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How a love for National Parks turned into a part-time retirement job

Meet Tony, a Hively member from Boston. Tony retired in 2021 after a 30-year career in social work. He is an avid traveler who turned his desire to spend more time at National Parks into a part-time work opportunity in retirement. Learn more about his experience working in Yellowstone National Park with Xanterra Travel.

Tony in front of the Yellowstone National Park sign


What led you to the idea of finding employment opportunities in National Parks?

Before I retired, my wife and I traveled quite a bit. Over my life, I've had vacations and traveling experiences. But I've always gone back to hiking, and I've always loved the mountains. As my wife and I traveled we thought it would be really nice if we could come back to this place, but actually stay longer. And maybe to justify being able to stay here longer, we could work a little bit. And that was just the idea.

How did you come across the Xanterra Travel opportunity?

I researched what it would take to be a park ranger, but during the research, I came across this opportunity at Yellowstone. The hotels, restaurants, and concessions within the national parks are all contracted out privately. Different companies have contracts for different parks. In this case, I found a program called Helping Hands. The company with the contract at Yellowstone is called Xanterra Travel Collection.

What I thought was just a dream or a fantasy of what could happen in my retirement actually became a reality. Now I expect that if I'm willing to pick up a couple of skills, if I'm willing to work part time or for a short season, I can go almost anywhere.

What types of jobs are offered?

Through the Helping Hands program, the tasks could vary, such as serving, meal preparation, kitchen work, or hotel duties. In my case, it involved housekeeping—I would enter rooms to strip beds and make them. You're going to work 20 hours a week, and they set it up so that you only work four days in a row and you get the other three off. So I had free time to explore for five hours a day. Through Xanterra at Yellowstone there is a wide variety of other jobs available as well.

What was your onboarding experience like?

I got assigned to this beautiful place called Lake Yellowstone. My workplace would be the Lake Hotel and Lake Lodges. I wound up being introduced to a group of around 15 people - most of them were recently retired. I was 61 at the time. Some were a little older, and some were a little bit younger than I was. And we had a couple of really young folks — one guy was about 19, and another young woman in her early twenties. We were all brought together to have this adventure.

Were there any special requirements or training involved to apply for this position?

The biggest requirement is flexibility. You won't know which part of the park you're going to be in, the accommodations can vary, and what you can be asked to do can vary. They try to match you up as best they can to your preferences, but you won't really know what part of the park you're going to. 

What were some of the bigger challenges you had to overcome during your time there? Well, I think what a lot of folks struggle with to some degree is the limited Wi-fi and phone service. If you're trying to stay in touch with folks back home and send pictures, there are places and ways to do it, but sometimes you wouldn't have a good signal. I could still make phone calls, but I had to be careful where I was standing, and I might have to redial or move to a different part of the park. I stayed at a place called Canyon, and they had a great signal there. When all else failed, I would climb a mountain that had a cell tower on top of it.

If it's not national parks, well, think about what it is you would like to do and realize that there's lots of different ways you can do it.

old yellow school bus in front of mountains

What did a typical day look like for you?

The first year I went, I wound up taking the housekeeping job. I would show up at work around 8:00 AM and work for five hours. They give you a half-hour break for lunch. I had the opportunity to meet many different people, and I've stayed in touch with many of them. We had a fantastic time. The work itself keeps you occupied. Then, unexpectedly, wildlife appears on site—some days it's elk, other days it's bison.

I'd work until about 2:00 PM, come home, get cleaned up or changed, and go off for a drive or a hike, or go look for wildlife.

How long was the commitment and what was the pay like?

It ended up being six weeks. They pay you $15 an hour or so and the food cost was around $3 - $5 a meal. They deduct around $200, with the maximum being about $220 over two weeks, roughly speaking. This deduction comes out of your paycheck. There's no state tax, but there is a small federal park tax, along with deductions for Medicare, Social Security, and other related expenses.

Why not simply take an extended vacation and stay in a cabin or hotel instead?

I'm trying to find a way for it to be more affordable. Cabins last year were going for well over $200 to $300 a night and most people book cabins a year in advance.  

Hotel rooms at the Lake Hotel are over $600 a night. Places at Canyon are the same thing. So for me, the question was: How can I get more out of this park and call it a cheap vacation? That's with driving across the country and staying in hotels every night. I still break even and make a little bit of money after six weeks. 

I'm not doing it to make money. I'm doing it to get the experience of being there. 

Lastly, what advice would you give to someone who's also considering taking on a similar experience?

Well, the first thing I'd say is just go for it. Just do it. You're not really going to know until you go and do it. I've only met one person who didn't want to stick it out or didn't want to come back. You just have to be adaptable. It's not luxury living. You're going to meet people who are there to do the same kinds of things you want to do and see the same kind of things. 

Lake Lodge hotel at Yellowstone

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This is so informative. Thank you!

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