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Alumni Spotlight

A Career in the Great Outdoors

Alumna Rachel Baer in front of Zion Canyon Visitor Center sign.
Written By Jayan Kalathil

Rachel Baer (Forestry and Natural Resources, ‘22) always knew she wanted to have a career that would let her work outside in nature. 

“From a pretty young age, I knew I didn't want a traditional nine to five office job,” she explained. “I was looking for something that would give me much more time outdoors.” 

Baer is one of the lucky ones to have landed her dream job early in her career and is now a seasonal park ranger for the National Park Service (NPS).  

Alumna Rachel Baer in the Grand Canyon.

“I've worked two seasons at Yellowstone, and one season each at Grand Canyon and Zion,” she said. “You move about every six months and get to experience different parts of the country. It's a really unique experience and the job is just incredible.” 

Baer grew up in the Bay Area and spent a lot of time with her family hiking, camping, swimming and spending a week every summer at a cabin. When it came time to start looking into colleges, Cal Poly caught her eye early on. A friend of her older brother was already a Mustang and she saw a photo from one of his classes.  

“He sent me a picture of him kayaking in Morro Bay for a class and I was like, ‘What the heck? That's for a college class?’ I remember searching for ‘best degrees to major in to become a park ranger’ and a couple different things came up, but the main one was forestry. Cal Poly has a forestry program, so I said, ‘Let's do it!’” 

When she arrived on campus, she was excited but it took some time to adjust.  

“It's still a very male dominated major. I remember walking into my first intro class and there were probably four girls in a room of 30 to 35 people. It’s also probably one of the smallest majors on campus. But with that comes a lot of interpersonal relationships with your professors. You see your peers pretty much in all the classes for four years so you really develop those bonds together.” 

She really enjoyed her classes too, as most of them did not have her sitting in an actual classroom very much. 

Alumna Rachel Baer posing for her graduation photo.

“I really think back fondly on my time at Cal Poly. All our classes were outside, so it was common to take field trips up to Cuesta Ridge or different parts of the Central Coast.” 

In addition to her studies, Baer was also involved with several clubs including the Society of American Foresters, the Student Association for Fire Ecology and Cal Poly’s Week of Welcome (WOW). And of course she spent plenty of time outdoors. 

"There is so much good hiking and camping on the Central Coast. We hiked five or six of the Seven Sisters, but there's one or two that are on private property and there's no way to access them. During COVID, my friends and I would go hiking every single weekend. We pretty much did every hike on the Central Coast.” 

After graduation, Baer knew what she wanted to do, but the process to become a park ranger was fairly drawn out and quite competitive. Applicants apply for positions about six months out and usually will not hear back for another two or three months. For the larger parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone, upwards of one thousand people might apply. Generally, for the NPS, first time rangers need to have 24 months of seasonal experience before they can apply for a permanent position at a park, as the NPS wants them to understand the ins and outs and the inner workings of how things are run.  

As a park ranger, Baer gets to know each national park where she is stationed very well. She wants the public to know that while the most popular national parks, hikes and trails are great, they might be surprised at the amazing things that can be found off the beaten path as well. 

Alumna Rachel Baer holding National Park Service sign.

“There are 429 National Park sites in the whole system. And each one of them has a unique reason they've become a park site. There are so many hidden gems, so much hidden exploration in the smaller historic sites and scenic highways that people just miss. There's so much to explore out there and there's so much to see. And that's what the rangers are here for. If you just ask, we'll send you somewhere you'll probably have as good or better of a time.” 

There are a lot of rewards to the job, but what gives Baer the most satisfaction is helping visitors appreciate these beautiful untouched natural areas. 

“Just really being able to give people that National Park experience is probably the best aspect of the job — getting them to realize why these places are important and why I care so much about them and seeing that recognition. Every day you're out there in a very recognizable uniform, and people want to come up to you and ask questions. Sometimes they want to take pictures with you. And that connection on their face is really impactful.” 

Baer is bilingual and grew up with American Sign Language (ASL) as her first language, as both her parents are deaf.  

“Deaf culture is a very strong culture. It's given me this rich identity that I'm proud of.” 

She has been able to use her fluency in ASL on the job, which has proven to be a great resource for some NPS visitors. 

“Every single park I've been at, the supervisors have been super accommodating to let me lead special events or private programs in ASL. I've done wildlife programs; I've done geyser programs. I've done some tours at the Grand Canyon. And that's something I'm hoping to continue. The other great aspect is when you have a visitor come up who is deaf, and they're not expecting somebody who signs to be at the desk. Just seeing the way that shifts being able to reach people in their predominant language is incredible.” 

Alumna Rachel Baer signing to a child.

Looking ahead, Baer would love to work at one of the National Parks in Alaska, such as Glacier Bay or Denali, but is open to all possibilities.  

“I'm open to going anywhere, I'll go where the job takes me. In the long term, one of my goals is to help pave the way for more accessibility. There are a lot of people from underrepresented communities who don't enjoy their parks as much, and getting those people out and enjoying the outdoors is something I'm really passionate about.” 

Baer wants to make sure that people know that America's National Parks are for everyone to enjoy, and not to be intimidated or hesitant about visiting one if they do not consider themself an outdoors person. 

“You don't have to be a hardcore hiker; you don't have to be a camper; you don't have to be a backpacker to have a good time. There's really something for everyone.”