As the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation points out, running a state park is often like managing a small city. Park rangers must coordinate visitors, services, and supplies operating in and out of Virginia’s 36 state park, while at the same time providing protection and assistance to those in need. With over 500 miles of trails and access paths to the state’s natural gems from the Atlantic to the Cumberland Gap, Virginia park rangers are prepared professionals. Learning how to become a park ranger in Virginia is a great first step for anyone who is interested in pursuing these fun yet challenging positions.
Park Rangers with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation
Park ranger jobs with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation require applicants with a certain level of education. In itself, the park ranger position is a general term for rangers with specific abilities who work in a variety of areas. As such, applicants who would like to demonstrate a level of education beyond the minimum of a high school diploma or GED can obtain a four-year park ranger degree in a wide range of subjects, including:
- Business Administration
- Wildlife Management
- Law Enforcement
- Crime Scene Investigation
- Criminal Justice
Candidates can also qualify for federal park ranger positions by having a bachelor degree in these subjects, which will be detailed shortly.
- Strayer University - Bachelors of Science Degree in Criminal Justice
- Michigan State University - Online Master of Science in Criminal Justice
- Saint Joseph's University - Online Master of Science in Criminal Justice
- Penn Foster - Online Wildlife and Forestry Conservation Career Diploma
Application with the Department of Conservation and Recreation:
Applications should be made according to the specific instructions from each park ranger job announcement, which are listed on the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s employment website. Depending on the instruction in the park ranger posting, applications will either have to be made on paper or online.
Applicants are preferred to have abilities in areas such as:
- Conducting law enforcement security operations
- First aid and medical treatment knowledge
- Mechanical reparations
- Customer service experience
- Teaching and training experience
If candidates have met the minimum park ranger requirements and do not already have certain certifications, they will need to obtain these after being hired:
- CPR Certification
- First Aid Certification
- Driver’s License
- Depending on the position, may also need Water Operator Class 4 Certification
Applicants will also need to undergo a thorough background investigation before they are made a job offer. All park ranger candidates should be in good mental and physical health with no serious criminal history.
There are some general topics of park ranger training for all new employees, which cover:
- Persuasive techniques
- Cost-benefit analysis
- Project evaluations and estimations
- Logic and communication
A large portion of training is focused on the specific function of a park ranger. Virginia park rangers have a variety of roles they can pursue, such as:
- Campground maintenance
- Trail patrol and maintenance
- Boating and watercraft safety patrols
- Cultural interpretation and presentation
- Law enforcement
For park rangers pursuing a focus in law enforcement, Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) Certification is beneficial. To obtain this, new rangers will need to have the Department of Conservation and Recreation submit an Initial Employment Form 21 to the DCJS and complete a 40-hour training course that includes instruction on:
- Firearm training
- High speed driving techniques
- First responder medical procedures
- Use of radar
Park Ranger Positions with the National Parks Service
Separate from the state-level park ranger positions, the federal National Parks Service also employs a team of park rangers in Virginia to work in cooperation with local forces and manage federal territory such as Shenandoah National Park. Applications for these positions can be made through the primary federal employment website, and candidates will need to meet a different set of application requirements:
- Have either a bachelor degree, a year of specialized work experience, or an equivalent combination of the two in a relevant subject area
- Pass an extensive background investigation
- Pass a medical exam, drug test, and psychological evaluation
- Be a US citizen who is able to obtain a driver’s license
As with state-level park ranger careers, federal park rangers also have different areas of specialization. Additional qualifications and training may be needed to prepare for these, such as:
- Being at least 21 years old
- Attendance of a Seasonal Law Enforcement Training Program (SLETP)
- Advanced work experience or graduate-level study
Virginia’s Park Rangers at Work
Park rangers in Virginia fulfill a number of vital roles that keep the state’s natural areas healthy and allow the public to enjoy green spaces. In a more unusual case which recently occurred, Virginia park rangers found themselves responding to a call of two people who had been maliciously shot.
As details were unfolding park rangers fanned out across an area surrounding Stuart’s Draft in response to a double shooting at the Rock Point overlook. Apparently a lone gunman had randomly opened fire on two people enjoying the sunset. Park rangers were part of the effort that eventually caught the suspect, who was subsequently tried and sentenced to life in prison.
Virginia park rangers are also always on the lookout for wildlife poachers, a crime which is far more common throughout the state. Park rangers are particularly concerned about ginseng root poaching. With poachers of the plant recently arrested in nearby national parks, Virginia authorities are on alert because the medicinal root is native the state, and can sell for as high as $1,200 a pound on the black market.
Virginia Park Ranger Salaries
In Virginia, park ranger jobs are seasonal and mainly used as a stepping stone to pursue other professional opportunities with the Virginia Department of Conservation & Recreation, like becoming a chief park ranger/interpreter at one of the state’s parks. Some of the most popular parks in the state include Sailor’s Creek Battlefield State Park for its Civil War heritage, Southwest Virginia Museum, Westmoreland State Park, and Lake Anna State Park.
It’s important to point out that there is a large range within Virginia park ranger salaries because some are seasonal and some permanent. The hourly wage for seasonal park rangers in Virginia is typically between $7.54 and $12.87 per hour depending on qualifications. Here is a more detailed look at permanent park ranger jobs in Virginia:
- Minimum: $33,667
- Maximum: $54,653
Park Ranger – Law Enforcement
- Minimum: $30,217
- Maximum: $42,022
Furthermore, it’s not uncommon for park rangers to serve a variety of different functions, which is why they are often recognized by various titles. The tables below are provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and detail the various titles by which park rangers in Virginia are recognized:
Recreation Workers Salaries in Virginia
Tour Guides and Escorts Salaries in Virginia
Recreational Protective Service Workers Salaries in Virginia
Blue Ridge Parkway
Park rangers face several unique challenges as they fulfill their duties to keep the Blue Ridge Parkway easily accessible and safe. One of these challenges is the parkway’s sheer expanse: the scenic road stretches for 469 miles from North Carolina to Virginia along the Blue Ridge mountain chain, part of the Appalachians.
Challenges are also posed by the sheer volume of visitors, which averages almost 14.8 million people annually. Keeping sightseers safe is always paramount, and a ranger’s job can become especially difficult during the winter when the road becomes snow covered. Park rangers are also tasked with preserving natural wildlife, and cars on a paved road would seem antithetical to this. Still, rangers support creative solutions to this, such as manning alternative fuel stations along the parkway.
Candidates wanting to learn more about how to become a park ranger serving the Blue Ridge Parkway can review the requirements set forth by the National Parks Service.
Working as a Park Ranger Along the Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway is both a scenic drive through the wilderness – described by the National Parks Service an elongated park – and a connecting road between parks and hiking areas across its length. It starts in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park and culminates with the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. There are numerous trails leading to picturesque pastures, mountaintop views, and green valleys stemming from pullouts dotted across the parkway’s panoramic span. Some notable features include:
- An elevation range of 5,700 feet
- 600 streams
- 150 headwaters
- 47 Natural Heritage Areas
- The third-largest continuous area in the nation managed by the National Parks Service
- Home to 2000 species of fungi, 50 threatened and endangered vascular plants, and 74 different mammals
This range of elevation and the magnitude of the natural spaces covered by the parkway provide a habitat for wildlife from hotter southern climates all the way to the colder northern climate.
Park rangers must strike a balance between managing these natural resources and the desire of parkway users to enjoy them. This is evidenced by a number of activities:
- When the weather is good, park rangers lead hikes through some of the parkway’s most popular trails and scenic places. Rangers also conduct family-friendly campfire programs.
- Cultural heritage sites, horseback riding trails, and birdwatching are all popular attractions along the parkway, and park rangers facilitate these programs through guiding and interpretation.
- Park rangers are also called upon to ensure those enjoying the parkway are doing so legally. Recently two men were arrested after rangers discovered them illegally mining kyanite from pits they were digging in an abandoned mine.
- One of the most difficult tasks a Blue Ridge Parkway ranger can face is that of dealing with the loved ones of someone who has died. This happened in a recent case local residents will not soon forget, involving the random murder of two young people who were enjoying the sunset along the parkway in Augusta County. Rangers assisted law enforcement in cordoning off the crime scene and searching for clues, which eventually led to an arrest and conviction.
First Landing State Park
Over 1.7 million yearly visitors enjoy the natural serenity First Landing State Park has to offer, making it the most popular place of its kind in Virginia. Just a few minutes north from Virginia Beach, park rangers are tasked with the upkeep of operations and tourist activities at this 2,888-acre historic beachside park. Here park rangers are fortunate to work at the site of several notable historic events:
- The place where Jamestown colonists originally landed in 1607
- The source of fresh water for merchant mariners and navy ships during the War of 1812
- The legendary site where Blackbeard the Pirate hid to evade the law
- A landing site used by both Union and Confederate patrols during the Civil War
Candidates who are researching how to become a park ranger in First Landing State Park can begin their inquiry by reviewing the hiring requirements set forth by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.
The Job Duties of First Landing’s Park Rangers
From rescues to cases of international espionage, it all happens at First Landing State Park. Although there is no typical day at work, some examples of the recent on-goings at First Landing will help to illustrate a picture of what prospective rangers can expect.
Law Enforcement Response – Park rangers recently responded to reports of a woman with psychological issues who was inappropriately touching men who passed her on the King Fisher Trail. After interviewing several witnesses rangers decided the best course of action would be not to arrest the individual but rather to ban her from entering the park territory.
In another case, park rangers filed a report and conducted an investigation to find a suspect whose dog bit a woman in the park. The incident unfolded while the two individuals were walking along a trail, and the victim required stitches. The owner of the offending canine stated that her dog did have a rabies shot, although she refused to provide any personal information and left the scene.
Environmental Actions – Park rangers recently participated in the release of a green sea turtle at First Landing State Park. Found a few months earlier on a different Virginia beach suffering from pneumonia and a turtle’s version of hypothermia, the gentle creature was rehabilitated until it was fit for return to the wild. Park rangers explained details about the green turtle to the curious public and made sure the turtle was released in a safe environment.
More recently, park rangers held a tree planting event at First Landing where members of the public were invited to come help restore damaged habitat. When hikers break the rules and go off the trail it causes damage to the surrounding foliage, and park rangers counter this with just such events.
George Washington Memorial Parkway
The 25-mile George Washington Memorial Parkway takes some 7.2 million visitors past some of Virginia’s best-known landmarks each year:
- The Pentagon
- Arlington National Cemetery
- Reagan National Airport
- CIA headquarters
This scenic drive connects numerous parks, memorials, and a wildlife sanctuary along the majestic Potomac River. In many ways the 7,374-acre George Washington Memorial Parkway can be thought of as a park in itself. In addition to making the roadway safe for all users and facilitating park activities for visitors, park rangers here are also responsible for park maintenance.
To become a park ranger at the George Washington Memorial Parkway applicants will need to prove they would make capable rangers by distinguishing themselves during the application process with the National Parks Service.
Patrolling the Parkway: Ranger Activities at the George Washington Memorial Parkway
National Park Service rangers working along the George Washington Memorial Parkway protect endangered species and park guests, striving to create an enjoyable experience for visitors in a strategically important area bordering major urban environments. This is not an easy task, though plenty of times it can be enjoyable.
One such enjoyable feature is the activities led by park rangers. These include:
- Bird of Dyke Marsh tour, where rangers lead visitors on an expedition to spot some of the 300 species of birds found in the area
- Potomac watershed cleanup activities, where rangers and volunteers scour the banks of the Potomac looking for litter to remove
- Bicycle riding for kids, when park rangers provide a safe environment for kids who are learning to ride their bikes without training wheels. Teaching children to ride bikes helps to decrease CO2 emissions by cars later down the road.
- Jones Point Lighthouse tour, taking visitors through the history and operation of this landmark
Park rangers along the George Washington Memorial Parkway also participate in rescue missions as needed. A marriage proposal gone wrong recently necessitated just such a rescue. It started when a hopeful groom led his bride-to-be through a park adjoining the memorial parkway to a scenic spot near the Potomac with a nice view to the river. When he knelt down and took out the engagement ring, his bride was so surprised that she stumbled over the edge of a rocky embankment, becoming stuck on a ledge below with non-life-threatening head and chest injuries. At this point park rangers were contacted and upon assessing the situation, radioed for a helicopter rescue. The woman, who accepted the marriage proposal, was hoisted aboard the medical evacuation chopper and transported to a nearby hospital.
Pocahontas State Park
There are several factors that make Pocahontas State Park one of the most visited sites of its kind in Virginia. Whether it is because of the lakes surrounding it, the recreational paths contained within its 7,950 acres, or its 20-mile proximity from Richmond, every year hundreds of thousands of visitors pay their respects to the natural beauty contained within the limits of Pocahontas. Park rangers experience this on a daily basis as they strive to make the park easily accessible and enjoyable to all who come to appreciate it.
However, this task is not as seamless as it may appear to the public. Park rangers are experts in their fields who deal with everything from countering habitat destruction and crime to promoting safe boating habits.
Candidates who are interested in learning how to become a park ranger at Pocahontas State Park can start by reviewing the basic requirements for hire. A rewarding and challenging career awaits those who manage to distinguish themselves from their competition.
The Work Performed by the Park Rangers of Pocahontas State Park
Rescue – As Virginia’s largest state park with 68 miles of equestrian, biking, hiking, and wheelchair-accessible trails, park rangers at Pocahontas State Park inevitably encounter cases of lost visitors. Following in the example of the legendary Pocahontas who saved Captain John Smith, today’s park rangers save people who occasionally become lost in the park. Because of the good directional signage available throughout the premises, rangers usually do not have to stray too far off the path to find people who have lost their way.
Park rangers also play an important role in coordinating water rescues. This is especially important for boating accidents, and is one of the reasons rangers take a very proactive stance when it comes to water safety. Park rangers conduct regular maritime patrols to ensure all park guests are in full compliance with lifejacket and safety regulations.
Events – Park rangers also play an active role in Pocahontas State Park events. These have recently included the following:
- Rangers conduct regular guided tours where they explain the history, wildlife, and geology of Pocahontas State Park. One favorite tour is the First Day hike, part of a series of hikes occurring annually at state parks across Virginia on the first day of January. One Chesterfield resident recently described himself as being, “blown away,” by the ranger’s knowledge during a First Day hike in the park.
- A recent reforestation event led by rangers attracted environmentally-minded residents from across the region. The goal of the event was to plant 36-40 trees at Pocahontas State Park in order to maintain critical habitat for the wildlife that calls the park home. Park rangers coordinated the event with a local university.
Law Enforcement – Park rangers are also the first line of defense against park goers who choose to not follow park rules. This includes blatant cases such as a recent break-in at the park’s swimming pool complex. Rangers arrived at work to find the front window of the swimming area smashed and the inside of the facility ransacked. They quickly secured the area so as not to contaminate the crime scene and called in a team of forensic experts. Within 12 hours the forensics team had identified three suspects. Law enforcement officials obtained search warrants and soon took the men into custody.