Back to the workplace in the redwoods

  • Tom and Judy standing by the sign at the entrance to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

By Tom Nichols

After almost 2½ years of shirking, I went back to work as a volunteer.

The terms: Twenty hours of work each week, split with Judy, in exchange for a campsite with electricity, water and sewer. After two years of freestyle travel, we committed to spend March, April and May as information center volunteers at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, a U.N. World Heritage site about 40 miles north of Eureka, California. To upgrade our campsite from the maintenance area to a beautiful spot on Prairie Creek, we agreed to cabin hosting, which meant light housekeeping for four utilitarian units with bunk beds and living space but without kitchens or bathrooms.

I was the rawest of park recruits, proudly wearing the ursine badge and khaki vest of the California state parks, eager to please my new boss, Senior Park Aide and Volunteer Coordinator Leslie Reyes, who was an informed teacher, protective mentor and always encouraged us to try new things. Still, I was nervous about my new mission because I knew so little about the geography and natural history of the region.

I signed up to help visitors enjoy one of the largest contiguous stands of old-growth coastal redwoods that survive in California, but my experience consisted of two short hikes among the 300-feet-tall giants and sword ferns, and an hour or so reading a notebook about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the fundamentals of natural interpretation.

Fortunately, experienced volunteers at the visitors center gave me answers to the three questions visitors ask most frequently: There are no public bathrooms in the visitors center, which was built to house Civilian Conservation Corps workers during the Great Depression; the centerpiece of the park, the Newton B. Drury Parkway, was closed because a massive redwood fell a created a crater in the roadbed (It’s now reopened.); and the lower portion of the James Irvine trail, which trail leads to world famous Fern Canyon, was filled with shin-deep water.

After three four-hour shifts shadowing park volunteers in the visitors center and learning about California park rules and a brief history of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and Redwood National Park, which are jointly managed, I was ready to take the lead behind the information desk.

I knew how to direct park visitors to Gold Bluffs Beach, a wild stretch of Pacific coast accessible by vehicle, bike or foot, or which of the 75-plus miles of hiking trails in the park were closed because of fallen trees, landslides or floods. And most importantly, I learned to tell visitors that dog were not allowed on hiking trails, unless they were certified as service dogs.

As my competence in helping others grew, I soon noticed there were more state park volunteers and employees from the adjoining Redwood Parks Conservancy bookstore than visitors on rain-soaked mornings in March. It rained during 26 of those days.

Our team of workers would leap into action when visitors walked through the entrance, always friendly and helpful, but sometimes a bit smothering in enthusiasm, and competition, to meet every visitor need. Clearly, there were two many Type A personalities among our group for me to contribute much.

I felt redundant at first. My solution was to go my own way.

During my second week of volunteering, I checked in at the center at 9 a.m., grabbed some trail maps in case visitors on trails or at popular landmarks needed them, and drifted away. Learning more about the trail network would make me a more valuable volunteer, I rationalized.

I sheepishly returned to the center at 1 p.m., having helped one visitor at Big Tree, a 23-foot wide redwood giant that was almost chopped down in the early 1900s to make a dance floor. Instead of being met with skepticism about what I was doing out there, my supervisor Leslie enthused about the importance of roving.

It turns out roving is an essential part of the park’s mission to reach visitors in informal ways. Who knew I could turn my preference for wandering into legitimate work. I became the go-to volunteer for hiking to the beach on Miners Ridge Trail, a nine-mile round trip, or checking out the latest blooming wildflowers on Prairie Creek Trail, pinpointing the latest fallen tree on Foothill Trail, or checking to see if rhododendrons were finally blooming on the trail named after them.

I later returned to the information center for works shifts when needed, filling in at times on busy Saturday mornings and sometimes on weekdays as visitor traffic increased with drier weather in May.

When I returned to the info desk in May, I knew enough about the parks and distances to nearby natural attractions to help visitors set up doable itineraries based on one-day or multiple-day visits. I could better gauge whether visitors wanted to have a question promptly answered and quickly exit the visitors center, or if they really wanted to chat a bit and browse at the bookstore.

Chatty adults were most interested in photos of the “Earthquake tree,” a fallen redwood on Cathedral Trees Trail, which registered 2.1 on a nearby seismograph, or the 100 inches of rain that fell at the park during the winter of 2017. Kids were more impressed with learning that scenes from The Lost World: Jurassic Park were filmed at the park. Everyone was amazed by the chunk of tree trunk that had grown around the skull and antlers of an unlucky elk.

Still, my most rewarding time as a volunteer came on trail, helping a hiker find a purple trillium, or pointing a visitor to the redwood grove honoring Frederick Law Olmsted, on Brown Creek Trail, or suggesting to a couple that West Ridge Trail is the best place to enjoy the afternoon sun filtering through the redwoods.

While I found my volunteer niche roving, Judy found hers on the porch of the information center.

Each day she set up a discovery table loaded with branches and cones of coastal redwood, western hemlock, Sitka spruce and Douglas fir, the big four trees in our park. She lured visitors in with her bubbly greetings and tactile exhibits. Then she would go for the sale, shifting to a presentation about the differences between the Pacific coastal redwood and giant sequoia in California’s western Sierra. She shared what we both found to be the coastal redwood’s most fantastic characteristic, its ability to reiterate itself.

When bud tissue in coastal redwood burls is activated because of fire, wind damage, limited sunlight, or even logging, the results are surreal. New trunks, or arterials, emerge near the base of coastal redwoods, creating new twisted growth paths. Hundreds of feet up in canopies of coastal redwoods, reiteration leads to magnificent mazes. Dozens or even hundreds of trunks are interwoven in a skeleton supporting a unique lofty ecosystem, filled with soil and redwood duff several feet deep, nourishing huckleberries, ferns, and distinctive moss, salamanders and flying squirrels.

And we both loved helping kids earn their Junior Ranger badges, which ended with us teaching them the banana slug slide.

We learned that reaching out to visitors away from the formality of the information desk is one of the greatest joys of volunteering. And we learned that hard-working Rangers and park aides really need volunteer help to lighten their load and better serve visitors and are truly grateful for the efforts we made.

We liked our return to the workplace so much that we hope to do it again next year at one of California’s state parks in Big Sur.


  1. Reply
    hans laetz August 28, 2017

    As one California taxpayer, I say hurrah and welcome to the pioneers from Arizona in their land wagon. I am sure the four utilitarian cabins will be brought up to the cleanliness standards expected of Arizona Daily Wildcat writers. And as rerited intrepid reporters, they will learn that the number one FOLLOWUP question will be “where did the Civilian Conservation Corps workers go to the bathroom during the Great Depression?” “Was the Great Depression called that because there was no place for the CC to go to the bathroom?” and “Where are the nearest public bathrooms?”

    Welcome to our great socialist experiment and its free electricity.

    As a Californian, let me welcome you to the northenmost reach of the Golden State. Let me give you these hints:

    Best local dive bar: The Alibi, 744 Ninth St, Arcata. Walk past the local stoners in the town square. avoid their gaze, it will haunt you.
    Best local eats: smoked salmon from the roadside stand, Eel River bridge. Bring your own sourdough. Pricey.
    Best local color: The Samoa Cookhouse, 908 Vance Ave, Samoa, an authentic lumbercamp communal cookhouse that never went broke.

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols August 28, 2017

      Hahahahaha! Those concerned with CCC bladders will be happy to know that there is a small bathroom in the building, and the park provides public bathrooms in a separate building a few steps away. And thanks for the local tips, although we’re headed down the road now. But we’ll definitely be back to the Redwoods. They’ve captured our hearts.

  2. Reply
    Meredith August 28, 2017

    I love the term and concept of “roving”! Great article, Tom. Lots of us talkers around…wonderful for you to be a rover and find people where they are.

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols August 28, 2017

      Thanks, Meredith. Tom loved the serendipitous encounter.

  3. Reply
    Kirstin C August 28, 2017

    This is so cool! What a great gig to fill the time and be of service!

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols August 28, 2017

      Thanks, Kristin. We loved it. It was fun to be part of a little ad-hoc family for the three months we were there. And we met visitors from all over the world: Germany, Israel, China, and all parts of the United States, too. They were all enchanted with the ancient forest, and so were we.

  4. Reply
    Keven August 28, 2017

    Super article. Thanks for sharing! Hoping to follow your lead in early 2019 at Big Bend National Park in Texas!

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols August 28, 2017

      Keven, We’ll be excited to hear how your experience goes. We love Big Bend.

  5. Reply
    Abner March 4, 2020

    Hi guys, I absolutely enjoyed working with both of you guys at Redwoood National and State Parks! I always made it a mission to stop by the Prairie Creek state park visitor center to say hello!

    Phenomenal blog! Guess who I am! Sorry for late post!

    Please continue to share your outstanding adventures and always be safe!

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols March 4, 2020

      Abner, So great to hear from you. We loved our time at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. What a magical place. We have stopped there many times, often bringing our dearest friends. One of our son’s best friends, who visited while we were there (Maybe you met him. His name is Corbin.) ended up getting married nearby and having wedding photos taken at Wedding Rock at Patrick’s Point.

      What are you up to now? Are you wandering on wheels?

      We’re in Arizona right now, preparing a big party for my mother’s 90th birthday, then my friend and I have a booth at the Tempe Festival of the Arts at the end of the month. Then we’re back on the road! Yea!

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