Vacations That Matter

By Guthrie, Catherine | Sunset, March 2001 | Go to article overview
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Vacations That Matter

Guthrie, Catherine, Sunset

Do good, have fun, and save a few bucks on one of these great volunteer vacations

Richard Thompson did not visit Yosemite National Park last summer to relax. No way. This 71-year-old Tulsa, Oklahoma, man had work to do. While most septuagenarians happily puttered about the valley floor, Thompson made a beeline for Half Dome. Near the top, he and 11 others spent the next 10 days clearing debris and shoring up trails--just one example of volunteer vacation that combine hard work with big rewards.

"It's all about giving something back," says Thompson, a volunteer veteran with 20 such Sierra Club trips under his belt. A retired professor, he relishes the chance to be outdoors and work with his hands. "It's physical instead of intellectual," he explains. "It's a real vacation."

Start your planning by considering your level of commitment. While most trips last one or two weeks, everything from a weekend fling to a monthlong sojourn is possible. Next, list your likes and dislikes. Does counting blue-footed boobies sound like sheer bliss or Dante's Inferno? Don't know a trowel from a tern? Not to worry. Experience carries less weight than an open mind and a strong work ethic. People skills don't hurt either.

Finally, before signing up for that trip to Denali National Park, take an honest inventory of your travel preferences. If sheets and flush toilets rival oxygen on your priority list, stick close to civilization and prepare to shell out more cash.

Good karma can come cheap. Price tags range from free to $2,800 per person, not including transportation. Most trip fees include meals and some type of lodging or camping (campers typically bring their own gear). Soften the financial blow of more expensive trips by asking if the outfit is a nonprofit--payments may be tax-deductible.

The following list (prices are per trip) is a sampling of reputable groups that offer the broadest range of experiences in great Western destinations.

* American Hiking Society. With an emphasis on building, maintaining, and protecting trails, this program is not for wimps. Last summer's volunteers cleared brush along pathways on Admiralty Island in Alaska, planted seedlings in Montana's Custer National Forest, and built hiking trails in the Wyoming section of Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests.

COST: $75; camping. LENGTH: 4 to 14 days. WHEN: Jan-Nov. CONTACT: (800) 972-8608, ext. 206, or

* Earthwatch Institute. Each year roughly 4,000 volunteers are paired with 700 teams conducting field research in 50 countries. Last summer's domestic adventures included collecting grizzly bear fur for DNA analysis in Montana's Glacier National Park, studying wildflowers in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge, and documenting rock art in the canyons of southeast Utah.

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