Edmonds woman recounts how she became first female backpacking ranger in National Park Service

Hein (front row, second from left) stands with the new group of rangers hired to work at Yosemite National Park. (Photos courtesy Lora Hein)

When you search the digital archives of the National Park Service, you can find many stories outlining the important role women have played in the conservation of our nation’s natural resources. Yet, one important name is missing: Edmonds resident Lora Hein, the first woman backpacking ranger in National Park Service (NPS) history. 

Hein was born into a family of nature and adventure lovers, a family that instilled in her a passion for the natural world from a young age. Throughout her childhood, the Hein family would spend almost every weekend outdoors, from family hiking to camping trips. Hein described her family’s hiking excursions as their version of “church.” This love of nature led her to one of America’s most famous and memorable parks, Yosemite in California. 

Lora Hein (back left) poses for a picture with her mother and siblings while hiking.

While living and working in the Oakland area, Hein felt drawn to trade the exhaust-choked air of the San Francisco Bay Area for the Yosemite wilderness. 

“I looked up the street, and realized I could see the air. It was brown,” she said “And I just thought, I’m miserable. I don’t know what I want to do. If I’m going to be a maid or waitress or something I’d rather do it someplace that I like. And there’s restaurants and hotels in Yosemite, maybe I can get a job there.” 

After arriving in the Yosemite Valley, Hein often visited the Yosemite National Park personnel office to  inquire about park ranger-type positions. The response was usually, “We don’t have the budget” or “We don’t hire girls.” Yet, while working as a camp helper, Hein met a Yosemite Park ranger, Bob Fry. As he led tour groups through her camping area, Hein would ask Fry questions about the valley and the park. This connection would prove crucial in Hein’s journey to becoming a ranger, after Fry told her that while no woman was currently doing his job, that could change one day. 

While she was away on a backpacking trip in July 1970, the Stoneman Meadow Riot occurred in one of Yosemite’s fragile meadows. A large number of young people gathered in the park, triggering a riot July 4 after rangers tried to evict visitors from camping illegally. According to Hein, the ensuing clash between mounted rangers and the public left a dark stain on the reputation of the National Park Service, specifically in the eyes of the younger generation. In response to this, the park service decided to adopt programs to better engage with American youth. One such program was the High Trampers, which provided three-day backpacking trips for teenagers in the Yosemite Valley. On one of these excursions, a teenage girl experienced her first period, with only a male ranger on hand. In response, NPS headquarters in Washington, D.C. ordered that the High Tramper trips must be led by both a male and female. 

Hein volunteered to take on this role, leading the High Trampers on backpacking trips throughout Yosemite with another volunteer named Joe Evans. At the conclusion of the season, Hein and Evans reported that Yosemite’s backcountry was largely unpatrolled by rangers and there were many novice backpackers who were unprepared and inexperienced. Hein then began to push for the park service to increase its ranger presence in the Yosemite backcountry. 

The following year, a major opportunity would again present itself to Hein. The Yosemite park service announced it was looking to hire new backpacking rangers and would consider women for the job.

Lora Hein in her National Park Service Ranger uniform.

Hein applied and was officially hired as the first female backpacking ranger in 1973. She was the only woman in the new group of seven rangers. The majority of the new hires would serve on horseback or from cabins in the backcountry; Hein was one of two new rangers exclusively on foot. To her knowledge, she was also the first woman to be fitted with an NPS uniform designed for men. 

The first female ranger in the National Park Service came long before Hein’s time – also in Yosemite. In 1918 Clare Marie Hodges was hired, largely due to the number of young men serving in World War I. Opportunities for women in the national parks increased when Title VII was passed into law in 1964. 

During her first summer as a backpacking ranger, Hein spent her time in the area of Tuolumne Road, cleaning out trash, engaging with visitors and recording various backcountry statistics. 

At the end of the summer, the rangers got together and compared notes. “The totals of numbers of people, numbers of campfire rings, pounds of garbage, that the seven men had encountered, dealt with, etc. equaled the amount I had done, so I had basically done the work of seven men,” Hein said. 

 Hein also experienced some surprised reactions from the public. “People would stop and look at me and say, ‘What are you? What do we call you? Are you a lady ranger?  Are you a ranger-ette?’” she said.

Children, however, had no problem with her identity. During a trip into the backcountry, she came face to face with a family of black bears. Fulfilling her ranger duties, she diverted the bears away from a crowded camping area. 

“This little kid said, ‘Daddy, Daddy the ranger scared away the bears,’” Hein said. “The kid called me a ranger.”

Lora Hein can still be found exploring the trails.

During her last season in Yosemite, a new backcountry manager was hired — one who did not believe women should hold a place in the workforce. As a result, Hein finished her ranger career at North Cascades National Park beforing transitioning to other ventures.  

Hein said that her park service work went far beyond her unique experiences in the backcountry. 

“It gave me an opening to self confidence, that was huge,” she said, “Putting on the uniform, and talking to people – not as Lora but as a ranger – got me out of that fear.”

In 2012, NPS Ranger Margaret Anderson was killed by a lone gunman in Mount Rainier National Park. While Anderson’s death was tragic, Hein said the description of the incident indicated the progress the park service had made regarding the diversification of its ranger staff. 

“One of the things that struck me was that she was not once referred to as a lady ranger, she was just Ranger Margaret Anderson,” Hein said. “it just hit me, how far we had come from ‘what do we call you?’ It was just a real shift.” 

During a visit to Yosemite, Lora Hein (right) stands with one of the park’s current backpacking rangers.

Hein said she found personal empowerment working outdoors – an empowerment she hopes all women can discover.

“Women’s connection with nature needs to be nurtured and the best way that I know of for women to nurture that nature is to get out in nature by themselves,” she said. ”And if not by themselves, at least with other women.” 

Hein resides in Edmonds with her partner Nora, and is currently working on a memoir she intends to have published in the next few years recounting her work and travels. You can learn more about her story through her website.

— By Logan Bury

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