically, and I couldn’t have picked a better roommate. No one cares who you live with or if you’re married. You can switch rooms as long as there’s a space. If you want to have a guest tent in your room, well, that’s your prerogative. If you plan on leaving a pad of post-it notes and a pen on your door, however, be aware that NPS may be concerned if your friends leave you ‘abusive’ messages.

North Rim, Grand Canyon National Park.

Will I make any money?

Probably not much. But a little. If you’re looking to save a lot of money, this isn’t the place. However, if you’re okay with only putting away a little bit of money, this is a good place. $100 per week is a good estimate for what will be deducted from your pay cheque for room, board, and medical insurance. On average, I made $5.50 per hour in Yellowstone. (I’d made $11.55 in San Francisco before my first summer…it still hurts!)
While the pay is meagre, there are few opportunities to spend your money. It’s easy to avoid temptation, and if you’re careful, you’ll find you save most of your paycheque.
Overtime isn’t common–most departments will go above and beyond to ensure that you don’t hit that mark. Check what the laws are for the state in which the park you’re applying for are–in Wyoming and Utah, overtime begins at 48 hours. As such, I was able to pick up a lot of extra hours that put me at 47.5 hours per week, but only one time in my three summers was I given permission to enter overtime.

Grand Teton National Park.

Am I too old? Too young?

It doesn’t matter how old you are! I work at my college’s alumni outreach center, and I’ve told at least three retired couples that they should consider working in a park. (I hope my boss isn’t reading this!) While it’s true that with seasonal work a lot of people are young and fit, I found in Yellowstone that there were quite a few retired people, couples and singles. I went hiking with these lovely people and though I did have to slow down, each experience was lovely and I enjoyed their perspectives on life. I was the youngest employee in Canyon my first summer, barely eighteen, but I had friends across the board. As long as you’re open to meeting people and willing, it doesn’t matter how old you are.

Cable Mountain, Zion.
Cable Mountain, Zion.

What did an average week look like?

In Zion, I closed all summer as I was lead, so I’m going to use Yellowstone ’14 as an example.

My “weekend” was Friday and Saturday. As such, on Sundays, I generally worked close 14:00-22:30. I’d get up early and go on a hike first thing, making it back in time for lunch and a bit of time to relax before work. Some Mondays I’d close and some Wednesdays I’d open, but normally from Monday to Wednesday I had midshifts, ranging from 10:00 to 12:30 start times. I’d sometimes hike before or after work, but generally used this time to relax and hang out in the dorms with friends. I often went on night hikes to the canyon, a twenty minute hike away. Occasionally I went to watch the sunrise, making it back in time for breakfast and a nap before work. On Thursdays, I opened, working from 07:00-15:00, but normally I could beg off by 14:00. Sometimes, I’d go away with friends camping or to stay in Grand Teton National Park, always making it back in time to close on Sunday! If I requested time off in advance, I could get a three day weekend, or make a plan to go hiking with a friend who had different days off. My coworkers were lovely and we often switched shifts to cover each other.

Lost Lake, Tower/Roosevelt Area, Yellowstone.
Lost Lake, Tower/Roosevelt Area, Yellowstone.

I’m not from the US. Can I apply?

If you’re a student, the J-1 visa is what you’re looking for. If you’re willing to come out with net zero because you spent your entire paycheque on travelling, you can totally apply. I’m not super familiar with the process, but you do generally need to attend a job fair through your school or in your local country and they screen international applicants with more scrutiny than domestic applicants. Don’t let the paperwork discourage you: get in early and apply. I’ve worked with the coolest people from all over the world: Taiwan, Poland, Slovakia, Czech, Ecuador…

The Narrows, Zion.

Where do I apply?

(Because internet searches are too hard for some people… <3)

Xanterra job opportunities can be found here. I have a lot of issues with Xanterra’s executive branch and I think they’re an evil corporation; however, they’ve given me the best summers of my life, so I suppose I have a begrudging respect. I’ve also heard that other companies aren’t as fun to work for. They operate in Crater Lake, Death Valley, Glacier, Grand Canyon South Rim, Mount Rushmore, Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, and Zion. For other parks, do a quick internet search!

Applications for summer can open as early as the previous October, but generally, the bigger parks don’t send notifications until January. Certain departments that require interviews will call in November. I applied in March my first summer and had no problems getting an entry level position.

An elk in front of Grand Prismatic Spring, Old Faithful Area, Yellowstone.
An elk in front of Grand Prismatic Spring, Old Faithful Area, Yellowstone.

Other thoughts:

Just do it.
Honestly, I think that most people who are going straight from high school to college should be required to work for a summer in a national park first! There’s a reason why my friends roll my eyes when I mention Yellowstone again and there’s a reason some of my closest friends are those I met in Canyon. There’s a reason that Canyon Village is the place I consider home.
If you like the outdoors, to hike, or to adventure, you’ll find many like minded people in the parks. People who care about our world, people who aren’t materialistic, and people who are chill. People who have no plans of ever going to college and who are content to live. Yellowstone ’13 was the first time in over two years I hadn’t felt stressed, and every time I feel down, I find myself wishing I was back in another park where life is more simple.

This is by far the best way to explore every nook and cranny of a park, and believe me, there will always be new places to find. Seeing a park in early May when it’s still devoid of guests, in June as the sun invites wild animals out, in July when it snows randomly at midnight over the canyon, and during thunder storms in August is magical.

Angel's Landing, Zion.
Angel’s Landing, Zion.

Got more questions? Shoot me a message and I’ll see if I can help!