Mike Craig got inspired to live and work in America’s national parks for a very simple reason: He didn’t want to sit down.
“I got tired of being a couch potato,” says the 62-year-old retiree of his life after ending his career in information technology in 2016. “My wife was still working. We had the RV idea—drive around, figure out where we want to retire. I lived in northeastern Illinois most of my life and was tired of the snow.”
After buying a new, 31-foot-long Coachmen motor home for around $100,000 the same year—while his wife Gayle Craig was still putting in hours at a medical office doing insurance billing—Mike got resourceful. A former camper before older age made the hobby more taxing, he navigated his browser to volunteer.gov, a government portal to match potential unpaid volunteers with opportunities, including some with accommodations.
Mike wanted to both keep busy and avoid the sometimes hefty costs of RV parking. After submitting an application, he got an offer and in 2017 took up residency at a Bureau of Land Management park in Moab, Utah, leaving Gayle back in the townhouse they own in Illinois.
A million Americans live full-time in RVs (a.k.a. recreational vehicles, which include motor homes and trailers), according to the RV Industry Association (RVIA). Given the roving nature of the lifestyle, many RV residents are retirees.
The National Park Service (NPS) is keenly aware of this phenomenon, having installed long-term RV hookups at public parks across the U.S. for volunteers, allowing them to stay for free in exchange for a certain number of hours of service to help maintain these precious lands. Mike says that it’s been relatively easy to find a work match that doesn’t require special skills.
“This is the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Volunteers-in-Parks (VIP) program,” says NPS spokesperson Kathy Kupper. “More than 300,000 people volunteer their time and talent to national parks annually, and we have hundreds of campground hosts each year.”
Chasing Warm Weather From Park to Park
Volunteering allowed Mike to scout locations where he and Gayle might settle together once she retired, which she did half a year after him. She joined him at a similar gig at a trailhead site in an Arizona national forest for a balmy, 70- to 80-degree winter, before the couple roamed to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.
“She enjoyed that part of it,” he adds. “That was the goal: stay in nice weather year-round.”
The couple now lives in and volunteers for government parks for most of the year: Biscayne National Park in the northern Florida Keys from November through April, and Lassen Volcanic National Park in California during the summers.
While the Craigs enjoy the outdoors, these moves were largely motivated by financial considerations: Staying in the parks is free.
The Craigs don’t receive a salary for helping with regular tasks like greeting campers, reminding them of rules, and providing information. But they do get something valuable in return: the ability to bask in natural lands while being provided a place to park, a septic hookup, water, sometimes electricity and even Internet for no costs (parks also periodically cover gas expenses).
“When you get an RV, you soon learn that parking at an RV park with full hookups gets really expensive,” Mike notes, referring to commercial campgrounds with those amenities. These spots cost about $20 to $50 a night for an RV camper staying over, he estimates.
Finding Fulfillment in Work and Friendship
Now in their second season at Biscayne, Mike and Gayle each put in 32 hours of volunteer work a week at the park’s front desk—making it a bit less than a full-time routine—in order to meet the requirements to make a home there.
It’s a popular gig. “I seem to have a waiting list all the time [for RV volunteers],” says Biscayne National Park’s volunteer program manager Elizabeth Strom. Among all of Biscayne’s 600 volunteers last year (the vast majority of whom live off-site), she estimates that “99.9%” are retirees. “It’s important for volunteers to be able to get what they need out of a position,” Strom says. “These retirees bring a lifetime of experience and are creating yet another life. They’re really helping to make the program the best it can be, and they take ownership of the park. I could only dream about being able to do something like that when I get old enough to not have to work.”
If you’ve never been to Biscayne National Park, you might be surprised by what you see: Less park than oceanic paradise, it’s comprised of more than 95% water, including crystal-clear green-blue coral reefs inhabited by angelfish and nurse sharks.
The Craigs occupy one of two RV spots with full hookups reserved for volunteers. The park also offers two spots literally in the ocean for volunteers willing and able to live on their boats.
“We work sunup to sundown,” Mike says. “After that, everyone’s gone, so you basically have the entire area to yourself, which is nice,” he adds.
When they’re not at Biscayne or Lassen, the Craigs also pop back into their Illinois townhouse to check on maintenance. The sheer amount of space there is comforting, Mike says, but the couple is always quickly eager to get back on the road.
“You’re seeing things people have written about. At Biscayne, you’re going off to snorkel at the shipwrecks. In Lassen, you’re climbing up to the top of a volcano. In Shenandoah, there are lots of neat waterfalls. My wife likes waterfalls,” he says with a laugh.
This lifestyle is surprisingly sustainable, at least once you have the RV. Mike estimates that they don’t go beyond the usual at-home expenses for food in the kitchen or even gas once they’re settled into a park. They spend about $7,000 a month, though that total also includes taxes, insurance, and association fees for the townhouse, which they don’t rent out.
Living off his pension and some stock investments, they spring for a good Verizon cell plan given signal issues in natural terrain. And while they get free wireless internet courtesy of Biscayne, they have plenty of entertainment loaded up on their computer and iPad just in case.
Strom has noticed that RV retirees in the park tend to look for a “social aspect” that includes “like-minded people who care about the environment.”
“Initially I didn’t have any real interest in environmental issues,” Craig admits. But “after I started with hosting, I saw the easy things that create environmental issues: trash. I don’t understand how people can just dump their trash on public lands when they can dispose of it nearby in a dump.” Cleaning up a section of a park after only a week, it “looked like we had done nothing.”
On a sunnier note, he and Gayle have created tight bonds with other volunteers, going out to dinners and movies or having cookouts—or wandering around park trails with no one else in sight.
“They still want to be useful,” Strom says of the volunteers. “They’re done with their main job, but they’re not done living.”