"A deep connection to the natural world"—a veteran park ranger shares her story

Dana Soehn has been a ranger for over 20 years. We asked her about her career path, tips for new campers, her favorite spots and much more.
Dana Soehn
August 24, 2018 02:00 PM

What is the role of a park ranger?

The basic role of a Park Ranger is to help people have a safe, enjoyable visit in a manner that protects the special resources found within the park. By helping people understand these special spaces, they give them an opportunity to be a part of protecting them.

How did you end up on your career path?

I grew up exploring the outdoors on my great-grandparent's farm in western Missouri. As a working farm, the landscape had long been shaped by grazing and haying, but hidden gems of wild spaces could be found in forgotten places where we would roam. When I landed in Great Smoky Mountains National Park during my college internship, I truly discovered wild lands, uninterrupted by human development, and full of treasures to discover.

The park protects over 150,000 acres of old-growth forests that escaped timber operations. I realized quickly that I wanted to be a part of protecting these special places and helping ensure that the next generation continues to find them. Following my internship, I started working seasonally for the park as I finished my degree. I then attended graduate school, but quickly came back to the Smokies as quickly as I could and became a permanent ranger not long after that. I received both of my degrees in Wildlife and Fisheries Science.

Baxter Creek Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

What sort of issues can you help campers with?

The most important part of a successful camping experience begins with planning. Park Rangers can help you plan an experience that fits the skill and comfort level of your group. They can help you understand the equipment and supplies you need for either a backpacking or front country camping trip. They can also help people camp in a manner that protects resources by introducing them to Leave no Trace principles.

What would you say to someone who is new to family camping and might be nervous or uncertain about the idea?

There is a campground experience that is right for everyone in your group. Many first timers can find comfort by camping in busy, front country campgrounds where they are able to camp close to their vehicles. A vehicle gives you a space to store your food/extra gear for convenience and also provides a quick place to retreat in case of inclement weather. People will find that a busy campground is pretty similar to a neighborhood setting.

How can parents help make sure camping is fun for their children?

It is often said that camping provides an ideal opportunity for families to connect by disconnecting! The perfect place to start is a trip to the Visitor Center to look for activities, events, hiking, and junior ranger programs happening during your stay. A little pre-planning will help ensure that everyone has an opportunity to choose a part of the adventure.

Do you see new campers make any sorts of common mistakes?

People often underestimate the time it will take them to complete a hike or an activity. Allow yourself extra time so that everyone has the opportunity to participate at a comfortable pace.

Have you seen any changes in the way people camp in your career?

Sleeping in hammocks has grown very popular. We encourage people to make sure they are using straps that protect trees and to make sure they’re prepared for the weather. Hammocking can be a great way to camp overnight if you are prepared for the experience.

Night sky at Joshua Tree National  Park
Night sky at Joshua Tree National Park

Do you have a favorite place to go camping or a favorite thing to do while you are camping?

Camping in national parks gives you an opportunity to experience the best scenery in America’s most special places. A part of that scenery includes the night sky. Dark night night skies are some of the most spectacular resources protected in our national parks and camping provides the best opportunity to experience them.

Finally, do you have any camping/ranger heroes? People who either inspired you or who helped blaze a trail?

I was introduced to camping by some wonderful, patient Girl Scout leaders who shared their passion for the outdoors with young girls. Through these experiences, I had the chance to learn the power of a campfire chat, the beauty of a starry night, and a deep connection to the natural world.


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