From answering visitors’ questions to ushering bighorn sheep across the road to maintaining trails and campgrounds, volunteers play a crucial role at Rocky Mountain National Park.
This year the park has 1,700 volunteers who will work 110,000 hours by the end of December, the equivalent of 50 to 55 full-time employees, said Kathleen Kelly, Volunteer Program coordinator.
Their duties include working at trailheads, guiding visitors at historical sites, removing beetle-killed pine trees and lending a hand in the greenhouse and nursery.
“Our greatest need, with 3 million visitors a year, is people who can work with the public, and the most requested job, maybe because there’s a romantic view about it, is building trails,” Kelly said. “Without volunteers, we couldn’t come close to helping all the visitors.”
The only thing volunteers don’t do is law enforcement, said public information officer Kyle Patterson.
Volunteers are not plunked into a job and turned loose. Kelly tries to match someone’s interest with available jobs, and most new volunteers undergo training to prepare them for the work. Manual labor duties are an exception where training is done on the job, she said.
About 90 volunteers help at the Bear Lake Trailhead this summer, Kelly said. “In the fall, we bring on 75 people for the elk bugling, who’re part of the Elk Bugle Corps.”
In September and October, bull elk attract mates by making a distinctive bugling call. Crowds of people now come to see and hear the annual mating ritual, and volunteers act as guides and answer questions.
A group called the Road Hogs works every Monday, mainly helping with the roads, cleaning ditches and handling beetle mitigation work.
The Bighorn Brigade ushers bighorn sheep across the road and educates the public about the animals.
Although summer is the park’s busiest season and when it needs the most help, winter provides opportunities for volunteers as well.
“We have some really hardy folks, called Sled Dogs, who work at the Hidden Valley Snow Play Area. They help people sled safely and have dramatically reduced the number of injuries,” Kelly said.
Volunteers range in age this year from 6 to 92, Kelly said, though most should be at least 16 because of the jobs they’re doing. Groups, such as church or Scout organizations, can volunteer for a day on one project, like painting picnic tables.
Patterson said most of the regular volunteers are retired.
“We’ve got teachers, doctors, pilots, you name it. Many also work full-time jobs and then volunteer for us on the weekend,” she said.
Because the park is close to the Denver area, it can draw from a large population and usually ends up in the top five among national parks year after year in terms of the size of its volunteer program. In addition, the towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake are right outside the park.
“We’re blessed in that we’re not as remote as bigger parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone,” Kelly said.
Working as a volunteer could lead to a job. “It’s a great steppingstone,” she said.
How to volunteer:
Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer should get an application at www.nps.gov/room or by calling the volunteer office at 970-586-1330. Fill it out, sign it and mail it to Rocky Mountain National Park, Volunteer Office, 1000 Highway 36, Estes Park, CO 80517. Applications also can be dropped off at any of the visitor centers.
The volunteer office is open seven days a week.