Minimal time, maximum impact: drop-in volunteer programs in our national parks

Fort Mason Community Garden

There are a number of things I find myself feeling grateful for this morning: my body's unprecedented cooperation with actually getting out of bed when the alarm went off, despite the heavy darkness outside my bedroom window; the clear passage to the counter at my favorite coffee shop, free from its usual crowds in the still-fuzzy first light of day; and the perfectly timed arrival of the 49 bus, which takes me from the Mission, the San Francisco neighborhood I call home, to Fort Mason, the little national park that calls this city home. But most of all, I realize as I stand draining the caffeine from a paper cup in front of Fort Mason's building 201, I'm grateful for this moment. 

Volunteer Program Sign Fort MasonThe sky's starting to glow blue as the sun creeps higher; the sounds of traffic have already been erased from my memory by the soft pounding of joggers' footsteps as they sail past me and the squawking of parakeets in the Monterey Cypress trees. It's 9:00 a.m. on a Tuesday, and instead of sitting inside my apartment or the bus or the office, I'm here, breathing in Bay-cooled air, squinting against the sunshine, and mentally thanking the National Park Service (NPS) for preserving open spaces like this one. 

Which is why, today, I'm here to give back. Like many others, I started 2014 last week with the hope that my coming year would involve more adventure, community service, and environmental consciousness. And as it turns out, it's incredibly easy to work towards all of those goals in the span of a just few hours here in Northern California. The NPS has a constant need for casual, drop-in, short-term volunteers in all of its local parks. Which means that, on your next visit to one of HI's Norcal hostels, you can get outdoors, get your hands dirty, and leave your destination a little better than the way you found it – all without a lot of paperwork, training, or even time. 

It's the NPS's Fort Mason Maintenance Program that's brought me, and a few others, out on this January morning. In addition to me, there's a German tourist with a love of the outdoors, a retired MUNI mechanic with a deft hand at tree pruning, and docent from the California Academy of Sciences. Our project leader, Susan, cruises up to us in a little ranger-green parks vehicle, and practically claps her hands as we all confirm we're here to volunteer. She immediately hands us each a little commemorative pin, thanks us ceremoniously for our dedication to the parks, and tells us we're about to have some fun.

NPS - cultivatorSusan outfits us with gardening gloves, kneeling pads, serious-looking tools, and neon-yellow vests proudly announcing our Parks Service Volunteer status. "We're going to spend about an hour making this park more beautiful for all of its visitors, helping the park staff, and helping each other," she says, grinning. "And then we're going to take a break. We're going to have snacks and water, and we're going to take a few minutes to stretch and breathe the fresh air and just think to ourselves, 'My goodness, I can't believe this is my life – I'm so happy to be here!'" 

I momentarily suspect hyperbole on Susan's part, but decide to go along with it, grabbing my rake and starting to clear leaves from a nearby plant bed. A few minutes in, I'm inhaling the scent of dirt and mulch and realizing, with genuine shock, that it might be a better wake-up call than even the smell of percolating early-morning coffee. I'm chatting with the German tourist about the best breweries in San Francisco. Before I know it, an hour has gone by. "My goodness," I find myself thinking, involuntarily, "I'm so happy to be here!" That Susan's a pretty smart lady.

Susan leads us all into Fort Mason's immensely popular community garden, where San Franciscans plant plots of Meyer lemon bushes and rainbow chard after spending several years on a wait list. I've never been in here before, even though it's within eye-shot of HI-Fisherman's Wharf and even though it's a lovely spot to relax. We spend a few minutes stretching out our arms and legs and backs, soothing our muscles after the unfamiliar stooping and kneeling and shoveling.

Fort Mason Community Garden“We're going to play a game now called 'best and worst,'" Susan tells us a few minutes later as she hands out granola bars. "We'll go around the circle and everyone will say what the worst thing is that's happened to them this morning. And then they'll say what the best thing is."

And now, a few hours later, I can't seem to remember what anyone's "worst" was. But I do remember the unanimous chorus of "bests": "This. Being here right now." It was enough to bolster us all for another two hours of work. And it was enough to send each of us off with a new outlook on our parks, and on the day ahead.

Get Your Hands Dirty

Ready to get involved and change your own perspective? From the Point Reyes seashore, to the Marin Headlands, to several parks in San Francisco, there are tons of ways to help out without making a long-term commitment. All of the programs below accept drop-in or one-time volunteers, ask only a few hours of their time, and offer participants an easy way to make a positive change on the Northern California landscape.

Keep in mind: while most of these programs operate on a regular schedule, in some cases work days are canceled due to weather, holidays, or other factors. So always be sure to check out the web page of the project you're interested in ahead of time. While many programs encourage volunteers to just show up on appointed days, some do require advanced registration and a signed volunteer release form. Again, be sure to read up on the program you're interested in to find out what kind of registration, if any, is needed. 

San Francisco

Fort Mason Volunteering with the Fort Mason Maintenance Project, held on Tuesdays from 9:00 a.m. to noon, is "roll out of bed and get there five minutes later"-convenient if you're staying at HI-Fisherman's Wharf. But the city's offerings hardly stop there. The Golden Gate National Reserve Area's Park Stewardship Program has casual opportunities to volunteer twice a week. Thursdays at the Presidio Coastal Bluffs and Saturdays at Lands End, drop in to help preserve the vibrant coastal ecosystem right in San Francisco's backyard. Since 1996, program volunteers have planted over 100,000 plants, but there's still much more to be done! 

On Wednesday mornings, you can also stop by Sutro Heights Park and get involved helping to keep the San Francisco coastline beautiful.

Marin Headlands

Marin Headlands Golden Gate viewThe Parks Conservancy hosts Habitat Restoration Projects most Tuesdays and Sundays, with projects occasionally taking place not far from HI-Marin Headlands. Check out the project's schedule of upcoming volunteer opportunities to see what's on when. Wednesdays and Saturdays, you can also visit the Marin Headlands Nursery to help care for 35,000 plants that will be used in restoration projects throughout the area. 


Point Reyes

Point Reyes Hostel viewKule Loklo work days give drop-in volunteers a chance to help park staff maintain Point Reyes National Seashore's Kule Loklo cultural exhibit.  Kule Loklo is a re-creation of a traditional Coastal Miwok village, giving visitors a look into the lifestyle of the people who lived in the area for thousands of years before the Europeans came to California. Work days take place the second Saturday of each month from 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. Drop-in volunteers can also help park staff with monitoring coho salmon and steelhead trout, collecting data on numbers of fish, observing changes in habitat, and more.

Deer at Point Reyes

Point Reyes National Seashore is home to thousands of known species, including over 100 that are endangered, rare, or threatened. With so much to protect, the park is always in need of volunteers. The Habitat Restoration Program takes place one Sunday each month and focuses on everything from native plant to stream rehabilitation. From May through September, drop-in volunteers can also help out with gathering native plant seeds, gaining knowledge about plant identification and seed collection along the way. And from November through March, you can spend a few hours with the Range Watershed Restoration project, planting native grasses, weeding, and even helping out with construction projects. 

To learn more about all the Parks Conservancy is doing in Northern California, and how you can help out, take a look around their volunteer page.

If You Go