What It’s Like to Live and Work At A National Park

Me in 1997 at the northern boundary of Grand Canyon National Park.

Me in 1997 at the northern boundary of Grand Canyon National Park.

I don’t often write about things that may or may not be of use to folks hiking and camping, but I thought it might be a good time to reminisce about the three summers I worked in and lived just outside of Grand Canyon National Park. Many people that I’ve been following on Twitter spend a lot of time hiking in and talking about national parks, but I wonder if they are curious about what it’s like to live near and work inside one of the most visited places in the national park system.

I was a tour guide for three summers at Grand Canyon. I worked for a company that is what the park service calls a “concessionaire,” which is, a company that holds a permit to do business inside of the national park. As an employee (or, contractor) for this company, I had to live nearby to provide the guiding and tour services that I was hired to perform. If you’ve ever visited Grand Canyon, it’s pretty remote, about an hour and half from Flagstaff, Arizona. Housing is provided for the large concessionaires that run the hotels and restaurants inside the park boundary–there are dormitories, apartments, and duplexes for those folks inside the park itself. My situation was bit different.

The season in the motor home--I wasn't a fan.

The season in the motor home–I wasn’t a fan.

Since the company I worked for was relatively new and small, there were no housing options inside the park. The company I worked for had rented out RV spaces at a campground in Tusayan for a base of operations, and it was there that I lived–a place called Grand Canyon Camper Village. Tusayan is a little town right outside of the park’s south entrance, and it is a certifiable tourist trap. My then-boyfriend (later husband) and I lived in a camping trailer the first two summers there, and a motor home the third summer I was there. I have opinions on RV life from my experience with motor homes and travel trailers. I preferred the travel trailer for long-term living–it was like a studio apartment. I did not care for the motor home in that capacity. Since we lived there from March through October, it was a hassle to move the trailer or motor home as we would have it set up for long-term use, so when we went exploring we would pack a tent and rough it.

My days were very busy. Grand Canyon National Park is one of the most visited national parks in the United States. Some days, I would have tours in the morning, at noon, at three, and at sunset. I would arrive back at the RV park wiped out. This could go on for days in a row. If tours weren’t booked, I would go for hikes in Kaibab National Forest, which backed right up the the campground where I lived. I would take the dog out and we’d wander through the Ponderosa pines and occasionally scare off an elk or deer.

A tour group and one of the 4x4 trucks we drove.

A tour group and one of the 4×4 trucks we drove.

Meeting the tourists for the tours was always fun. We’d pick them up at the Tusayan McDonald’s (one of the most expensive McDonald’s restaurants in the U.S., except Hawaii). People were usually happy and having a great vacation, and were always glad for a big adventure in a 4×4 truck. This was the best part of the job, actually. I got to see Grand Canyon at sunset countless times, and watch people just melt into a puddle of awe and satisfaction while they were watching the sunset. Then when the tour was over, I would usually get a cash tip and a great compliment, like “That was the best thing we did on our vacation. You are awesome, this was wonderful, thank you.” No amount of money could ever, ever match the warm fuzzy feeling I felt hearing those things. It was like I was their teacher for a few hours, and the park was our classroom. And it was incredible, on many levels. The mean or crabby tourist was rare, and as much as those memories stay with me, the good times are what I cherish and recall the most about the hard work I did at Grand Canyon.

I also got to meet people from all over the world–Japan, China, Russia, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, to recall a few. Sometimes they spoke English, sometimes not. It didn’t matter, as nature was there to do all the talking anyway. They didn’t tip as well as my American guests, but again, the joy on their faces and their gratitude was often enough for me.

There were logistical issues living in Tusayan. We either had to do laundry in Flagstaff or inside the park; it wasn’t my favorite chore because of the lengths we had to travel (or the weirder tourists we had to face at the park laundromat) to get it done. Although there is a fairly nice grocery store inside the park, we got as much shopping done in Flagstaff as we could since prices were a bit better outside of the park. Getting a morning or even a day off to get errands done wasn’t exactly easy; the man who we worked for would come up for a few days once a month and let us off the hook. I remember one continuous stretch of days worked numbering 31 one season. But working for him also had perks, like a free plane trip to Las Vegas and back from Grand Canyon Airport. That was important, as Vegas was our big city getaway place, and a place to meet family when they came to visit if they didn’t want to sleep in the camper, or even come to Grand Canyon (not everyone wanted to do that). But we did have great times when friends and family would come to see us at the canyon.

With my guy and my dog at the North Rim of Grand Canyon.

One of our trips to the North Rim of Grand Canyon.

We would go camping on days off, too. We loved the North Rim, Zion, Bryce, Sedona, and places in Colorado and New Mexico for little getaways with the tent and the dog. We camped all over the four corners in those days, and some of those trips hold my fondest memories of that time. My first backpacking trip was during this time; it was an easy over-nighter in Sycamore Canyon in Coconino National Forest, right outside of Flagstaff. My guy had already done enormous sections of the AT and was keen to get me backpacking. I was living the dream. I was in love, I was working in a beautiful place outdoors, and when I did have days off I was camping in some of the best places in the United States or having a bit of fun in Las Vegas.

This was the formative time for my admiration and curiosity for prehistoric cultures and archaeology, ecology and biology, geology and environment, and how ecosystems work and come into being. At the base of everything, in everything I talked about with the tourists, was science. After becoming what was, in essence, a self-taught naturalist, it became clear that I was much more curious about the scientific work and research at the national park, and not just the day-to-day comings and goings of the tourist throngs. My parents were both biologists that worked in labs so I was used to some deep conversations at the dinner table, but going out to a place where science was the all-consuming center of gravity around which everything else revolved (in my mind, anyway) I was thrown into a love affair with the natural world and human history that continues to this day. Of all the gifts working at a national park gave me, this was and is the most precious.

There are a few sacrifices that I made to live and work at Grand Canyon. A nice place to live was a big one, leaving my family and long-time friends in Kansas City was another, and not having shopping choices nearby was another. But the memories I made, the sights I saw, and the legacy of scientific curiosity that remains with me are things that I wouldn’t trade for anything. So what is it like to live and work at a national park? In a word, it’s awesome.

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