Voluntourism: What is volunteer tourism and how does it work in Yosemite?

Tom Breathnach recounts a week of volunteering in America’s favourite National Park
Voluntourism: What is volunteer tourism and how does it work in Yosemite?

Call it the ultimate call of the wild. As post-pandemic tourism numbers return and travel hotspots heat-up across the world, I’d long wanted to join one of the growing number of international voluntourism programmes to tackle the woes over-tourism. So last month, I signed up for the ultimate altruistic adventure by channelling my inner park ranger (or perhaps lumberjack) and headed to California’s wilderness wonderland, Yosemite National Park, to volunteer.

Day 1

After witnessing a fireball sunset over the Golden Gate Bridge, blitzing through the camping aisles of what seemed like California’s largest Walmart and driving until the final signals of local Christian radio crackled out, I finally reached the South Entrance of Yosemite National Park, 320km shy of San Francisco.

“You can use the employee lane from now on!”, the park ranger advised me from the booth as I flash my NPS Volunteer pass like it’s a golden ticket to the Oscars. I was in. But not quite in. Yosemite is vast; a 3,000km² wilderness almost half the size of County Cork — and a further hour hits the clock before I wind down to Yosemite Valley with its waterfalls, redwoods forests and jaw-dropping granite formations where I reached my dream base for the week, North Pines campground.

I was travelling with Conservation VIP, an eco-minded non-profit organisation who offer volunteer programmes in heavily trafficked UNESCO sites across the world, and welcoming me on-site are my trip leaders Michael Chambers-Purcell and Danielle Simpson. I’m joined by seven fellow volunteers, an eclectic gathering of Americans from nursing students to retired physicists. After setting up camp (it’s B.Y.O tent) and enjoying our first camp dinner, it’s an early night, the distant thunder of Vernal Falls offering nature’s perfect lullaby.

Tom's camp at Yosemite 
Tom's camp at Yosemite 

Views along the Glacier Point Hike
Views along the Glacier Point Hike

Day 2

“Did you guys hear that rattle last night?” It’s my first wake-up in Yosemite and with no Wi-Fi signal, rumblings of a bear in camp is the news of the day. Or of the morning, at least. Our day starts at 6.30am with freshly brewed coffee offering a welcome antidote to some camp sniffles following a chilly night: can dip down to below 5°C at night here in May.

Our working week began at breakfast where, like every day, we’re joined by park rangers (and all-round super cool dudes) Eamon Schneider and Matt DiNome who’ll both brief us and supervise us on our projects ahead.

Our first task, our under the sheer magnificence of El Capitan mountain was (roll up that plaid shirt) splittin’ timber. We were participating in a pilot programme at Yosemite where fallen cedar trees are being repurposed as guard rails to both protect park vegetation and stop the current import of rail timber from Idaho. Wedges and jack hammers in hand, we get to graft. I was teamed up with retired geologist, Thomas, from the Bay Area, and after a day of debarking, chipping and heaving our team has created a sizeable stock of posts to surely safeguard a meadow or two.

Back at camp that evening, a fine dinner (pasta with freshly caught rainbow trout) awaited courtesy of our group’s very own camp caterers, Dawn Pliche and partner Keary who also own a farm just outside the park. Dawn, a subsequent Google stalk would reveal, was once a caterer to stars having served the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger on Terminator 2 to Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle. So it explains why she’s so non-plussed by my coeliac demands whipping up everything from butter tagliatelle to late night S’mores, all gluten-free. I’m a happy camper, indeed.

Day 3

Day three, was a case of cultural conservation. Our station for the day was Wahhoga Village; a native American settlement in Yosemite which was controversially demolished by the NPS fifty years ago but is today being revived as a cultural centre. Bill Tucker, a native Miwuk Indian who grew up on the site, welcomes our team to the village, offering us a guided recce of Wahhoga which still features everything from ancient granite mortars hole for grinding acorn flour to traditional cedar wood tepees. Task in hand? To reroute a stretch of the Yosemite Valley Loop flanking Wahhoga to offer more privacy to the village.

We get to work, all assigned different tasks and all under the watchful eye of NPS archaeologist Erin Gearty (should we uncover an artefact along the way). I was on lopping duty and with the guidance of ranger Matt, a park arborist, I get to trimming trees as sensitively as possible, bearing in mind than many species, like the black oak, are sacred to the tribe. Matt also schools me about everything from trail architecture to hiker psychology ie. creating routes that don’t tempt short-cutters as well as staging felled branches in as natural setting as possible. I was starting to seeing hikes in a whole new light.

By the end of the afternoon, 6hrs and 400 yards later, our new trail is established and we even welcome our first user; a horse-back rider trotting down through the route. We're even receiving gentle applause at this stage.

Day 4

Our neighbour’s camp was ransacked last night. A bear? A raccoon? Whatever the culprit, a hefty fine was issued to teach the importance of closing all bear-proof food bins for the night. We’re yet to witness Yogi and friends ourselves though grounds squirrels, woodpeckers, stellar jays, chickadees and a resident buck are some of the fauna keeping us company at camp.

Today, we headed off to the gushing backdrop of Bridalveil Fall to create a new, low impact primitive trail to lure hikers off the main roadway into the valley. Evening time typically affords us two hours to squeeze in a pre-dinner hike to tonight I headed to one of the most popular short routes, Mirror Lake. “You’re now in Cougar Country” announces the trail sign (honestly, if it isn’t one thing it’s another here) but this is a heavily trafficked route and I soon reach the spectacular crystal lake; Yosemite is truly non-stop blockbuster.

Day 5

Our final work day and we’re out on patrol. First stop is securing the boardwalk across The Fen, a rare wetland habitat in Yosemite where our morning chorus of hammering makes short shrift of any exposed nails along the route. “The bikers and bare-footed hippy hikers thank you”, joked the ranger. Next, it was back to Wahhoga to block off the old trail with felled material and in the afternoon, we returned to Bridalveil Fall for the all-hands-on-deck removal of a dead redwood crossing the trail. In turns, we axe through the trees gargantuan girth (Matt estimated it could be 600 rings old) before we finally hoist the tree from the passage, clearing the route. The next troop of volunteers would pick up where we left off!

Tom at work on the Bridalveil Fall trail
Tom at work on the Bridalveil Fall trail

Day 6

After our merry week of NPS grafting, Friday in Yosemite was our designated rest day. If you’d call it that. I was embarking on a seize-the-day-off hike to the iconic Glacier Point, a 26km round trip from camp. Striking off, and weighed down with five litres of water off, packed lunch and my final rations of Aldi trail mix, I head up the mountain wilderness, my camp mate Nikee carrying bear bells which, paired with with sing-song, would prove a bear deterrent.

Only 10% of the 4 million annual visitors to Yosemite venture beyond the Valley and the crowds peter out with every step….by the time I reach 2000m, our camp pack has thinned and I’ve not seen a soul for an hour. But seven hours after setting off and passing the Nevada Falls and spectacular panorama trail cliffs, I reach Glacier Point as Yosemite’s untamed wilderness spilling out to awesome infinity. I can see why they call Sierra Nevadas (snowy mountains in Spanish). Back at camp that evening, we enjoyed the last supper at camp but most importantly accepted the literal badge of honour to mark our week's efforts ...I'd officially graduated as a Yosemite volunteer!

Badge of honour, Yosemite Volunteer 
Badge of honour, Yosemite Volunteer 

Day 7

6am and my fellow volunteers are stealthily beginning to decamp; there are home journeys to LA, flights back to Ohio and onward road-trips to Alaska ahead. Parting hugs and sincere “see you next times” later we had upped sticks and tent pegs fulfilled by a week which, in the best possible way, had felt like a month.

Carving my Chevrolet out the valley that morning almost felt like a “best bits” montages from Big Brother: Yosemite. I passed the spot where we split timber on our first day, spotted hikers enjoying our new trail at Wahogga, while Glacier Point, our hiking highlight, loomed spectacularly in my rear view mirror. But with one extra day until my flight, I decided to stick around to experience the one thing which had alluded me deep in the valley: and parked up that night over Sierra Nevadas to watch my first Yosemite sunset. 100% guarantees it won't be my last.

Get There:  Volunteering in Yosemite National Park with the Conservation Volunteers International Programme (conservationvip.org) costs $1050/€980 for one week. This covers park permit, camping fees and all meals for the week. My flight to San Francisco cost €590 return with Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) which given the current climate, my rental car for 10 days was my main expense at €1200 (hertz.com). Note that a car is not essential for either travelling to Yosemite from San Francisco or within the park istelf. You can slash your budget by travelling to Yosemite by catching the Amtrak from Oakland to Merced and catching the YARTS (Yosemite Area Regional Transport System) from there to the park (amtrak.com; from €27 each way). A free shuttle also operates within the Yosemite Valley connecting all the main accommodation sites, amenities and hiking trails.

ConservationVip host trips to Yosemite in May and September as well as offering other volunteer programmes in locations including Alaska, Scotland, Machu Picchu, Patagonia and the Galapagos Islands.

Staying at Yosemite: If travelling as a regular tourist and not a volunteer, there are a trove of accommodation options in and around the park from camping which starts from about $40/€37 per night for a pitch for four. Other options in the national park include tent cabins and the historic Wawona Hotel. On each end of my Yosemite stay, I overnighted at the convenient Best Western in Oakhurst (200 per night), one of the several gateway towns to the park. Take note when booking that the name “Yosemite” may be used in accommodation and business names up to two hours from the park itself!

Due to park congestion, from this summer a reservation is required to drive into or through Yosemite National Park from 6 am to 4 pm daily.

Park safety: The main risk at the park can be exposure or dehydration when hiking so always have plentiful water supplies when hiking (at least one litre per two hours on the trails) and be aware of any hostile weather conditions from extreme temperatures to thunderstorms.

Yosemite has a population of 300-400 black bears and there have been great efforts in recent years to reduce habituation with humans. As a result, bear bins are located on all camp pitches to allow the secure storage of food. All food — and toiletries — must be stored in these food bins so no snacks are allowed in visitors’ tents! Considerable fines are issued by rangers for any breach of bear safety regulations, including very hefty speeding fines. The good news is that nobody has ever been killed or seriously injured by a black bear attack in Yosemite, so while striking, all the bear safety regulations and signage has a very positive impact.

For more information on reservations, hiking and safety in the park, see nps.gov/Yosemite.

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