Trail work and other volunteer efforts help you travel without being a tourist

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BIG SUR, Calif. – “Thank you!” said the soccer mom from Bakersfield as she passed us on the trail through towering redwoods. “Thank you!” said the family from Salt Lake. “Thank you!” chirped the kid wearing “My parents went to Big Sur and all I got was this stupid T-shirt.”

I don’t think anybody in our volunteer trail-work group was there looking for thanks. But as we rubbed our own shoulders, aching from toting 10-foot cedar rails a half-mile up a winding trail, the gratitude didn’t hurt a bit.

It was spring-break week in California, and I was with six other volunteers building split-rail fences and redwood-timber steps along trails in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, on a fabled stretch of California’s Central Coast.

Spring break: Trails swarmed with hikers. People were on vacation.

And so were we. Everyone in our group, from the retired teacher from Fresno, Calif., to the indie-radio DJ from Connecticut, could have spent their holiday dollars on a cruise or a week at the beach. But all shared a love of the outdoors, and all chose to give something back to the woods.

On their day off, Sierra Club trail-work volunteers look down on surf by McWay Falls, at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. (Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Tmes)
On their day off, Sierra Club trail-work volunteers look down on surf by McWay Falls, at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. (Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Tmes)

Many ways to volunteer

There are lots of ways to do good on your vacation, from building houses for the poor in Central America to helping with environmental research in the Caribbean. Most involve paying your own way plus food and varying administrative fees. It’s a good-karma way to travel without being a tourist.

This was a six-night Sierra Club Outings service trip, with a trained group leader and experienced cook.

Charlie Schneider, our leader, a retired postal worker who lives in Thurston County, was on his third Big Sur service trip, lured back by a serious love affair with redwood country.

“You need three senses out here — sound, sight and smell,” he jovially lectured us on our first trek along Pfeiffer Redwood Creek on the way to meet up with our state-park trail foreman. “I heard wild turkeys this morning!”

We all cocked an ear and, sure enough, a burbling reminiscent of a roomful of Hollywood gossips rose from a distant patch of gnarled live-oaks.

Among other reasons, Schneider keeps leading these outings because it gives him an optimistic view of life.

“Lots of people come from all over for these trips, and it tells you there are still a lot of good people on this Earth, willing to give up their time for another place,” he said.

We walked carefully; poison oak grew along these trails like dandelions in an unloved lawn. But wild blue Douglas irises sprouted here, too, along with delicate globe lilies and yellow monkey flowers.

A wild iris blooms along the Pfeiffer Falls Trail, at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. (Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Tmes)
A wild iris blooms along the Pfeiffer Falls Trail, at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. (Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Tmes)

Schneider spoke about the safe use of tools, along with the difference between a Pulaski and a McLeod, two specialized trail implements. Uncertain what to call one digging device, we city slickers dubbed it the “Big-Ass Tool.”

We were advised to keep aware of people on the trail and holler “hikers” when any approached, to alert our crew.

Our primary job this week was to build about 60 feet of split-rail fencing to stop hikers from creating erosion-causing shortcuts. It involved digging post holes two feet deep in dusty, rocky soil.

It was sweaty toil, prompting victory dances when the measuring tape finally got to 24 inches on a post hole.

The first day was a Sunday, a busy hiking day on the trail to Pfeiffer Falls. Every few minutes, yells of “hikers up the trail” or “hikers down the trail” rang through the woods and we paused in our chopping or digging to let them pass.

At lunchtime we ambled up to the pretty falls to gobble sandwiches. At the falls, a skinny young woman in Goth clothing admired another hiker’s elaborate tattoos. She took photos of his tats rather than of the falls. Oh, that’s right — this was California.

Making friends

Working hard and camping out is a good way to get to know strangers. Camaraderie quickly developed in our group.

There was Sharon, a nursing instructor, and her husband, Lenny, a social-service administrator, from Buffalo, N.Y. Karen, the radio host. Elaine, the retired teacher. Stacey, from Orange County. Jo, a Montessori-school educator from Menlo Park, Calif. Patti, our cook, was a state worker from Olympia.

As we labored we sang “Owe my soul to the company store.” Next, our a cappella version of Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me” echoed off 20-story-high treetops.

A couple of us composed a fence-building haiku:

“Hikers coming down.

Drop your tools, relax and breathe.

Hikers coming up.”

After a long day of pounding in posts, fitting crossbeams, trimming them to fit and getting thanked by hikers eyeing our safety-orange “service trip” vests, “Yee haw!” shouted Karen, as the last split rail slid into place on our first section of fence.

Campsite happy hour

We stayed at the park’s riverfront campground. After our day of sweat equity in the California park system, we staged a happy hour with cold beer and cider around a picnic table.

There were amiable chats about families and jobs. We chilled bottles of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale under rocks in the chattering Big Sur River.

At 6 p.m. we lounged in camp chairs beneath redwoods and sycamores when Patti, the cook, drew our attention as if serving dinner at Downton Abbey.

“Tonight we have tomato soup with basil, with focaccia bread, spinach salad and pasta primavera with chicken — and there will be angel food cake with fruit and whipped cream.”

Elaine Gorman, left, plays her ukulele as Karen Stein strums a guitar after a hard day’s work on Big Sur trails. (Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Tmes)
Elaine Gorman, left, plays her ukulele as Karen Stein strums a guitar after a hard day’s work on Big Sur trails. (Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Tmes)

Later, Karen strummed her guitar and sang Woody Guthrie songs around the campfire. We all joined in:

“This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York island, from the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream wa-a-aters …”

It’s especially poignant when you’re actually sitting in a redwood forest.

Busy days, enriching nights

Busy work days followed. Never a cloud in the sky. Dreamy spring days with temps in the 70s.

Evening campfire programs: Charlie Schneider wearing the lifesize 9-foot-wings his wife had sewed, for a talk about the endangered California condor that soars the cliffs of Big Sur. (Wild shouts erupted days later when some of our group spied one of the 38 condors that live on this coast.)

I shared facts gleaned from a natural history of Big Sur that I read on the plane. Did you know it includes the most precipitous oceanfront elevation gain in the Lower 48, rising to more than 5,000 feet?

During a talk around the campfire, Charlie Schneider demonstrates the lifesize condor wings his wife sewed for him. (Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)
During a talk around the campfire, Charlie Schneider demonstrates the lifesize condor wings his wife sewed for him. (Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

The name Big Sur — “sur” meaning “south” in Spanish — dates to 18th-century Monterey, 23 miles up the coast, where some of California’s earliest European settlers called this dramatic landscape “the big country to the south.”

Play day

Wednesday was our day off. We all piled into a minivan to visit nearby Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, where scenic McWay Falls spills from a cliff onto the sandy beach beneath a hillside punctuated by spears of creamy yucca flowers. (The Pfeiffer name, which keeps cropping up, comes from a family that settled here in 1869.)

Hikers along the Ewoldsen Trail in Big Sur’s Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park look 1,500 feet down to the Pacific Ocean. (Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Tmes)
Hikers along the Ewoldsen Trail in Big Sur’s Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park look 1,500 feet down to the Pacific Ocean. (Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Tmes)

We hiked the Ewoldsen Trail, lined by trilliums and dainty yellow violets, to a glorious viewpoint 1,500 feet above the azure Pacific. Then it was back up Highway 1 for lunch at cliff-hugging Nepenthe restaurant, a Big Sur fixture since 1949. (Charlie recommended the toothsome Ambrosiaburger.)

After lunch we ended up at Pfeiffer Beach. Wind sandblasted us as we explored a sea tunnel where surf gushed through coastal rocks to feed tide pools brimming with green anemones.

Why do it?

Why pay for a vacation involving so much work?

“We like service trips, and we like people who gravitate to that, helping to repair the world,” said Sharon Murphy, who brought along a volume of John Muir essays to read.

By week’s end, I knew Zion National Park was one of her favorite travel spots (“It truly felt like a sanctuary, like holy ground!”) and that Australia was one of Jo’s least favorites (“Just like America, but without the culture!”).

The shared toil gives an immediate basis for friendship. Plus, you do some good.

“Just the number of people walking through who are appreciative is impressive,” Charlie Schneider said at the end of a workday. “It’s something we should be proud of.”

If you go

The Sierra Club Outings national office runs about 90 service/volunteer trips annually across the United States, ranging from trail work at Big Sur to restoring bird habitat on the Big Island of Hawaii (see bit.ly/1gfZ4U8). Local Sierra Club chapters run outings, too.

Costs vary; the six-night Big Sur trip featured here cost $595, which covered campsite fees, meals, equipment and trained leadership. Participants paid their way to get there and brought their own tents and camping gear. Participants must be Sierra Club members; membership adds as little as $15 to the trip cost.

More volunteer vacations

A sampling of other volunteer-vacation organizations:

  • Locally, Washington Trails Association offers volunteer trail-building opportunities (no cost) every weekend, as well as weeklong Volunteer Vacations every summer (including meals, for $205-$245); 206-625-1367 or wta.org.
  • Maryland-based American Hiking Society does trail projects nationwide: americanhiking.org.
  • Minnesota-based Global Volunteers has promoted peace and social justice through volunteer vacations since 1984: globalvolunteers.org.
  • World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF, pairs willing workers with farms that provide room and board: wwoof.net.
  • England-based One World 365 touts “the world’s most affordable volunteer fees,” from $180: oneworld365.org.

Travel tip

Beware of profiteers with do-good names. Online research and shopping around gives a feel for the reputation and pricing of agencies promoting volunteer trips. See charitynavigator.org for reliability ratings on some such groups.