12 Volunteer Vacations That Make an Impact

Go green on your next trip and give back to Mother Nature. These adventures help scientists and conservationists keep popular destinations clean and beautiful for years to come. 

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Photo By: Terranea

Photo By: The Elephant Nature Foundation

Photo By: iStockphoto.com/mevans

Photo By: iStockphoto.com/MariuszBlach

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Photo By: The Tree People

Photo By: Friends of the Smokies

Photo By: Deanne Revel

Photo By: Deanne Revel

Photo By: American Hiking Society/Matthew Mage

Kayak and Kelp Cleanup

Terranea, a luxury resort outside of LA, attracts tourists and SoCal locals alike for its prime oceanfront in Palos Verdes. The peninsula is home to more than 700 aquatic species and the resort does its part to help preserve the ecosystem, from monitoring rising sea urchin populations to cleaning the kelp forests. Terranea offers discounted kayak trips throughout the year if you agree to fish out trash while you paddle. It’s a win for your wallet and the environment. If you go, keep an eye out for grey whales and dolphins.

Give Elephants a Bath

There’s a lot controversy with elephant tourism in Thailand, especially riding elephants. The Asian elephant is an endangered species and tourists should do their research on elephant centers to make sure a reserve is in fact reputable. The Elephant Nature Foundation in Northern Thailand is one of the best and strives to educate tourists about the issues surrounding the species. The sanctuary bans riding but instead gives volunteers special interaction opportunities such as feeding elephants fruit treats and giving these gentle giants a bath.

Save the Great Barrier Reef

Divers around the world have the Great Barrier Reef on their bucket list but many scientists have pronounced Australia’s natural wonder dead due to climate change and pollution. With Earthwatch Expeditions, divers can help scientists understand black band disease on the coral reef. While you explore the reef, you’ll conduct underwater surveys and take photos of damaged coral. In addition to basic SCUBA certifications, divers must pass a medical assessment to participate.

Help Yosemite Biologists

Yosemite National Park is a sports playground with incredible hiking, climbing and skiing but it’s also an important spot for scientific research. In addition to typical volunteer activities like park cleanup and trail maintenance, visitors have the opportunity to help park biologists study rare birds of prey, collect seeds and remove invasive plant species.

Clean the Shores in Big Sur

California’s Big Sur coastline is a road trip favorite and Instagram famous landscape. Instead of just taking photos of this bucket list spot, you can help preserve its habitats. California State Parks has teamed up with the Nature Corps to clean and preserve the coastline. Listen to the waves crash as you collect endangered flora seeds and spread native plant seeds around the coast. This helps rehabilitate the dunes and foothill habitats. You’ll still have tons of time to photograph the Big Sur cliffs and Monterey Bay but when you do Instagram the coast, you’ll know you made an impact.

Research Rhinos in Africa

If an African safari is on your bucket list, consider a research volunteer vacation instead. Not only do you get to see wildlife but you get to stay at a field camp inside a nature reserve. Earthwatch Expeditions has a program in South Africa focused on endangered rhinos. You’ll observe the animals with scientists and help collect data on behavior and environment. It’s estimated that if current poaching rates continue, rhinos will be extinct in 20 years. The data you collect helps scientists and policy makers show how important the rhino is and how it’s an "environment engineer."

Clean Tahoe National Forest

If you’re looking for a volunteer vacation for the whole family, Sierra Club has you covered. The organization’s flagship lodge Clair Tappaan Lodge hosts volunteer trips. Rehab forests and remove invasive plants by day and come back to a hearty, family-style meal and hot tub at night. Kids get to work, too, and little ones get to create creature caves and homes in the forest. On your day off, you can explore the Sierra Nevada Mountains via the Pacific Crest Trail or take the whole family on the Squaw Valley Tram.

Plant Trees in the Santa Monica Mountains

You don’t have to travel halfway around the world for a volunteer vacation. Opportunities are closer than you think. LA’s nonprofit TreePeople has volunteer cleanups in the Santa Monica Mountains almost every weekend. The mountains are important to LA air and water quality and volunteers help by removing non-native plants and planting native ones. If you’re already planning a vacation to LA or even the theme parks in Anaheim, consider adding this volunteer day to your trip to make an impact in SoCal. 

Fix Trails in the Smokies

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in our country. That much foot traffic, in addition to environmental factors, causes wear and tear on the park trail systems. Nonprofit Friends of the Smokies funds a Trails Forever program to rehabilitate trails. Volunteers of all skill levels can help trail drainage and undo damage from erosion. This summer Friends of the Smokies will focus on Rainbow Falls Trail, one of the most popular trails in the park. Help keep the trail safe and you’ll be rewarded by the gorgeous Rainbow Falls at the end. 

Research Grey Whales

If whale watching is on your bucket list, why not give back while you’re doing it? Spend a weekend on the Palos Verdes peninsula, just outside of LA, and help collect data on the grey whale. You’ll cruise the beautiful oceanfront and help take photos and videos then observe whales by shore and help collect blow rates and other behavioral data.

Clear Invasive Plants in Hawaii

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has some of the most interesting hikes in the world. You can hike through lava tubes, massive craters and you’ll feel like you’re on Mars. But the park isn’t just lava rock. The tropical jungle is just as beautiful and is in danger from invasive Himalayan ginger. The Stewardship at the Summit volunteer program outfits hikers with equipment to cut down the plant while hiking the Halem’auma’u Trail. The one-mile trek changes elevation by 400 feet but is mostly covered by tree shade. You’ll also hear the sounds of Honeycreepers chirping as you go along.

Take an Alternative Spring Break

Instead of partying on the beach, make your spring break count in the great outdoors. American Hiking Society matches students with forests and parks in need of trail maintenance. The week-long trips feature day hikes with trail work along the way. To date, more than 900 college students have participated on nearly 100 projects across the country.

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