PORT TOWNSEND — Washington is home to 125 state parks. And while you might run into a park ranger while visiting, you're more likely to connect with a park host. The state park service's park host program (there is also a national park version) has 80 parks with host opportunities. You'll often find these hosts at designated campsites, trading 28 hours per week for a cushy, free spot in the park. While historically called "camp hosts," these volunteers do everything from selling firewood and maintaining the park's cleanliness to working in gift shops, leading interpretive hikes, and even running various museums.
"Think about living in a park for 30 days. The park host sites are in the most beautiful landscapes in the state," Valerie Roberts, volunteer program manager for Washington State Parks, says.
Park hosts are required to pass a criminal-background check (initially, and then every three years thereafter), have their own RV, and commit to volunteering 28 hours per week for at least 30 days. The parks department gets around 500 applicants each year — but not all applicants meet all requirements or end up hosting. However, once you're approved it can be a pretty good (free) gig.
"You can be a park host forever if you want," Roberts says.
Hosts come from a variety of backgrounds and places. The two things they tend to have in common are a love for people and the outdoors.
They're folks like Howard "Ron" Raplee, a self-proclaimed "one-legged old fart" who started volunteering as a camp host eight years ago and was asked by a ranger to lead a First Day Hike at Fort Flagler State Park while staying there as a park host.
"I said sure, thinking, 'How many people are going to show up?' I get out there and it's 57 people. I said, 'Oh, my God, I have to create a tour," Raplee said one afternoon at the Puget Sound Coast Artillery Museum in Port Townsend's Fort Worden State Park.
Raplee and his wife live full time in their RV and originally spent a lot of time in Eastern Washington before he got tired of being "chased by fires."
That First Day Hike at Fort Flagler five years ago sparked something in Raplee and the Navy veteran became fascinated with the history of the area, spending two years studying and pestering Greg Hagge, the Coast Artillery Museum director, any time he had a question. When the museum shut down two years ago due to COVID-19 precautions, Raplee was given the opportunity to help rejuvenate it — updating displays, refurbishing equipment and giving the museum an overall refresh right down to the lighting and paint.
In one room at the museum, Raplee cranks open the back of an old search light that was originally from the hill above the museum called Artillery Hill, showing off the refraction mirror and light he's rigged up inside.
"Getting this thing cleaned up and learning its history has been just a blast. I love big, heavy equipment," Raplee says with a smile.
Raplee's posting is a little unique for a park host, but he isn't alone in his passion for this volunteer gig.
Every host is required to volunteer 28 hours per week (couples can share duties to fulfill their requirement), but all the hosts we spoke with for this story professed that their work far exceeds those hours because they love what they do.
Kit McCartney has been a host at Deception Pass State Park for 12 years.
"Some people try it and it's not their thing. My husband was retired military, and he couldn't put up with people," McCartney says while laughing.
The day I catch McCartney by phone, she's gearing up for a big weekend at the park. It's a Canadian national holiday and she's expecting a full campground. It's also been a blustery day and she's spent the morning cleaning up after wind damage.
She lives only 10 miles from the park — and often volunteers there when she's not camp hosting — partially because of her sheer love for the area.
"Sunset at West Beach never gets old. We have otters, mink, you see all the animals when you're out here by yourself," McCartney says.
Hosting duties don't always fit neatly into a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule. McCartney's a night owl — which comes in handy to see all that wildlife — and loves people, which helps her stay affable and friendly while reacting to different issues that could happen at random hours of the day.
And McCartney has seen a lot over the years: she's helped people who have lost fingers after a trailer hitch dropped, or stemmed the flow of a geyser after a water spigot broke in the middle of the night. But she loves meeting people who come from all over.
Before retiring, she was a biology teacher and has loved the outdoors and camping throughout her life. She and her late husband spent much of their 58 years of marriage RVing through the Lower 48 states. Now, at 75, she says she has a driving need for physical activity: "It helps keeps the joints lubricated."
Bert and Cathy Miller have been hosting at Fort Worden for 20 years, spending their days mowing, cleaning fire pits and telling tall tales to clueless campers about the function of the hive-shaped tsunami sirens (if you run into Bert, don't believe him when he says they're really the world's largest commercial honeybee factory).
"There's more to hosting than just being there," Bert says earnestly.
By around 5:30 a.m. every morning, the Millers are up and having coffee at their campsite, chatting with people who might wander by. They spend all day working — one ranger calls them "flight of the bumblebee" for their speed cleaning up campsites — and are in bed by 9 p.m. They exceed their expected 28 hours "by leaps and bounds," but that's the way they like to do it.
"It's just our style. We like people, we like the park," Bert says.
Some camp hosts use the program to facilitate a nomadic lifestyle and see the country.
The day I speak with Sam Horak, a 10-foot-long snake has just slithered through her campsite in Nevada's Great Basin National Park. She's volunteering in the interpretation department, hosting cave tours and working at the visitor center. Horak is originally from Minnesota but after retiring in 2020, she "got tired of being a responsible adult." She sold her home and now lives full-time in her RV, driving a circuit around the U.S., camp hosting along the way.
She'll be in Great Basin for most of the summer before moving on to camp host in the Florida Keys through the winter. She spends the spring camp hosting at Rainbow Falls State Park in Chehalis, and every August, she heads back to Minnesota to work a booth selling natural laundry products at the Minnesota State Fair.
Her job before she retired — she was an outreach instructor at a science museum — had her bringing science programming to geographically isolated communities, and sparked the idea of spending her retirement years in an RV. But she loves people and loves being busy.
"People come wandering into your campsite while you're having dinner. They need help and that kind of stuff doesn't bother me. I need to be able to interact with people and be productive. As a host you can do that," Horak says.
For Raplee — who spent his career working in shipyards and building cast-in-place cantilevered bridges — camp hosting at Fort Worden is the "greatest retirement there is."
"I get to play with all the state's toys and it doesn't cost me a dime," he says.
As he tours me around places in the museum normally off-limits to the general public, his commitment to history is evident. He shows off an original barber's chair, its porcelain arms and black leather seat still pristine. He holds up a 1918 French Chauchat (colloquially known, he says, as the worst machine gun ever made) and later points to an original teletype machine. Later he opens a room stuffed with old uniforms and points out the uniform of a general in the Washington National Guard.
"Every time you discover something, it's like being a kid in a candy store. There's just so much history here. It's just a lot of fun," Raplee says.
Learn more about how to become a state parks host at https://www.parks.wa.gov/275/Park-Host-Program.