Considering a Sabbatical? The National Parks Want You

Two-thirds of all full-time employees in the United States are currently experiencing job burnout, according to a recent Gallup study. While we aren’t great at taking advantage of earned time off — a whopping 768 million vacation days go to waste every year — a survey by the American Psychological Association last year found that even a two-week getaway is merely a stopgap as work-related stress returns before our tans have faded.

Yet a growing number of people are finding new ways to cultivate stability and avoid or overcome burnout. Three years ago, after nearly a decade at design agencies, Ilyssa Kyu, 30, quit her job to catch her breath and spend more time with her newborn daughter.

“I took a leap of faith and did my own sabbatical,” said Mrs. Kyu, who went on to not only bond with her daughter but also explore the trails and tribulations of national parks over five months. The results? A book, “Campfire Stories: Tales from America’s National Parks,” and the creation of a crowd-funded start-up, Amble. The company’s monthlong retreats pair creative professionals with budget-strapped park conservancies that support National Park Service projects, such as wildlife protection and trail rehabilitation.

For $1,400, which includes lodging, program benefits and some meals, these “Amble Creatives” devote 18 hours per week working on small yet transformative projects, be it redesigning a website or increasing audience engagement. The nonprofits return the favor with guided national park hikes, exclusive conservancy engagements and an America the Beautiful annual park pass.

The architect and industrial designer Beth Van Why attended the inaugural Yosemite National Park retreat in the fall of 2018, and considers the four-week experience to have been life-changing.

“I reframed my approach to having work-life balance because I was able to take the time to pause and shift,” said Ms. Van Why, who worked with the Yosemite Conservancy, which has provided more than $100 million in grants to Yosemite National Park.

While at Amble, she focused on the conservancy’s Art and Nature Center Programs, making changes that included developing a more family-oriented visitor experience and expanding the programs to other locations within the park.

“I gave myself permission to question, explore, listen to myself and just be,” said Ms. Van Why, who is now thriving in her new role as a project manager working on museum and nonprofit projects. “The combination of using my design skills to help a nonprofit with that of living in a national park was really exciting.”

Anyone who has ever taken a walk in the woods knows the rejuvenating effects of the great outdoors. Amble believes that re-envisioning nature as an optimal work venue is one key element of its long-term success — and that of its participants.

“The experience of nature shifts individuals toward a state of relaxation, while also broadening the visual attentional scope,” said Dr. Shelley Carson, a psychology professor at Harvard University and the author of the book, “Your Creative Brain.”

“Science suggests that whatever people are doing, they will do it better after a healthful nature break,” she said.

Following sold-out retreats in Yosemite and the Sierra Foothills, Amble will host its third program from Oct. 7 to Nov. 10 in Glacier National Park, in partnership with the Glacier National Park Conservancy and Parks Project. Ten to 12 people are invited to join each program, and family-friendly accommodations have ranged from a 340-acre ranch in Mariposa, Calif., to a contemporary house on the Flathead River in Hungry Horse, Mont.

The participants range widely from web developers to marketing experts and craft makers; the latest Glacier National Park retreat accepted an artifact photographer from a science museum in San Francisco, as well as a Second City comedian-turned-social media strategist.

The program has so far attracted people from various career and life stages, said Mrs. Kyu.

“People in a transition point who need to be inspired; people feeling burnt out, looking to recharge, get a new perspective and return a better employee; and the self-employed person looking to take advantage of flexibility and give back.”

Mrs. Kyu sees participants like Ms. Van Why choosing Amble over other types of sabbaticals, such as artist residencies, Habitat for Humanity or work abroad programs, for its unique set of offerings. Chief among them: leading confidence-building projects independently, forming lasting connections with different creatives and enjoying backyard adventures in America’s wildest landscapes.

“There’s the perspective that giant cliffs, immense stars and never-ending expanses of land lends you,” said Mrs. Kyu. “It forces you to put your work, daily struggles and grievances into perspective — maybe even move past them.”

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