How to Stay in a U.S. National Park for Free

The National Park Service has programs that'll let you live among nature for free.

great smoky mountains national park
Photo: Getty Images/Bill Swindaman

If you’re hearing the call of the great outdoors, the National Park Service (NPS) has volunteer programs that are calling your name.

Requirements for each program vary based on the park, ranging from one-time events to longer-term programs that can go for months or even years, with perks like free housing in scenic locations.

The busy season typically starts in the spring and continues through the fall, according to the NPS. Some parks are already accepting applications for next year.

Here's a breakdown of some of the different opportunities and how you can apply.

Artist-in-residence Programs

The artist-in-residence programs invite artists across a variety of mediums — including writers, photographers, painters, sculptors, musicians, and composers — to stay in the parks. Artists will typically conduct public workshops, demonstrations, or readings, and work on a piece of art that will remain in the park after the residency.

See the full list of artist-in-residency programs through NPS to see which parks provide opportunities and how each one works. The Alliance of Artists Communities and the National Parks Arts Foundation also list current opportunities.

Dry Tortugas National Park, for example, is accepting applications for two artists to spend next September in a house in the park. (Joint applications only.)

Research Volunteer Opportunities

The NPS also has research-based volunteer opportunities that are often of interest to retirees, according to Lenny Teh, the program manager of the NPS' service-wide volunteer program. has listings for volunteers to do everything from track wildlife to count visitors to patrol trails. However, don't count on free housing with this one: Most of these are event-based or long-term positions for residents near parks (but they're great if you're near one).

Trails Volunteer Programs

The NPS also has programs that encourage volunteers to come out to the parks and help protect their trail systems. Groups stay on a trail for a few days or even several weeks, depending on the park. These opportunities are often good for organized groups, like community-based organizations and scout groups, Teh said.

Those interested should contact their park of interest, since not all opportunites are listed online.

Go Local

One of the best ways to find out how you can get involved with an NPS volunteer program is to contact your local park.

“All parks do programming and develop products and service to enhance the visitor experience,” Teh told Travel + Leisure. “They need people that are passionate about the subject matter and who are connected to that place and have their own stories to tell.”

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles