You, too, can wear the iconic hat. | David Calvert /Getty Images News/ Getty Images
You, too, can wear the iconic hat. | David Calvert /Getty Images News/ Getty Images

Want to Become a National Park Ranger? Here’s What It Takes

There are multiple routes to your dream job.

Welcome to National Parks Uncovered, where we’ll help you discover the beauty of America’s most underrated—and least-crowded—national parks—from sweeping landscapes where you can get up close and personal with mountains, glaciers, and volcanoes to sunny paradises hiding out near major cities like Chicago and LA. To find out what natural wonders you’ve been missing out on, check out the rest of our underrated national parks coverage.

If whenever you’re inside you dream about being outside, you may have already considered a job in the national parks. For nature lovers, it's a win-win: getting paid to learn new skills and be out amongst the country’s vast open spaces while actively helping to conserve them and educate the public. It’s even a draw for fashionistas. Who wouldn’t want to wear the iconic wide-brimmed hat? Just look at those dimples.

For some park rangers like Kekoa Rosehill, an Interpretation Supervisor at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, the career inspiration came early, while visiting a state park in California at the age of six. “My family went to a ranger program about owls,” she said. “And I thought the ranger was so cool.”

Over in Massachusetts, Emily Donovan knew that Lowell National Historical Park was the only park for her, after visiting for the trolley and canal boat rides. She began by volunteering first at summer camps, and later in high school as a costumed interpreter. “The realization that I could be a park ranger is something that grew slowly over time,” she said. After working seasonally through grad school, she pursued a full-time position.

For others, the inspiration didn’t hit until later. It wasn’t until she began a Latino Heritage Internship Program at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park that Chantelle Ruidant-Hansen even thought about the job possibility. The field of Interpretation seemed to work particularly well with her anthropology major. “Through interpretation, I wouldn't just be teaching people history, but would be facilitating a discussion in a meaningful and creative way,” she said.

Andrew Therrien, a military veteran and the Agricultural and Livestock Program Coordinator at George Washington Birthplace National Monument, began as a seasonal employee. “When I started working in the park, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just knew I wanted to be part of the National Park Service family,” he said. “When I started to feed and tend to the animals, I found that I loved doing it and had a natural aptitude for the job.”

But no matter how you find your way to hoping to get a job as a park ranger, in one of the 423 incredible nature-filled parks in the US—ranging from monuments to national lakeshores to capital N capital P National Parks, there’s only one way—a very much less romantic way—to get started: the online application.

San Jose Mission
Peek through a window at San Antonio Missions National Historic Park. | Richard A McMillin/Shutterstock

So what are the Park Ranger requirements? (And...what's the salary?)

Consider yourself lucky. Pre-internet, applying for the gig was kind of a slog. “We used to get a seasonal application form, and it had more than 100 questions,” said Kathy Kupper, a public affairs specialist for the National Park Service who started her tenure as a ranger over 30 years ago. “You’d have to rate yourself one to five on any type of skill you could imagine, from typing to operating a motorboat.” You’d back up all your claims with evidence of work history or experience and pick two parks to send your application to, praying that they actually had an opening. Then, you’d wait to hear back.

Now all the open positions are posted on the government jobs site USAJOBS, so you’ll know whether you have a chance of being hired right away. Generally, a Federal ranger will get hired at a GS-5 on the government qualification scale, requiring a bachelor's degree equivalent. It ranges in salary from $27,705 to $36,021, but can be higher or lower depending on where you are located (for example a Park Ranger I title in Sonoma, California can garner up to $57,771). And while you may have noticed some cabins tucked away in the woods, note there's no free housing: Even though some rangers are able to live in park facilities, they still pay rent.

If you want to be called a "Park Ranger," be prepared for competition. Of the 20,000 employees that work for the National Park Service only a fraction actually carry the elusive designation.

Don’t get us wrong: There are hundreds of cool-sounding specialized positions in the NPS, everything from scuba divers to wildlife biologists, to veterinarians, engineers, and administrator types. But the "Park Ranger" title generally comes with jobs that interface with the public. They mostly fall into two categories.

The first, Education, Visitor Service and Interpretation, are those who “interpret” the park to visitors. You'll find them running programs, and using history and resources to foster connections between the visitors and the parks.

The second, law enforcement, are the protection rangers charged with looking over the flora and fauna, protecting visitors and conserving the resources. Their duties include but are not limited to patrolling campgrounds, assisting with camping and boater registration and permits, general security, and crowd control for large events. For this one, you usually start with seasonal employment, and it’s helpful if you already have some military or law enforcement experience. The more qualifications, the better.

“You might have experience in things like swift water or high altitude rescue, rock climbing, emergency medical services and things of that nature because they are the people that oftentimes perform the search and rescues,” said Kupper. Refining the skill set means that when a job opens up you can stand out over the inevitable deluge of applicants.

It’s especially important to be a jack of all trades if you want to work in one of the massive natural areas. “They’re gonna respond to a car crash, help with a search and rescue, patrol the campground, or assist somebody who’s locked their keys in their cars,” said Kupper. “Every day brings something new and something unexpected.”

Other job choices: NPS Wildland firefighter, like these guys in Yosemite. | Jonathan Shafer/NPS

What to know about the hiring process

Remember, you’re applying for a government job. One that many want. And according to Kupper, there are also many, many unqualified applicants that decide to shoot their shot. They have to be weeded out before the hiring team can get to serious candidates.

What we’re saying is patience is a virtue. It could take a while. Starting with the application processing itself.

“You really need to prove in your resume that you have the relevant skills and abilities, meaning that it can turn out a bit longer than your application for a non-government position,” says Donovan. She offers some advice: “The key is to really read the job announcement and requirements, make sure you upload everything that is required, and explicitly state in your application that you meet the requirements.”

Ruidant-Hansen echoes the sentiment. “The resume is not like your normal 1-2 page resume. The USAJOBS site expects a resume with everything you've done in every job you've had.” For her, getting to her dream job took even longer because she had her sights set on one park, which meant waiting for a position to open up. “That was the hardest part for me. I thought that I may not be able to be a park ranger because the job I wanted was not open.”

And don’t be discouraged if you don’t hear back right away. “[Something] about the process that surprised me is just how long it can take,” Donovan said. “Just because you applied and didn’t hear back doesn’t mean that you aren’t being considered. There are a lot of steps that need to happen between you applying online and the hiring official even contacting you for an interview.”

That was especially true for Alacia Welch, who started her National Park Service career as a biological science technician and is now the Condor Program Manager at Pinnacles National Park. “In my case, it took about three months, but I’ve seen other positions take four to six months.”

Ranger Alacia Welch helps protect the condors in Pinnacles National Park. | Chris Fairfax/iStock/Getty Images

Tips and NPS resources to increase your chances

Though the application can be daunting, there are ways to up your visibility. For example, you can be one of the 300,000 volunteers in the NPS, familiarizing yourself with the types of skills that would be necessary in the position. While there, talk to park rangers that already have the job you want. “It never hurts to contact somebody who has that job or similar job and ask what skill sets they have and ways you can improve yourself," says Kupper. "So when a job is available you can compete well for it.”

Brush up on your outdoor and foreign language skills, and maybe slide in via another gig at the same park. Say you want to be a search and rescue ranger at a particular location. Take a different position that you’re qualified for, and assist when available. “When that opening comes in the division where you want to work, you already know the park, know the situations that come up, and know the people, and might have gathered some experience to help,” said Kupper. The most qualified applicant from the pool will be selected, but you’ll give yourself an advantage by knowing the terrain.

Apply for internships or fellowships, many of which you can find on the NPS and Office of Personnel Management websites. Welch began with an internship through the Student Conservation Association (SCA) as part of a team working to manage invasive plants at Pinnacles National Park, and Ruidant-Hansen started with a 10-week summer internship at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park through the Latino Heritage Internship Program (LHIP). She returned the next year for a year-long fellowship with the park through the Hispanic Access Foundation. 

If you’re a military veteran, that also helps. “The government hiring process includes a veteran preference,” Therrien said, who started as a seasonal laborer working the grounds. “The veteran hiring program provided on job training to help me progress.”

Artistic? Apply to be an Artist in Residence, where you can live in the parks and use them as inspiration to create art—from painting to sculpture to poetry to song.

There’s also a federally-funded pathways program that helps students and recent graduates find career opportunities. And because historically national park employees lack diversity—employees are only 38% female and 3.5% Indigenous (2.5% American Indian and Native Alaskans, 1% Native Hawaiian)—the service is looking to diversify by educating early through youth programs. “We’re establishing a Native American youth corps, and we’ll be able to hire dozens of Native Americans who will work in [federal and Tribal lands] with Park Rangers doing projects that help them develop skills and hopefully inspire them to want to work in national parks," Kupper said.

“We have a program that hires students from historically Black colleges and universities. We have the Latino Heritage Internship Program. And Mosaics In Science, geared towards underrepresented communities to introduce them to science jobs in parks.”

A ranger-led tour at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. | powerofforever/iStock Unreleased/Getty Images

The benefits of being a National Park Ranger

The perks of working in national parks come in all forms. You get to contribute to conserving and educating the public about the country’s natural resources. Being in the outdoors is proven to lower stress levels and increase mood. You make friends with wildlife. There are plenty of opportunities to work on your tan.

You’re exposed to people with similar interests. And sometimes, you marry them. “There’s a lot of dual-career couples, as we say,” said Kupper. “Oftentimes, employees both live and work in the park, providing opportunities to socialize, so there are a lot of romances that begin amongst national park service employees.” So if you’re looking for a dating site for outdoorsy types, this is it.

And even if volunteering doesn’t turn into a career (or marriage), you’ll always have the memories. “For the youth that volunteer or participate in a summer program, it can be a stepping stone to a park ranger job. Or if they decide to pursue a different type of career, hopefully they will have formed a connection to their public lands and can always look back on a summer full of lasting memories, for instance that summer I got to build trails in Alaska," says Kupper.

"Because ultimately we want everybody to use their national parks: walk them, and experience them. We want everyone to have a connection to their parks.”

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She... does not have what it takes to become a national park ranger.