Ranger Life: How I Became a Park Ranger (and How You Can Too!)

Over the years, I have been asked many questions about my work experiences. Millions of people visit our national parks annually, but many don’t know what a park ranger’s job is like or what our responsibilities are. In my new series Ranger Life, I’ll discuss the day to day lives of park rangers to give you a glimpse into our world.

The question “How do you become a park ranger?” is one I get so often that I don’t tell people what I do. Seriously. It gets repetitive and the story is much too long to explain in detail with a visitor who has limited time. Now, I can refer those visitors to my blog so they have the full scoop! Because trust me, I want to talk about it. I have the best job in the world. I just want to get the basics and boring parts out of the way.

Plus, I’ll let you in on a little secret – becoming a seasonal park ranger is not that hard. We hire hundreds of thousands of employees every year, after all. As you’ll see, I took a very long, winding road on the journey to my current career. But, I wouldn’t trade it in for anything.

Disclaimer: This is simply how I became a park ranger. Every ranger has their own story!

A photo of Riley as a young girl wearing a Junior Ranger hat next to a photo of Riley in a park ranger uniform in 2016
Junior Ranger to Ranger Riley

Inspiration

Looking at that photo of little ol’ me above, you’d think I always knew what I wanted to do. This was so not the case. I was a pretty outdoorsy kid and my family went on camping trips around Florida and other states, but it never clicked. That didn’t happen until 2011. I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do after I graduated, and what my major should be in order to get me there. Then, a trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park absolutely changed my life. I was in this beautiful place surrounded by nature, and I knew right away. I now had a goal, I just had to reach it.

Education

I started by majoring in Environmental Studies and Geography at Florida State University. During that time, I also completed three internships, two of them through the Student Conservation Association. Many park rangers get their start this way. It was a huge help for me because “park ranger” is a very broad term. Park rangers specialize in everything from maintenance to law enforcement, and I needed to figure out where I belonged.

Internships

Riley holding a Texas Horned Lizard, a reptile I worked with as part of my internship in Oklahoma
Holding a Texas Horned Lizard, a reptile I worked with as part of my internship in Oklahoma

My first internship focused on restoration and a bit of wildlife management at an Air Force Base in Oklahoma. I liked the wildlife part very much, but restoration and vegetation didn’t speak to me. For my second internship, I worked at a camp near Tallahassee for the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission. Here, I taught kids how to fish, took them on hikes, and even instructed archery. I had a lot of fun and knew I was getting closer to finding that niche. Then I went to Alaska and everything was set into motion. For the first time, I would be working at a national park. This was also my first big solo trip, allowing me to truly find myself. I worked at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve for what I still consider to be the best summer of my life. I learned that I had a very fond place in my heart for education and bringing first-time visitors into the wilderness.

Graduation

Riley in her cap and gown on the Florida State Football Field
Graduation!

So that’s it, right? Happy ending! I knew figured out what I wanted to do and I was all set. I would just go get a job now. It’s super easy.

I was so naive.

But, I had it better than most. I graduated in 3.5 years and two months later (which seemed like forever at the time), I scored another internship, again through the Student Conservation Association. This time, I was heading to Delaware to focus on getting children and their families outside, one of my passions. I wouldn’t be working for the National Park Service, which really bummed me out. But national parks weren’t hiring for the summer season yet, and I wanted to be out of the house I grew up in. I was a college graduate for goodness sakes! Time to bring on the real world!

Delaware

A selfie in the snow: just a normal day at work in Delaware
A selfie in the snow: just a normal day at work in Delaware

The internship was seven months long, and this terrified me. That was the longest I had ever committed to anything! Looking back, I completely understand how ridiculous it sounds. The really funny thing? I stayed in Delaware for 2.5 years. When my internship was completed, I was offered a job with Delaware State Parks and I graciously accepted. I decided I didn’t need to be a National Park Service park ranger. I could be a state park ranger. That would be fine. It was close enough to the dream, just without the hat.

South Dakota

Riley crawls through the Brain Drain in Jewel Cave
Crawling through the Brain Drain in Jewel Cave

It was not close enough to the dream. I needed that hat. Those 2.5 years in Delaware were more than I ever could have imagined. I expected so little but gained so much. That internship led to a job that led me to my career as an official Park Ranger in the National Park Service. Leaving Delaware is one of the hardest things I’ve done, but I had done it – I was a “real” park ranger. I had a hat! In 2016, the National Park Service turned 100 and I was one of the many Centennial Coordinators. I was stationed at Jewel Cave National Monument in South Dakota and stayed for a year, even into 2017. But the centennial had come to an end and so had my contract, so I was back to the drawing board.

Alaska

Riley standing on top of a ridge line with mountainous landscapes behind her
Just another day on the job

I applied to every park under the sun, but since working at Wrangell-St. Elias, my heart had been in Alaska. I got lucky and was offered a job back in my favorite state. So I returned, working for a different national park this time. Now, I can’t imagine myself anywhere else… until winter comes around.

I’m a seasonal employee, so I only work in the summer. This is pretty perfect since a Floridian in an Alaskan winter doesn’t seem like a great fit. Plus, it allows me to do more traveling that I wish I had done earlier. I was always waiting and waiting and waiting and finally, I decided the time is now. So here I am, on a break from my dream job writing about how much I miss it, but also lucky to have a chance to take a deep breath and relax in a place I’ve never been.

How to become a park ranger, as told by Ranger Riley Click To Tweet

How YOU Can Apply

To be a park ranger in America, you do need to be a United States citizen. It also helps if you have a Bachelor’s Degree in any subject or a lot of related experience that can take the place of a degree. Other than that, it’s a fairly simple process. The jobs are posted on USAJobs and the locations are listed, so you can apply to the places you want to work at and ignore the ones you don’t. The National Park Service does not hire you and then randomly position you like the military does. You choose where to apply, then you’ll receive an e-mail if your name was among the most qualified candidates. From there, hiring managers will contact you about interviews and then it works like every other job. Not nearly as complicated as you thought, was it?

USAJobs can be a little tricky. Your resume needs to be very specific. Mine is detailed paragraphs rather than traditional bullet points. The best thing you can do is review the questionnaire and add those skills to your resume. Don’t just copy and paste, though – talk about exactly what you accomplished.

Riley stands with professional re-enactors dressed as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln
There’s nothing like celebrating Independence Day at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Being a park ranger is awesome. I get to live where people vacation, in some of the wildest places left on earth. But the seasonal life isn’t for everyone. I saved up a lot of money while working and completing those internships. I also had savings and scholarships for college and didn’t owe any student loans when I graduated. This lifestyle works for me because I budgeted and planned, but it isn’t feasible for everyone. Additionally, it is really hard to find year-round employment with the national parks. The fact is that parks don’t have as many visitors year-round, and so they don’t need as many rangers during their respective slow seasons. Do I hope to secure year-round employment with the National Park Service one day? Absolutely! Am I willing to wait as long as I need to while enjoying my time off just as much as I enjoy my time working? You bet. I have a feeling it’s worth the wait.

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