Travel With Purpose: California

As technology connects communities across the planet, our sense of being a global village, part of one big precious planet, grows. Today many travelers hope to serve in the places they visit, looking for insight into foreign cultures and a greater sense of purpose as they journey. Over the past decades, an expanding list of international tour companies have responded to travelers’ desire to contribute positively in the regions they visit. Earthwatch provides opportunities to participate in scientific research projects, GoEco sets up volunteer teaching experiences in underdeveloped rural communities and Enkosini Eco Experience offers hands-on work at a Baboon Sanctuary in South Africa. 

“Voluntourism” is on the rise globally, but what about locally? There’s much to be said about taking care of our own state as we explore and enjoy it. Here in California some of the most picturesque destinations — Wine Country, Lake Tahoe, Carmel, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica, Newport Beach, San Diego — are also perfect places to volunteer, helping to preserve the breathtaking natural environments we cherish and the local communities that support us during our travels. 

There are hundreds of organizations, large and small, dedicated to protecting, preserving and cleaning up the Golden State. In fact, in 2019 California appointed a Chief Service Officer to promote coordinated civic and environmental engagement through the office of California Volunteers. Below we offer links to short-term volunteer opportunities for travelers in some of the most popular spots in Northern, Central and Southern California. This list includes ways for visitors to contribute in four different realms: wildlife and ecological restoration; ocean and waterway protection and cleanup; feeding the hungry and community support; and regenerative agriculture. 

Featured Photo: Joel Muniz via Unsplash

Northern California

Wildlife and Ecological Restoration

Sonoma Cares, California, Volunteer
Photo: SonomaCares.com

Ocean and Waterways Protection

Keep Tahoe Blue
Photo: @keeptahoeblue / Instagram
  • Save The Bay offers habitat restoration projects around the San Francisco Bay.
  • Cal Trout recruits volunteers to help restore California’s freshwater water systems and wildlife.
  • Spawn based in Olema, California near Pt. Reyes Seashore protects the Coho Salmon population, primarily through removal of invasive plant species.
  • Keep Tahoe Blue in Lake Tahoe hosts regular beach and community cleanup days around the lake.
  • San Francisco Surfrider organizes coastal cleanup days in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Hunger and Community Support

California, volunteer
Photo: Joel Muniz via Unsplash
  • Farm to Pantry brings volunteers to the fields and orchards of Wine Country’s most beautiful farms to glean leftover food for vulnerable individuals and families.
  • Redwood Empire Food Bank assigns volunteers 3-4 hour shifts to help in the Sonoma County-based food bank.

Regenerative Agriculture

california, volunteer
Photo: @malt_ag / Instagram

Central California

Wildlife and Ecological Restoration

california, volunteer
Photo: @channelislandsrestoration / Instagram
  • Channel Island Restoration: volunteer to remove invasive plant species while visiting the spectacular Channel Islands, which span from Central to Southern California.

Ocean and Waterways Protection

california, volunteer
Photo: @surfriderslo / Instagram

Hunger and Community Support

california, volunteer
Photo: Second Harvest Food Bank Santa Cruz

Regenerative Agriculture

california, volunteer
Photo: @cityfarmsslo / Instagram
  • Homeless Garden Project in Santa Cruz seeks volunteers on the farm and in the farm kitchen.
  • City Farm San Luis Obispo opens the garden every Second and Fourth Saturday of the month for Volunteer Work Days — an opportunity to learn about sustainable growing practices and enjoy the beautiful farm.​

Southern California

Wildlife and Ecological Restoration

California, volunteer
Photo: Newport Bay Conservancy / Facebook
  • Newport Bay Conservancy hosts 2nd Sunday and 4th Sunday clean-up and restoration events around Newport Bay. 
  • Santa Barbara County Trails Council is a great way to contribute to habitat restoration on and around the trails of Santa Barbara.
  • HandsOn San Diego sign up to help with Saturday morning coastal dune and wetland restoration in the San Diego area. 
  • Sea and Sage Audubon Society in Orange County comprehensive calendar of events for volunteers looking to participate in wildlife counting and ecology restoration projects.

Ocean and Waterways Protection

California, volunteer
Photo: @healthebay / Instagram

Hunger and Community Support

California, volunteer
Photo: Hands On San Diego / Facebook
  • Food Forward in Orange County seeks volunteers to harvest fruit in neighborhoods and to collect surplus produce from local farmers markets. 
  • HandsOn San Diego Provides an extensive calendar of opportunities to help feed the hungry and support those in need in the San Diego area.

Regenerative Agriculture

California, volunteer
Photo: @grow_good / @adamcbartlett / Instagram
  • Grow Good Farm is just twenty minutes from downtown Los Angeles. This urban farm feeds residents of the Salvation Army shelter adjacent to the farm. Volunteer days are every 1st and 3rd Tuesday. 
  • Wind Willow Farm in San Diego County invites volunteers to work on the farm and learn about sustainable agriculture every Saturday morning from 9:30am to 12:30pm.

Looking for more things to do in the area?

Visit our What to Do in Northern California page!

More Adventures in NorCal

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