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An Outdoor Lover’s Dream Job: Vivian’s Time as a Park Ranger

My Time As A Park Ranger

Uncle Ben (Spiderman’s uncle, not mine) once said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” I have always thought park rangers were the superheroes of America’s national parks and protectors of natural places. They hold themselves with grace, proudly displaying the distinctive flat hat, golden badge, and the National Park Service (NPS) arrowhead logo on their uniforms. Visitors want photos with them and children want to be them when they grow up.

With the help from a friend and an application, I had the opportunity to be an Interpretive Park Ranger at Yellowstone National Park (Yellowstone) this past summer. From this experience, I now have a newfound respect for park rangers and the natural world.

What Did I Do As An Interpretive Park Ranger?

I was stationed in Mammoth Hot Springs (Mammoth) district in Yellowstone. As an Interpretive Park Ranger, I worked at the visitor center, led the ranger programs, and walked the park to engage with visitors in the district. Mammoth is quite special because we receive constant visits from elk in the main area –– and one of my favorite task was to go on elk patrol. During elk patrol, rangers will guard and section off areas to keep visitors a safe 25 yards away (a safety rule of the park). I loved to watch the elk casually munch away and lie on the grass. Although a sweet moment, there were times elk patrol can be overwhelming with our short-handed staff — as with many jobs in the outdoors.

Things I Loved About Being A Park Ranger

  • I worked in the coolest “office” in the world. Just outside my window was the fresh air, surrounding mountains, beautiful wildlife, and the Mammoth Hot Springs.
  • I got the honor to wear the awesome NPS uniform. The first time I put on the flat hat, I knew I was a whole new person.
  • There was the freedom to explore the park at my own leisure. In the months I lived in Yellowstone, I was able to explore a good portion of the park during my off-time. I didn’t feel the need to rush my hikes or choose to be surrounded by large crowds if I didn’t have to be.
  • I saw the park change from Spring to Fall. It was a beautiful green to yellow to brown and even white snow!
  • I watched newborn baby animals emerge in the spring and witnessed bison and elk engaged in their rut (mating) season.
  • There was an opportunity to meet people from all over the world. I loved to ask “why did you chose to come to Yellowstone when you could’ve chosen to go anywhere else on this planet?” It made me appreciate Yellowstone more so.
  • I was entrusted with the important task of educating a wide range of audiences –– and knowledge is power! My hope is that when more people expose themselves to the outdoors, they are willing to learn about the area, and then want to protect it.
  • The compliments and appreciation received by the visitors. It warms my heart each time someone says to me, “Thank you for what you do. We truly truly appreciate it.”, “That was a great program, I learned a lot.”, “Keep protecting the park, we need you guys!”. To all my visitors reading, thank you for all your kind words!

Things I Found Hard To Love About Being A Park Ranger

  • Having to handle impolite visitors. I can’t count how many times a visitor would disregard what rangers tell them about park safety, signs, and warnings. I’ve also encountered a few who were aggressive and impatient people at the front desk. There are thousands of you and only a few of us, please understand we’re trying to do our best!
  • Being aware of my actions and words. Park rangers represent a large recognizable organization and it’s important to uphold our duties to the highest standard. We wear our NPS badge proudly.
  • Long hours on my feet. We have occasional breaks, but eventually those hours behind the desk and walking the district can take a toll on the body.
  • Not being seen as a human being. This happens the most at the visitor center. Visitors will come in, come straight to our desk, ask their questions, and demand an answer right away. Don’t forget we’re human and we have feelings too. A simple “hello”, “thank you”, “goodbye”, or even a smile goes a long way.
Teaching a program at the Mammoth Hot Springs

In action: taught a program at Mammoth Hot Springs.

Ready to help at the front desk

Front desk duties: ready to answer all your questions.

Helping a visitor make the most of their trip

Helped a visitor make the most of their trip.

Some Funny Moments (that made me laugh out loud)

Many visitors from all over the world come to Yellowstone to catch a glimpse of the wildlife in the park, but they forget animals are wild and not here for our viewing pleasure. Here are a few silly questions I’ve gotten about the animals:

  • “Where do you put the wildlife in the park?” and “When do you do that?” Yellowstone isn’t a zoo. The animals come and go as they please.
  • “Do you feed the elk in Mammoth? Can I do that?” Nope, we can’t feed any wildlife.
  • “How come I didn’t see a bear (or insert other animal) today in the park?” You just weren’t in the right place at the right time. Sorry.
  • “The elk look so cute. Can I pet them?” Definitely not. As one of my fellow rangers would say, “25 yards please!”

Additionally, there are few POC rangers who work in national parks. One visitor was ecstatic when she saw me. I was on the boardwalks of the hot springs when suddenly, I heard a loud gasp, and someone screamed, “Oh my goodness, is that an Asian ranger?!” I could not help but smile and let out a small chuckle. She was an Asian American herself and went on to say, “Way to represent! Can I have a photo of you? I never see an Asian ranger.” I think she was happy to see a familiar face and in general, POC in the outdoors.

My Final Thoughts

There’s nothing quite like experiencing a national park by working in one. I was able to get a glimpse of what it is like behind the scenes. I can tell you, it takes a lot of people and structure to run a national park, especially one as large as Yellowstone. Everyone plays an important role in keeping Yellowstone an enjoyable experience for all who come (and you do too!). As a first-time Interpretive Park Ranger, I was taken back by the amount of work it took to create the ranger-led programs, the amount of energy to talk to visitors, and the expectations people had of us. In the beginning, I was overwhelmed. I read as many books as I could, retained as much information as my brain could take at once, and stayed up late to perfect my programs (shout out to my awesome co-workers and supervisor that helped me through this). At the end of each day, I was exhausted from talking to visitors. Some days after a shift, all I wanted was to be left alone, not move, or talk to anyone.

Although I felt overloaded with information, the knowledge gave me a greater appreciation for Yellowstone. Yellowstone was originally protected for its rare hydrothermal features and 145 years later, not only is it still here, but the park has expanded in protection of its rich culture, historical structures, and wildlife. I feel lucky to be able to see all those wonderful features today. When you visit this place, it’s impossible to not see how truly special Yellowstone is and how different it is from any place on Earth. Once a natural feature is destroyed, it may never come back.

Today, most of our lands are developed and covered in concrete jungles. There aren’t many places like Yellowstone left in the world; a place untouched by human civilization, left in its natural state. We, as visitors, play an important role in protecting the outdoors. Simply by following the rules and leaving no trace, we preserve the parks and other natural places for future generations to enjoy. Never underestimate the power of your impact. I like to keep this quote by Margaret Mead in mind:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Even park rangers like photos with the NPS entrance signs

Tourist things: even park rangers like photos with the NPS entrance signs.

Elk in Mammoth Hot Springs

Watch out for elk grazing in Mammoth Hot Springs!

Union Fall

Perks of being a park ranger — able to hike. whenever I wanted.

Hayden Valley

Goodbye: the last photo I took before leaving Yellowstone for the season.

Enjoying a conversation with a visitor

Enjoying a conversation with a visitor. Don’t be afraid to talk to us!

Do you have an outdoors dream job? Want to know the steps to applying for a park ranger position? Ask me in the comments below.

Cheers,
Vivian


Photo credits: Cover photo – Neal Herbert; all other photos – Phillip Tran, Vivian Wang

10 Comments

  1. Abby McAlister says

    Such a well-written blog post with lots of information and beautiful pictures.

    I would love any info or advice you have on applying to be a park ranger. I’m a college freshman and that’s a career goal I’m toying with. It seems like such an incredible job and I’d love to be able to work in a National Park.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. awildcinnamonroll says

    Such a well-written blog post… lots of information and beautiful photos. I enjoyed reading about your experiences!

    Any advice or information you have on applying to for a park ranger position would be so appreciated. I’m a college freshman and working in a National Park as a ranger is a career goal I’m considering. I’d love to work in a National Park.

    Liked by 1 person

    • awildcinnamonroll says

      Oh wow. Didn’t see that my previous comment actually got posted? It disappeared once I refreshed the page. Sorry for double-posting :/

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hey Abby, no worries. First of all, thank you for reading the post! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Being a park ranger is a rollercoaster experience. As a friend describes it, “The work is fulfilling, exhausting, inspiring, soul crushing, all at once. Empty bank account, full heart.” I’ve had a blast working in Yellowstone and it’s great to hear that you want to be a park ranger as a career goal. There’s lots of different park ranger positions out there so it’s best to narrow down what you want to do. You can find majority of the ranger positions at usajobs.gov. Type in “park ranger” and you’ll see the positions available and where you’ll be stationed at. In most parks, summer positions are easier to get than winter positions. Summer applications are available around late November and December so keep your eyes peeled. The steps I took to receiving the positions was filled out the application, waited for about 3-4 months, received an interview, and then was offered the position.

        Another great way to get involved with the NPS is through volunteering, partnering organizations such as Student Conservation Association (SCA – thesca.org), or trail conservation groups. You don’t have to be a current student to join SCA. Depending on which park you want to work for, that park also has organizations specific to them. For example, Yellowstone offers the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC). Basically there are tons of ways to get involved with a national park if the park ranger positions doesn’t work out or you need more experience.

        I hope this answered your question. Feel free to ask more if any 🙂

        Like

  3. Looks great! Ill be moving to WA soon and would love to know the process on becoming a PR. I have 20 years Los Angeles County experience (Health Services, County Police, Animal Control, Health Department) and think PR is the logical next step. Any help or tips greatly appreciated.

    Thanks

    Tony

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey Tony, thank you for reading the article! You sound like you have great experience and will do well as a park ranger. Washington has awesome national parks. Please look at my response to Abby McAlister/awildcinnamonroll. I hope that answers any questions you had 🙂

      Like

  4. Pingback: Interview with interpretive park ranger Vivian Wang – the portfolio – in progress

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