Hikers and nature enthusiasts are given an opportunity to explore their love for nature with the Wilderness Volunteers organization. The Flagstaff organization was founded in 1997 and allows people to volunteer, explore nature and help improve national parks.
Wilderness Volunteers was founded by executive director Ashely Northcutt’s mother. She said her mother’s goal in establishing this organization was to inspire people to discover their natural side and enjoy hiking trips that also allow them to provide services to natural areas.
“My mom ran this project out of her house until 2015,” Northcutt said. “Since then, we’ve ran the organization out of an office here in town, and I’ve taken over as executive director. My job is to coordinate trips with national parks and other organizations that will allow us to provide service for their parks or trails.”
Each project involves a trip leader that directs volunteers on expeditions. Trips range from about five to seven days in length. The trips involve helping create new trails or providing services, such as cleaning up at a park or trail.
Trips are divided into three different categories: active, strenuous and challenging. Each trip lasts around the same amount of time but is designed for people that have different hiking abilities.
Since its establishment, the organization has expanded its trips nationwide.
“Each year we try to add new trips to expand around the country,” Northcutt said. “We have people who find our organization in Flagstaff, and then we work out ways to connect with them when they are from a different state. We usually try to find a trip leader for the most common states, and then we coordinate from there.”
The trip season for Wilderness Volunteers runs from March through October. During months when there are no trips, Northcutt and the program manager Aidalicia Swertfeger plan trips for the upcoming season.
Amy Qian is a trip leader based in California. Before becoming a trip leader, Qian said she was looking for ways to go on more hiking trips. Then she came across Wilderness Volunteers.
“I’ve always been a nature person,” Qian said. “For me, hiking is like going on a vacation, and I wanted to find more hiking opportunities. I wanted this to feel more productive and do volunteer work while hiking. This is when I found Wilderness Volunteers. This group is unique because of the volunteer service each trip provides. Not everybody gets to help out a national park when they go on a hiking trip.”
Before becoming a volunteer, Qian said she only participated in one volunteer project in California. She said she became interested enough in Wilderness Volunteers projects that she applied for a leadership position and went through leadership training. Qian said she has led two trips: one in California and one in Colorado.
“The Colorado trip was one of the best trips to lead,” Qian said. “We worked on one of the popular trails in Indian Peaks Wilderness. During this project, we helped build a bridge out of rocks that we knew people would use because it made the trail easier to hike. I think it’s satisfying to know that what you’re working on is going to help someone enjoy nature more.”
Qian said she plans to continue leading trips in future seasons. She said she would like to continue leading more trips near California and plans to lead at least one trip each year.
Trip volunteer Sarah Kocher discovered Wilderness Volunteers in May. Kocher said she has gone on two trips this year and plans to continue as a volunteer.
“I found out about Wilderness Volunteers at work,” Kocher said. “I love to volunteer and travel, so I thought I would give this a shot. This year, I went to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park and Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky. The work ethic and willingness to help from the volunteers is astounding. It’s awesome to see that so many people want to give back to nature.”
Although Kocher has only been on two trips, she said her experience as a volunteer changed her life. Kocher said the trips are challenging, but everybody has a smile on their face while they are on a hike.
“Getting to work with national parks is also a great part of the trips,” Kocher said. “They truly appreciate our help, and it’s great to have our volunteers work so closely with them. I would recommend going on these trips to anybody who is interested in hiking and outdoor adventures. You won’t regret having this experience.”
Even if people have never done a volunteer hiking trip, Wilderness Volunteers allows them to have this experience and enjoy themselves while on a hike.