You could easily spend your vacation kicking back on a beach, waterskiing at a lake, or drinking margaritas in a chaise lounge. You earned your time off, so nobody's judging. But if you'd like to travel with a greater sense of purpose—and the satisfaction that comes from doing good—add volunteering to your vacation plans.
"Volunteer vacations are the best of two worlds," says Meghan Ranfield, who resides in Half Moon Bay. “You get to spend time in a beautiful place, and you get the pride of making that place better.”
The 43-year-old web designer has volunteered on vacations in California and abroad. In Big Sur, she rebuilt trails and pulled out invasive weeds. In Los Angeles, she worked on a beach cleanup crew. In Costa Rica, she helped to plant trees in a cloud forest reserve.
Ranfield chose her volunteer activities based on a desire to become more deeply engaged with the places she was visiting.
"I wanted to immerse myself in Big Sur, not just admire the views from my car," she says. “And it seemed right to give back to a place I loved so much.”
California's voluntourism options are limitless: You can count snowy plover nests on the beach. You can feed wild horses at an animal sanctuary. You can build and maintain hiking trails. You can even teach kids' art classes in Yosemite Valley.
There are two ways to approach voluntourism: Start small by tacking on one day of volunteer work to your regular vacation plans. Or go big and sign up for a multi-day service trip that includes several hours of work every day, plus fun activities like guided hikes, kayak trips, or meals around the campfire with newfound friends. Whether your volunteer commitment is large or small, you'll be making a positive difference in the world.
Tack On a Volunteer Day to Your Next Vacation
1) Get outdoors and meet great people by rolling up your sleeves and building trails near Truckee with the Truckee Donner Land Trust. They provide the tools—all you need to do is dress for dirty work and bring water and snacks. Time commitment: One day.
2) Help out California's most visited national park by showing up at Yosemite's drop-in volunteer days. On Apple Picking Day, typically in late July or early August, volunteers harvest apples in Curry Village's historic orchards to prevent bears from feasting on them. (Giving bears access to human food leads to bear-human conflicts.) Or in late September, help out at Yosemite Facelift, a five-day event focused on cleaning up trash and debris in the park. Time commitment: One day.
3) California State Parks Foundation holds volunteer workdays year-round in parks across the state—from Humboldt County’s Humboldt Lagoons State Park in the north to Old Town San Diego in the south. Volunteers do manual labor like planting native vegetation, removing invasive plants, and construction work. Check the calendar to see what's scheduled in upcoming months. Time commitment: One day.
4) Are you an amateur ornithologist or someone who enjoys watching birds? A dozen California Audubon Society chapters need volunteers to monitor sites for western snowy plovers, California least terns, and black oystercatchers. Locations include Mendocino County's MacKerricher State Park, Morro Bay’s Morro Strand State Beach, Santa Barbara's Coal Oil Point Preserve, and San Diego's Mission Bay. Time commitment varies.
5) Participate in a beach clean-up. The annual California Coastal Cleanup Day takes place the third Saturday of September, but you can help out at local events almost any day of the year. Groups like the Surfrider Foundation, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and Orange County Coastkeeper organize trash cleanup events—and they aren't always at the beach. Trash in rivers and creeks can also make its way downstream to the sea, and trash on beaches at mountain lakes is destructive to wildlife and water quality. (The League to Save Lake Tahoe holds regular cleanups—check their website for dates and locations.) Of course, you don't have to join an organized event—just bring a bag with you on your next coastal, lakeside, or riverfront walk, and pick up any trash you see.
Embark on a Multi-Day Volunteer Vacation
1) The Sierra Club offers regularly scheduled, multi-day service trips that involve physical tasks like pulling out nonnative plants, tearing down fences, and building trails. Meals and lodging (or tents) are provided, plus after-work perks like guided hikes or kayak tours. Trip offerings include eradicating invasive plants in Death Valley's Saline Valley or Anza Borrego Desert State Park, trail maintenance in Big Sur's Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, and cleaning marine debris and maintaining campsites along the Lost Coast.
2) The Yosemite Conservancy's volunteer program encompasses a huge array of jobs from volunteering as an art teacher to answering questions from park visitors. You'll need to apply for a specific job, and if selected, you'll get a Yosemite Valley campsite during your volunteer term and plenty of free time to enjoy the park. Volunteers must commit to at least one week, but many choose to help out all summer long.
3) Redwood National and State Parks' volunteer program has opportunities ranging from staffing park bookstores and information centers to working as a campground host. Some jobs require a commitment of two weeks to three months, but volunteers who work at least 32 hours per week may qualify for free park housing.
4) Horse lovers can spend a weekend, a week, or a month volunteering at Return to Freedom Wild Horse Sanctuaries in Lompoc and San Luis Obispo. Volunteers get to hang out with nearly 400 wild horses in beautiful Central Coast rangeland while helping with chores: feeding, cleaning, checking fence lines, and maintaining pastures.