What Do People Think You Do?
When most people think of a park ranger, they think of the law enforcement type, when there are many jobs under the umbrella category of ‘park ranger.’
Some rangers do enforce laws and traffic within parks, those that are technically proficient in niches such as rock climbing, rangers that work directly with guests at the gate or at trailheads, backcountry rangers who sometimes hike overnight in the park, and those that work with children or adults giving interpretive lessons and guided hikes.
Another misconception is that most ranger jobs are full-time and year-round. Most entry-level National Park Service (and BLM/Forest Service) jobs are seasonal, with year-round employment being reserved for higher positions. Most seasonal positions run from May-October or something similar during the high tourist season.
What Do You Really Do?
As a park ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park, I spend about 75 percent of my time helping guests select the hike that best suits their needs at popular trailheads. We review maps together and discuss weather and trail conditions, hazards, and technical challenges.
I spend only about an hour of my shift actually hiking and helping hikers who are lost or need tips. Sometimes I spend my shift directing traffic or teaching kids pursuing their junior ranger badge. At the beginning of the high season, we spend a lot of days putting up signs, shoveling snow, taking courses, painting, etc. Essentially, being a park ranger at a trailhead is a customer service position in the most beautiful of locations.
A Day In The Life
First thing in the morning, I arrive at the trailhead and go for a little hike, enjoying my coffee by the lake before the tourists show up. Then, I go back to the ranger station and clean up a bit. Hikers begin to show up around then, and I answer questions about trails, provide directions, and hand out maps.
Often we have to coordinate with law enforcement rangers on the radio when someone tries to bring a dog on the trail or is camping illegally, or violates park rules in other ways. When the park gets really crazy in the afternoon, we have to do a lot of parking lot patrolling and bus line monitoring, which is absolutely the worst part of the job.
But, inevitably, the crowds leave, and I have the opportunity to walk the trails and help kids with their junior ranger badges. Rangers typically work in 8-hour shifts with a half-hour lunch break, like most other jobs. Shifts are normally either 7-3:30, 8:30-5, or 10:30-7 or something similar, with rangers staggered throughout the day.
If I work the closing shift, it’s typically alone, which means locking up a remote ranger station in the dark. This is a typical day, but there are also many days when a search and rescue is happening, and I need to assist with that or respond to a medical emergency near the trailhead until emergency personnel show up.
What’s The Average Income?
The government ‘GS scale’ is used, and an entry-level job at the rate of GS-3 pays around $11 an hour, with an adjustment for location. The Rocky Mountains was about $15 per hour. Most full-time, year-round positions begin at GS-5, and the annual salary would be something like $35,000 per year.
What Education If Any Is Needed?
There are tons of options! Someone with a degree in natural resource management, criminal justice, fire science, human resources, etc., could find jobs with the park service or other land management agencies. Entry-level, seasonal jobs do not require a degree. The most important obstacle is learning to navigate USAJobs.com, where all the jobs are listed. Typically, seasonal positions are posted over the winter for the upcoming season. For a young person looking for job experience that would translate well on a job application, a youth conservation corps or any type of manual labor or trail maintenance volunteering would be perfect.
Something Important To Know
There are tons of ways to work for the National Park Service. If you love being outside but are intimidated because it seems like a physically demanding job, that is not always the case! All types of people from all walks of life work in our parks.