Environmental Conservation Volunteering in California, USA

An opportunity to volunteer all across National Parks and Nature Reserves throughout California, whilst gaining experience in ecological restoration and conservation work.  From the Cascade Mountains and shrub steppe in the north, throughout the Sierra Nevada, along the coast and interior valleys, to the chaparral and deserts in the south – in wilderness areas and urban interfaces alike – volunteers take part in ecological restoration, trail improvement, and hazardous fuel reduction projects wherever the work is needed.

You can join for 8 weeks in duration.  

Individuals and students can apply.

Cost for food and lodging, transportation once you arrive, all training, orientation and backup starts from £1550.

Zephyr CoveVolunteer crew taking a break from the hard workCrew leader in the forestCalifornia has stunning locations all over where volunteer crews workImpressive view of canyonsRescuing a baby chickVolunteers get to visit some beautiful sites whilst out in the fieldTaking a break before heading out into the wildernessHiking trails through pristine landRepairing and maintaining trails is a big part of the workRemoving invasive species is an important part to ecological restoration workHome sweet home!Putting some newly potted agave plants in an environment that will house them for the next yearVolunteers camped out by this lake under the last blue moon until 2018Morning commute to workVolunteers watching the sun go down after a hard day's work

About the Project

Volunteer crew working in stunning locations throughout California

California Conservation volunteers participate in small teams of both U.S. citizens and international participants, while working and camping on direct service projects for the National Forest Service, National Park Service and other land management agencies all over the state of California. Projects include:

  • sustainable trail construction and maintenance
  • non-native species removal
  • fence construction
  • erosion control
  • wilderness restoration

Conservation volunteers contribute their energy and enthusiasm to a safe and professional outdoor atmosphere while making a positive impact to the surrounding landscapes and communities.

To join one of these programmes is to contribute to a lasting legacy of work proudly implemented for the benefit of the environment and communities all throughout California. It is to develop professionally in a goal-oriented culture, and grow within a team. 

From the Cascade Mountains and shrub steppe in the north, throughout the Sierra Nevada, along the coast and interior valleys, to the chaparral and deserts in the south – in wilderness areas and urban interfaces alike – California Conservation volunteers conduct ecological restoration, trail improvement, and hazardous fuel reduction projects wherever the work is needed.

Project location

Big Sur

From towering redwood forests in Northern California to perfectly sun-kissed surf beaches in Southern California, this Golden State alongside the Pacific is a gem.  For 2019 - volunteers will focus mostly on the Big Basin Redwoods National Park and Boulder Creek area.

The project base is located not far from Santa Cruz, a coastal location also known as, ‘Surf City USA’. On the coastline of the largest marine wildlife refuge in the country and nestled at the base of the ancient Redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains, this city of 60,000 offers a huge range of outdoor recreational activities. Situated on the famous Pacific Coast Highway 1, Santa Cruz is a 40-minute drive from San Jose and 1.5 hours from San Francisco. With many great outdoor recreational and cultural opportunities, volunteers will find no shortage of fun and excitement on their days off in this great location.

The project also sometimes operates housing based in South Lake Tahoe, for those participants who are stationed on projects in the mountains of northern CA during the warm summer months. Tahoe, an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise, boasts a great variety of hiking, kayaking, rock climbing, mountain biking, and other activities across the stately granite mountains of the Sierra Nevada. And, of course, there’s the beach. Reno is only an hour away, for those looking for the excitement of city-life during days off. Like Santa Cruz, Tahoe is a great, beloved destination spot for many Californians.

Volunteers at work in National Parks throughout California

How does it work?

Participants join teams of other international conservation volunteers on specific start dates all throughout the year.  You would spend typically 8 to 11 days in the wilderness hiking and camping out whilst carrying out conservation duties - sometimes up to 3 weeks in some backcountry locations.  Work days consist of 8-10 hours per day, 40 hours per week. Then you will be transported back to Santa Cruz for a rest/free time period of 2 to 5 days and then after this, you would go back out in the field for another "hitch" period.  Over a period of 8 weeks, you would most likely take part in 3 to 4 hitches.  Generally these will be in different locations/national parks/reserves all over California depending on where the need is.  Free time is a time to rest at the base camp or to visit some other stunning places across California, Arizona, Nevada if you wish (at your own cost). 

Volunteer crews in California

2019 Dates & Costs

9th March to 4th May
4th May to 29th June
29th June to 24th August
24th August to 19th October 

This includes airport pickup (San Francisco Airport) on your start date at 18.00PM and drop off on the end date.

If you have any questions about dates, please email victoria.mcneil@workingabroad.com

Volunteers can join for 8 weeks. Volunteers come on the VWP (Visa Waiver program).

A brightly coloured lizard

Arrivals and departures include an orientation meeting, which can take about 5 hours to complete some paperwork and review all the important rules and safety policies. You then join your first project (known as a "hitch") as soon as Monday. We would rotate crews on to several projects via 8 to 11-day "hitches", so we can provide as much variety as possible.

Training is included during orientation, and as you start to visit different locations, there is specific training regarding the type of project, related tools, and safety procedures. 

Project Costs

The cost is in GB pounds sterling and for 8 weeks is £1550 and this includes housing, transportation whilst on project, tools, workday shirts (uniform), tents, safety equipment, and food during project work days.

Taking a break whilst working in the Grand Canyon

During off-work days (in between projects), you are responsible for your food costs - and shared kitchen is provided at the project base for preparing food.  Airport pickup and drop off is also included in the cost and is at 18.00PM sharp on both the start date and end date.

The airfare to San Francisco, travel/medical insurance and personal expenses are not included within this price. It is mandatory for you to take out travel and medical insurance for the duration of the project.

Food, Lodging & Travel

Santa Cruz volunteer house down time

Volunteer Accommodation

Volunteers stay in the Pacific West Central volunteer house in Boulder Creek, close to the Big Basin Redwoods State Park on days when you are not taking part in projects.  There are multiple buildings and cabins that included several bedrooms, several bathrooms, a large living room/dining area, washer/dryer, WI-FI, and a full sized kitchen with cookware, utensils, and basic appliances including refrigerators, coffeemaker, and toasters. We offer a landline phone, however cell phone service is limited or not available.

Bedroom configurations vary from two twin beds to two sets of bunkbeds with two twin beds, and rooms will often include a dresser and/or a closet. Linens and a towel will be provided, but please bring a pillow! Cleaning supplies, toilet paper, and hand soap are provided but you will be required to purchase your own toiletries.  Please note that you will be sharing a room with one or more of your fellow volunteers and the bedrooms do have limited space, so be mindful of how much you pack. There is a small reading and movie library but please feel free bring supplemental entertainment. There is extensive outdoor space and nearby hiking trails.

Big Basin State Park is minutes away, and is a major tourist destination. The property is a 20-minute drive from the nearest grocery store, restaurants, movie theater, and other resources in town. You will be expected to participate in maintaining a clean, safe living and working environment at PWC Boulder Creek.

The houses have a washer/dryer, and the houses have a laundromat just a few blocks away. Housing is communal, with 2-3 bunk beds per room and shared kitchen and bathroom facilities. You can store the luggage you’re not bringing on projects there, such as suitcases and sport bags. There are also other secure locations for valuables such as lockers and a safe in the office for passports, tickets, and other smaller valuables.

Vista over the California valley

Whilst on a "hitch" in the field, you are provided with tents to use for the duration of your camping trips. Every hitch would be expected to be outdoors and will involve camping for the duration of the trip.  About 75% of the locations we visit are going to be considered front country. This is when we use an existing campground that is used by other visitors of the park. It would have facilities like bathrooms, picnic tables, running water, and a fire pit etc. The other 20-25% of projects would be backcountry. These are more remote, a longer hike to get there, and no facilities or roads nearby. We take special preparation and bring in all supplies to sustain us. We have special procedures like filtering water and storing food. It is a lot to learn and some volunteers really desire this type of camping. It's not for everyone so you can simply request if you are not ready for this type of camping. We try our best to meet personal requests of all types, but you should be prepared for more camping than you've done for recreation back home.

Keeping warm at night with other volunteers

Food for Volunteers

Food is provided on project days only.   We provide food by sending a food supply with each crew. You will have independently chosen breakfast, lunch, and snacks, and then everyone works together to cook and share a communal dinner. It's a nice social activity to finish up each day. We shop at regular supermarkets, so all the food is familiar. We cook from scratch and you can make requests and give feedback to our food shoppers. We can support most dietary restrictions and food allergies.

During off-work days (in between "hitches"), you are responsible for your food costs - and shared kitchen is provided at the project base for preparing food.  If you plan to cook in the house, don’t spend a lot of time downtown, and don’t plan on taking a lot of road trips, you can easily get by on $50 per week. If you will rent cars and take road trips to places like Vegas, LA, San Diego, or San Francisco most off periods, count on spending closer to $150 per week. And if go out a lot, plan on at least $200 per week. This does not include initially purchasing your sleeping bag, backpacks, sleeping pad, work boots, etc. 

List of Items to bring

All volunteers must bring a few essential items, including a 55-60 litre backpack, work boots, work pants/trousers, waterproof rain gear and sleeping bag.  A detailed list of items will be sent once you are confirmed on the programme.

Volunteer Requirements

Conservation volunteers in California

Volunteers must be aged 18 yrs and over and must have a good knowledge of English and be in good physical condition. A lot of the work is very physically demanding and you will be hiking and camping out whilst in the field for several days straight. This is not recommended for anyone with respiratory problems such as asthma, as well as other conditions such as seizure, chronic fatigue, or chronic back injuries.  Some of the project locations will involve long hikes to get to and weather can be quite unpredictable.  In the summer months it can get very hot in the desert and sometimes in the winter, it can get very cold and even snow.  After application, we will request that you fill out a medical questionnaire and also get your doctor to confirm your state of health and fitness.

You don't need to have any prior experience in practical conservation to join. But we do ask for a sense of adventure, an ability to clearly follow directions, a desire to make a difference, an ability to be respectful to others, and a willingness to remain flexible and positive through ever changing project work, locations, and weather conditions.

Volunteers work in the California redwoods

Free time for Volunteers

You will have between 2-5 days off between alternate project weeks. This will allow you to use this time to travel with new friends, explore endless beautiful areas, and to socialize with other volunteers from the US and from around the world.  We just ask that you return healthy and rested for the next project. You can go to the beach, take a road trip, rent a car, go rock climbing, and whatever you'd like to plan.

If you are under 21 and do not want to spend several weeks or months without drinking alcohol, unfortunately you will not be able to participate in this project. As a general principle, we support your time-off activities if they are legal based on local and state laws, and safe. Illegal, unsafe, and disrespectful activity will result in immediate dismissal from the project.

Free time for volunteers across the state of california

Travel Information

Please arrange to fly into San Francisco International Airport (SFO code) for a 18.00PM Pickup the day before your official start date. From there you will get collected and taken to the volunteer house for training and orientation.  On departure, you will be dropped off at 18.00PM on your end date at SFO airport too.

Visa Information

From the UK and most of Western Europe, volunteers take advantage of the VWP, Visa Waiver Program. No visa is required for 90 days or less of travel, and you just pay the ESTA fee. Here is a helpful resource: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visa_Waiver_Program

For those who do not qualify for VWP, you need a B1 visa.  For volunteers coming over 90 days, you can also get a B2 visa which allows you to stay up to 6 months, but generally it's more straightforward to stay for a maximum of 90 days and opt for the VWP.

Map & Background

Map showing the different locations where volunteers may be placed throughout California:

Map of California volunteer projects

Overlooking stunning vistas in California

About California

California's diverse geography ranges from the Sierra Nevada in the east to the Pacific Coast in the west, from the redwood–Douglas fir forests of the northwest, to the Mojave Desert areas in the southeast. The center of the state is dominated by the Central Valley, a major agricultural area. California contains both the highest point (Mount Whitney) and the lowest point (Death Valley), in the contiguous United States and it has the 3rd longest coastline of all states (after Alaska and Florida).   As a Californian conservation volunteer, you will have the opportunity to experience some stunning locations throughout your time on the project, and also during your free time.

Volunteer Testimonials

Simon Austin, a student at Reading University gives his feedback on the project:

"I have now finished both my California and North Carolina terms and just wanted to say thank you for everything, these last 4 months have been the best of my life and have loved every single minute of it. I am flying back to England on the 15th July. Thanks again and I'll be in touch about other potential programs you might be able to offer me"

Volunteers in CaliforniaElena from the UK, volunteered at the project from March-April 2017: 

I really enjoyed my time with them.The first project I worked on was not what I was expecting, as rather than being in the wilderness, it was located in the suburbs of LA. However I had a good time, as everyone is really nice, so the location didn't matter that much. I did also get to experience backcountry projects later on, brushing and creating tread (restoring/creating a footpath) in Ventana Wilderness. These were sometimes challenging, but I learnt a lot and very much enjoyed the experience. We also had some rest days in between projects, which was nice as it gave us the opportunity to visit other areas of California. 

Taking a break to admire the beautiful scenery

Sunbin from South Korea spent 6 months at the project from February-August 2014: 

I'm a South Korean, who ha s never been outside Asia before this programme, and I spent about 6 month s there. For me, in one word, it was just FANTASTIC, the BEST 6 MONTHS for my entire life. I reckon most of the volunteers would agree with me.

The projects are great, full of breathtaking moments. Working in a Grand Canyon. F or example, I had to walk all the way down to the bottom of the canyon everyday. But I can't really forget any moments working there, hiking down (was literally breathtaking for everyday to hike the Grand Canyon), and  having fun with lots of global people after coming back from the work. I think working in those kind of wonderful places is like a privilege.

The organization culture is better than any org I have ever been belonged to. This is kind of weird, if you think, because they actually let volunteers work as they want (they don't force volunteers to work harder) but all the people do work very hard. I think this is one of the most valued asset of this programme, that you cannot easily notice from outside. The staff do help volunteer workers very well and work really hard and they are also very professional.

Working in the Sierra Nevadas

David Swallow writes about his time on the project:

I spent 10 weeks volunteering from the Santa Cruz base. I had a fantastic experience, many of the people who I volunteered with are some of my closest friends to this day.

My favourite project was in the backcountry of Kings Canyon. This was a truly remarkable experience spending a month in the high Sierra nevada mountains. A challenging experience but one that has stayed with me since then.

I think this is a great project and a good way to do meaningful voluntary conservation work.


Carole Deu, 23 yrs old from France joined the programme for 3 months from February to April and writes about her experience.

Admiring the Grand CanyonI wanted to travel and see the world by myself, to go out of my comfort zone & I found this project.

I had a great experience with them, the organisation is great and well made (form the day I landed in San Francisco to the day I left), the staff is very friendly and always here if you need help or some piece of advice.  I discovered a lot of wonderful places that I won't have known if I were travelling alone.

The crew leaders are all professionals and very fun at the same time. They know how to motivate their crew in the target of working as a real team and in good mood but always in safety !

All my projects were a good experiment for me but if I have to pick one I would choose the project in Sequoia National Park. First of all because it's a wonderful place but also thanks to the partners who are great !  I also loved the time that I spent in my off days in the 2 diferents houses (Santa Cruz & Lake Tahoe) : I met a lot of wonderful people from all around the world.

Working by lakes and rivers in CaliforniaHow to Join the Project

If you are interested in joining this project, you will need to fill out the online application form (you can also print it out and send it to us by post) – to secure a placement on the project, please complete and submit the form including your application payment of £195.  If for some reason, your application is not accepted, we would reimburse this payment fully.  If your application is successful, we will confirm your place on the programme and we will send you detailed information on your project, suggested items to bring etc.  We will also require you to fill out a medical questionnaire and also get your doctor to confirm your state of health and fitness.  The balance payment will be due 2 months before the start of the project.

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