The Insider Q&A: Yosemite National Park Ranger John Rollins

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The Insider Q&A: Yosemite National Park Ranger John Rollins

“The Insider” column is a behind-the-curtain, day-in-the-life series about the people who make traveling easier for the rest of us. These industry stalwarts make it possible for us to create our own memories.


A U.S. Marine and a former Interpretation Park Ranger at Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park, John Rollins discusses everyday life as a park ranger. After graduating from Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at The University of Georgia, Rollins embarked on a two-year journey that left him with a lifetime of memories that continually shapes his life.

Yosemite was formed by glaciation, the process of changing water or snow into ice. The park, which is nearly 1,200 square miles, was first protected in 1864 and is located in the Sierra Nevada of California. The park’s surroundings are complete with of deep valleys, massive rock formations, giant Sequoias and vast wilderness. With at least six hiking trails covering 750 miles of trails, Yosemite is a nature fanatic’s heaven.

Paste Travel Why did you decide to be a park ranger?

John Rollins I originally studied wildlife biology, but I found my calling was more in line with the Natural Resources Recreation and Tourism program. I also served in the Marines before college, so I had a shoe-in with getting a Federal job. That combination made becoming a park ranger a pretty solid career path. I was happily making pizzas for a living, and enjoying an active nightlife when I got hired to work at Yosemite National Park as an Interpretation Ranger at Glacier Point.

PT How has becoming a park ranger changed the way you interact with the natural environment?

John Rollins I had to learn Yosemite. Being educated can both enhance an experience, and diminish it as well. Enhancement of an experience is easy to explain. I’m quoting an older ranger from a couple of generations ago when I say, “The more you know, the more you see.” I have felt that to appreciate something, a person has to know about its existence first, then appreciation can be developed. That works both ways, though. Education also brings to light the negative issues surrounding the resource, or the use of that resource. Sometimes a tough compromise has to be made between visitor use and a resource.

Wildlife needs wildness. Leave No Trace.


PT What does an average day look like to you?

John Rollins I would then prepare for my day by practicing the ranger programs that I was scheduled to do that day. I was allotted 1.5 hours a day for research and developing new ranger programs. I’d stick to the schedule for the day, which was published in the Yosemite Guide that the visitors would get when they entered the park.

Typically I would have a scheduled ranger hike after lunch. Those were usually a couple of miles each way and were organized, prepared presentations centered around a theme such as “Life is hard in Yosemite”, where I spoke of adaptations that help nature survive up there. Then regularly scheduled sunset presentations at Glacier Point in the evenings. Sunset talks were longer and very formal in comparison to the hikes. I would end my day by preparing everything for the next day. My uniform, equipment, “ready meals”, and presentations would always be ready to go the night before I needed them.


PT What do you wear while working and what essential pieces must you have on you at all time?

John Rollins My dress uniform was green slack pants, gray uniform shirt, polished shoes and my jacket or coat would vary depending on the circumstance, and of course my “Smokey” flat brimmed hat. Most of the time I was looking sharp in my “nice’ uniform. My “work” uniform looked very similar but was better suited for getting down and dirty. My job description didn’t contain much emphasis on dirty work or emergency situations. However, my relatively remote location at Glacier Point required me to be ready to respond to emergencies at a moment’s notice, so preparation for that uncertainty was part of my routine.

My pack always contained medical, and survival gear. I maintained “ready meals” of pre-portioned spaghetti, sandwiches, fruit, nuts, and Gatorade powder, ready to go at all times.I learned to put a lot of careful attention into being prepared for anything.


PT Describe one of your most rewarding experiences as a park ranger.

John Rollins The day to day encounters with so many people from around the world was a very rewarding thing for me. I would speak to people from literally every continent (except Antarctica) and there was a very common similarity. Everyone was happy. Another rewarding part of being an Interpretation Ranger at Glacier Point, in Yosemite National Park, was that when some of those exceptionally beautiful moments would occur, I was there to see it, and it would leave me completely breathless.

PT Are there any secret spots you venture to that visitors of the park don’t know about that inspire you?

John Rollins One of my favorite places in the world is Sentinel Dome. It isn’t a secret by any means, but most visitors never go there. Much of what can be seen from Glacier Point is still visible, such as Half Dome, the Clark Range, and Nevada/ Vernal Falls. The big treat is a great view to the west over Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, and the Cathedral Rocks exists. The sunsets on Sentinel Dome, in my opinion, are second to none the best because a person can see the sun setting to the west, and also look to the east and see Half Dome and the other magnificent peaks of the High Sierra being colorfully illuminated by the setting sun.


PT What knowledge regarding the park’s natural environment you would like visitors to gain after they experience the park?

John Rollins I generally would like for most visitors to leave with a sense of respect and stewardship. I would like to visitors to know that this is a part of their country, and they have the right to use it, but with that comes a responsibility to preserve it for future generations. A place like Yosemite deserves respect. Awe-inspiring scenes and memorable experiences are what the park provides for us. We need to provide the park with stewardship and show self-control to preserve those wonderful natural treasures in their wonderful natural state.

PT What are some parts of this job that people don’t realize that makes it unique, special, or appealing to others?

John Rollins I lived at Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park! It was simply amazing! I could look out of the window of my little cabin, and see Half Dome, Nevada and Vernal Falls, and the Clark Range. The trees around my cabin were about 300 feet tall. I saw mule deer every day, and black bears were common. That was my home. It’s like anywhere, every so often, the environmental conditions are such that a sunset, a sunrise, a storm, or cloud formation is just right to make the world exceptionally beautiful.

Lauren Spiler is a freelance journalist based in Athens, Georgia, but most call her Spiler.

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