Striking Gold in the Canyon on Volunteer USA!

Having spotted Volunteer USA on a friend's facebook, two years later, Sam, from Yorkshire, found himself stepping off a coach at Terminal 4 Heathrow bound for Arizona and one great summer!

After working out how airports work I made my way to the Wetherspoons for my last pint of beer for 40 nights (the time that I’d have to wait until my 21st birthday) and having not flown for almost 11 years the bottle of Speckled Hen did wonders for settling my nerves.

Arriving in Phoenix I managed to track down the shuttle bus service for my motel and, upon arriving, the 26 hours of travelling caught up with me and as soon as my head hit the pillow, it was lights out. 


The next day I took the shuttle bus back to Phoenix airport where I had a wait for a pickup from BUNAC’s US partners who run the project, ACE, to take me to Flagstaff, or ‘base camp’. I had a few good books to get stuck into but after a few hours of contemplating reading and instead just people watching, other volunteers began to appear, easily spotted by their huge backpacks.

Flagstaff is a very chilled out college town with an overabundance of things to offer. Surrounded by trails and places to be explored there was clearly never a moment to go wasted on being bored, which I was more than OK with as my first project was cancelled after the first day due to poor weather conditions. This meant the next 14 days were spent walking around Flagstaff and getting to know the area. The highlight for me was the guided tour of the Lowell Observatory, the astronomical observatory, and while the information and the science behind it all was interesting, nothing could beat the view overlooking a snow covered Flagstaff.


My first proper project was 8 days of tamarisk (plant) removal in Lake Mohave which involved 6 days of tamarisk removal and 2 days of travelling. The work itself wasn’t all that labour-intensive but the surroundings were breath taking and the campsite that we pitched up on had everything that was needed and more. We camped up next to the lake which was great to dive in to at the end of a day swamping (moving sawn tamarisk). 

Mike, the supervisor in charge of the 12 of us, had divided us into 6 teams of 2 and each team was designated a night to cook and clean on. Me and Tom (an American who had been with ACE the year before) were put on cooking and cleaning duty the last night of the hitch (project) which was also the night that we had 50mph winds meaning that everyone had an extra serving of sand with their dinner. Crunchy!


My second project was the one that everyone signs up to Volunteer USA for…The Grand Canyon! I was more than happy going to work on the trails after hiking down the South Kaibab, a hiking trail in the park, during my off days. 

At first I was a bit unsure about how camp would feel as there were 4 crews going, which meant 48 people all camped in the same place. But once we all got set up and sorted out it was pretty cool; sort of like being at music festival minus the music, and beer. The campsite itself was pretty amazing; when were first arrived the National Park Service team we were to be working with had provided us with 2 wall tents (big tents, we used them for cooking in) and 2 gas heaters for the mornings. We had portacabin toilets and an almost endless supply of wood for use in the campfires. 


The first day was spent setting up camp and the second day was when we got stuck in. The work was what I signed up for: we were resurfacing the trail with dirt dug out from the ditches and waterbars along the trail. At one point it involved a fire line of all 48 of us passing buckets of dirt down to where none could be sourced and tamping it down on the trail. On the third day we were warned of some pretty nasty weather coming in and to be prepared for the worst. By lunchtime we were hiking out of the canyon as we’d been told to leave immediately due to the incoming storm that would leave Flagstaff inaccessible for the week. I was in charge of the music in the van and I saw it fitting to play weather related songs all the way home. No one else found it funny…

Upon arriving back to Flagstaff we were greeted with shy of 1ft of snow and over the next few days it got as high as 3ft, meaning that the majority of those off days were spent getting into those books that I failed to read during my wait at the airport.


Somewhere in the whirlwind, 40 days had past and after returning from the Canyon I turned 21, meaning I could go out and enjoy an alcoholic beverage (in moderation, of course). The crew that I was with in the Canyon organised to go out for a meal on the night of my birthday, then a few of stayed out to the early hours conducting research into which of the four micro-breweries in Flagstaff were the finest establishment. We came to the conclusion that further research would have to be done at a later date.

Back to the Canyon, my third project was another hitch at the Canyon finishing off the work that we’d had to cut short. We were back at same campsite and again we had 4 crews camping there. The hike down to the worksite each day got longer and longer as we went along and towards the end of the week it was a good 2.7mile hike in each day. 


Our crew was working on stretch just before Skeleton Point called Mormon Flats where the trail had eroded to such an extent that it required several layers of crush (crushed rock) to be placed down before dirt could be added to the top layer. Coming from a job in stonemasonry I instantly stepped forward to take the role of “sledgehammer-er” and the rest of the week was spent swinging a 10lb sledgehammer and breaking up big rocks that would be crushed further by the rest of the crew with the hand hammers.


During the next set of off days me and 14 others decided to go on a road trip to Monument Valley and Arches National Park. We hired a big SUV and a saloon car (getting a discount for mentioning that were with ACE) and set off to Monument Valley.  The drive was long but the destination was more than worth it. After driving the dirt trail around the valley we set up camp in the primitive campsite and left the flysheets off so that we could sleep under the stars. That morning I woke up early enough to catch the sun rising (5.30am!) and the early start was more than worth it!

That day we made our way towards Arches National Park. The drive wasn’t as long as the first journey from Flagstaff to Monument Valley but it still was a long time to be sat down when surrounded by such amazing scenery. Therefore as soon as we got to our destination we got straight into the hiking and spent the next few hours exploring the rock formations at Arches.

Upon returning to Flagstaff I found out that, once again, I’d be going back to the Canyon for more trail work. I’ll admit that I wasn’t greatly pleased with going back for the third time but this time there were only 2 crews going and they were a good bunch so I decided to stick with it and see it through to the end. It turned out that we were working on a different trail so it mixed it up a bit, this time we would be starting the trail maintenance on the Bright Angel trail.

The fifth day into the hitch bought some unexpected drama. A tourist hiking down unfortunately slipped and broke his leg meaning that we had to call off work for an hour or so while the helicopter arrived to take him away. The helicopter landed about a mile from where the injury occurred so the man had to be carried on stretcher to the helicopter. The paramedics were in need of a hand so myself and three other volunteers stepped up to the task and assisted in carrying the stretcher down the trail and to the helicopter…I had to resist quoting Arnold Schwarzenegger’s line from the Predator  “GET TO THE CHOPPA” as I didn’t think the injured man was in any state for witty humour and jokes.


My final project was once again trail work but this time in St.George in Utah. As much as I enjoyed the work in the canyon I was looking forward to a bit of a change of scenery.  We were camping on public campsite that could have been compared to a 5* hotel in terms of the places you can camp on project. We had running water (!), bathrooms with lights (!!) and flushing toilets (!!!). Once we all had gotten over the excitement of the aforementioned luxuries we were soon to get to bed as we had a hard week of work ahead of us.

The work we were to undertake was the construction of a new mountain bike trail in Santa Clara. Each work day began with a 3 mile hike to the worksite which, by the end of the week, took its toll, especially in the morning when you were hiking in with 6 litres of water on your back to get you through the day. The work was clearing the trail of bushes and large rocks and then going over it all with a pick and a shovel to define in (called benching). Out of all the work that I’d done while on ACE I enjoyed this the most. I was disappointed that it was my last project as on the next hitch they were to be given the task of building rock walls and other structures, which I had collected rocks for.


The remainder of my time in America was spent in a motel in Flagstaff as I was flying back home a few days after my time with ACE was up. Me and a few others in a similar situation decided that it would be rude not to go pay our respects to the drinking establishments that we’d spend so much time in over our stay. It was the following few days spent reminiscing on the people we’d met and the places we’d been that made me realise how big of an impact Volunteer USA had on my life, without it I wouldn’t have met the truly amazing people that I’d worked alongside and I wouldn’t have the stories to tell that will stay with me for the rest of my life. That and I get to say that I spent a good month of my life swinging sledgehammers and pickaxes in the Grand Canyon, which in my opinion, is pretty awesome.

For more information on Volunteer USA or any other programme, chat to one of our travel advisors on 020 7251 3472 or e-mail