BTA (Boyce Thompson Arboretum) Work-camping – Review

BTA (Boyce Thompson Arboretum) located near Superior Arizona, relies on work-campers for a number of tasks at the arboretum. But let’s start with what BTA actually is, it is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt privately-owned nonprofit foundation, it is located on nearly 400 acres with 135 acres of cultivated gardens, making it the largest arboretum west of the Mississippi, and has been in existence for nearly 100 years. It is a collection of arid plants from desert environment’s from around the world, tastefully intergraded into this area on the Sonoran Desert and enjoyed by close to 100,000 people each year.

BTA has numerous local volunteers that complete many tasks throughout the gardens from guiding tours, helping with special garden projects, routine planting and caring for greenhouse plants, assisting in many different areas. And there are also a number of host volunteers, like ourselves who commit to giving a number of hours each week in exchange for a campsite during our stay, there are six full hook-up sites beside the gardens in the “staff only” area. the sites have 50-amp power, town water and a sewer connection, there are also laundry facilities provided. The tasks for the hosts are tour guides, which consists of guiding a group around the park. Or garden hosts, who wander the park on the busy days, answering questions while keeping guests safe. Some work in the garden’s store assisting guests with purchases and answering inquiries to a plethora of topics. Or the task that we have been assigned in admissions, our main task is to sell daily passes for the gardens, as well as check in members of the garden.

The tour guides and garden hosts have gone through extensive training to be qualified to answer the questions that are normally asked, our task doesn’t require as much training although with every task everywhere there are the “exceptions” and there are always exceptions, and they usually show up when you are busy, and a supervisor is not immediately available.

We have volunteered here not for many of the normal reasons like the free campsite, as we would have normally been boon-docking in a LTVA somewhere in Arizona for $180 for the whole winter, no we are volunteering because we fell in love with this remarkable garden when we first visited it in March of 2020, the year the world was falling into the grasp of the pandemic. This is an amazing location so unlike many of the manicured botanical gardens tucked onto small footprints in metropolitan areas, this sprawling adventure cannot be totally explored in one day, oh you might be able to walk all five miles of paths in a day but to really see everything takes some slowing down and really looking. So, we recommend coming early, pack a picnic lunch to enjoy in the garden and then enjoy the afternoon watching some of the wildlife that inhabits the gardens, and if you return a few days later you will find lots of new sights that were missed before.

Much of our task is very straight forward, collect entry fees, answer the simple questions, like where is this, how far is this, and what should we see, and with one personal visit through the arboretum it all becomes very simple to make recommendations and warn of any areas closed for maintenance or because of natural concerns. The arboretum recently had a close encounter with a fire (the telegraph fire of 2021) which made it to our eastern boundary, as well as flooding during the monsoon season as in the fall of 2021 that threatened to damage the newly created Wallace garden area near Queens Creek, most likely worsened because of the fire damage a few months earlier.

The arboretum is a stand alone privately owned foundation that survives on its entry fees, sales at the gift shop, and its twice a year plant sales (spring & fall) which are major events and bring in substantial revenues. There are over thirty paid staff members that care for the arboretum and its daily operations, there is a board of directors that control the direction of the foundation but the staff make it happen. And after our first month of volunteering have been great to work for and with, and if we can make it work we would return next fall to help out the arboretum.

With only six work camping couples, personalities effect the group demeanour, and we have had limited get togethers, the sixth couple is to arrive after the holidays to get us to full status. The park is ours to enjoy after closing, and we are behind a locked gate after closing, with a key we can come and go as we desire, and we can also bring guests into the park to visit us and enjoy the arboretum.

The arboretum supplies us as host volunteers, a campsite with town of Superior water hookup, 50-amp power connection, and a direct sewer connection. There is laundry provided, as well as washrooms that are shared with staff. No internet or television service is provided, we have not been able to get any OTA signals so satellite or streaming service is required, we have a T-Mobil hot spot that is working reasonably well, and I can get AT&T cell phone signal at the campsite, most cell signals are gone in the lower areas of the arboretum but I’m told there is a new Verizon tower near Superior.

And in return for the sight we make ourselves available for twenty (20) hours a week as a couple. As admittance staff we have fairly set schedules, we are working longer shifts and only working three days a week, and enjoying four in a row off, allowing us to explore the surrounding areas. And this area offers much to do, we are in the edge of the Tonto National Forest, near the Salt River, and the Superstition Mountains, located only an hour east of Phoenix and only thirty minutes to most box stores, as well a good dining and nightlife or activities.

Our site @ Boyce Thompson Arboretum
The view from our site

Some of the hosts that provide the guide service, have had more training time, and work different times to accommodate school education trips as well as the weekend guided tours, so don’t seem to get as many days off in a row, I think we have the most desirable schedule but I know Laurie would like to be doing the guided tours, I would be ok with the weekend tours but have trouble imagining myself with a bunch of school kids, but we’ll see what happens in the future.

Original Review December 13th 2021

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