Sun, Sea and Service

The Sierra Club’s volunteer vacations provide vital work in underfunded areas.
Can you think of a more beautiful place to roll up your sleeves and get to work? (Photo: Stan Russell)
Sep 19, 2011

Restoring park trails and weeding out invasive plants under the hot sun may not be everyone’s idea of the perfect getaway, but throw in a breathtaking coastal backdrop and gourmet grub prepared by a dedicated chef and they might just change their mind.

That’s why an increasing number of people are paying to spend their free time on so-called service trips run by the Sierra Club, the San Francisco-based grassroots environmental organization founded in 1892.

One popular volunteer vacation is the Big Sur Service Trip in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park on California’s Central Coast, which takes place every spring.

Over five days, 13 participants break a sweat removing non-native species of flora (mainly French Broom), rerouting steep sections of trail and, on this year’s trip, filling and planting an old roadside pull-off beneath a nesting site for the endangered California Condor.

 (Photo: Stan Russell)

The physically demanding itinerary, which also includes hiking a mile to the project site and back each day, is vital to the upkeep of the local state parks, which have been hit hard by cutbacks. (During the rest of the year, only a couple of park personnel are available to do work similar to that undertaken by the volunteers.)

We spoke to Kathryn Hannay, who has been leading the Sierra Club’s trips for 20 years, and asked her about what first motivated her to join the program.

She explains, “I went to the Himalayas on a trek. It was such an amazing experience that when I returned I tried to figure out what I could give back. I was browsing through the Sierra Club magazine and I read about these service trips where you could hike in and be a part of the community and restore the trails and they would feed you and guide you. I knew it wouldn’t be easy for me to go back to Nepal, so it made more sense to start working in mountains that I could get to in this country.”

Of course, while most participants cite contributing to the community as a reason for signing up, the jaw-dropping surroundings are a huge draw, too.

 (Photo: Stan Russell)

Continues Hannay, “We do the trip in spring, when the wildflowers are out. It’s a really good time to see the Big Sur coast. We camp among the redwoods—for a lot of people that’s their first experience of them. And we’re in a campground that’s designed like a national park more than a state park—you feel like you’re someplace special.”

But is there enough downtime for the group to take in all that Mother Nature has to offer?

“Oh yes, I allow for the time to do that. I make sure they’re not overworked. We generally work from 8.30 a.m. to 3.30 p.m. It’s spring, so it’s not generally dark till 7.30 or 8 at night. I have specific sites that I like everyone to have access to. I want them to see that it’s a very wild place still; it’s not just about trails and parks, and people.”

For group members such as Gary Kanterman, the communal experience is one of the highlights of the trip.

“For me, the best part was the people,” he shares. “It really was a terrific bunch of folks. Service trips can be pretty intense but this one was more low key then normal. Three of us bonded and spent a lot of time together exploring the area.”

 (Photo: Gary Kanterman).

For Elle Porter, also on the 2011 trip, it’s the work itself.

“There’s the education element. I learned all about invasive species. And I’d never realized that I needed to be cleaning my boots before I moved to different forests.”

“But also, I loved having the opportunity to do the trail work. I got to drive one of those really big steel stakes down into the ground and use a drill bit that about two feet long. That was cool!”

“It’s so satisfying when you’re getting to spend your time outside but also actually doing something, not just hang out and read a book or do a little fishing. It’s what we all talked about—the satisfaction of the work.”

Indeed, such was the enthusiasm of this year’s group, it literally had to be forced to stop working.

As Porter put it, “We just plain old did not want to quit. The Forest Service didn’t anticipate the drive of our group and how much we could accomplish. On our last day we were able to get done in an hour what they had anticipated would take four or five.”

And if you think you’re too old or creaky, think again. The leaders are very careful about making sure those on the trip only work to their abilities, whatever their age.

Adds Porter, “We were so lucky that we had two older men in the group—the elder one was 85. To have him doing trail work and being able to show us what he’d accomplished and that, of course, your life doesn’t end… That was the interesting gift of the week.”

While the main objective of Sierra Club’s service trips is to undertake important park restoration work, not every moment is spent working. Big Sur trip leader Kathryn Hannay, recent participant Gary Kanterman, and Donna Heckert, Guest Relations and Reservations Manager at Treebones, an eco-friendly resort and campsite in Big Sur, give their recommendations on local restaurants, sights,and leisure spots.

Gary's picks:

  • Nepenthe: A pricey but excellent restaurant/bar with a great aura—it’s kind of a power spot—not to mention a fabulous view of the coast. 48510 Highway 1, Big Sur, (831) 667-2345,
  • Hawthorne Gallery: This is a wonderful family-owned gallery. There was an original glass and metal table there with a Calderesque feel that I fell in love with. 48485 Highway 1, Big Sur, (831) 667-3200,
  • McWay Falls: Within the service trip’s park is a beautiful overlook of a lovely beach with an 80-foot waterfall. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, (831) 667-2315,

Kathryn's picks:

  • Monterey Bay Aquarium: Just a half-hour drive up the coast, the world-famous aquarium is home to an impressive array of sealife, including penguins, sea otters, and even a great white shark. 886 Cannery Row, Monterey, (831) 648-4800,
  • Ventana Wildlife Society: The society’s Discovery Center has a condor exhibit as well as guided condor tours. I always make sure we stop there. Andrew Molera State Park, (831) 620-0702,
  • Point Lobos State Natural Reserve: A spectacular spot about 20 miles north of the campground. It’s a real jewel of a place, with amazing marine life such as sea lions, harbor seals, and, in season, migrating whales. Highway 1, Carmel, (866) 338-7227,

Donna's picks:

  • Sea For Yourself Kayak Outfitters: I often recommend this place to our visitors. It runs a bunch of ocean kayak tours, all of them within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. William Randolph Hearst State Memorial Beach, San Simeon, (805) 927-1787,
  • Hearst Castle: I usually suggest that first-timers take Tour Number 1 (the Grand Rooms Tour) and then go back and do the others. 750 Hearst Castle Road, San Simeon, (800) 444-4445,
  • Sand Dollar Beach: About five minutes north of Treebones on Highway One. This beach is handy because it has some rustic-style stairs so you don’t have to hike down to it. It’s nice for boogie boarding and surfing.

At A Glance:

The Sierra Club organizes around 90 service trips a year as part of its National Outings program, which donates around 27,000 work hours—worth some $405,000—to state and federal land agencies. For more information, click here

Some spots are still available for next year’s trip, which runs from March 31 to April 6 2012 and costs $515. For details and to sign up, click here

Big Sur:

Location: central coastal California

Population (2000): 996

Tourist information: or

Major festivals and events: Big Sur International Marathon, April; Big Sur Food & Wine Festival, November.

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