Female Pioneers Who Paved the Way for Women in the Outdoors

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In a male-dominated community, these seven women forged ahead, paving the way for countless female outdoor enthusiasts who followed.

Whether hiking, climbing, or penning their adventures, these have been “firsts, “fastests,” and “onlys" who changed the way we view women in the outdoors.

Mary Seacole

Travel memoirist (1805-1881)

Mary Seacole, taken for a carte de visite by Maull & Company in London (c. 1873) | Photo: Wiki Commons

Nicknamed “Mother Seacole,” Jamaican-born Mary Seacole took to a life of adventure, feeding a strong wanderlust. Travelling through Bahamas, Haiti, England, and Cuba, Seacole is most famous for her travels and work in Panama and Crimea.

In 1854, after England’s War Office refused to fund a trip to Crimea, where she planned to work as an army nurse, Seacole raised her own capital, traveled there, and founded the British Hotel, which provided a mess-table and housing for sick and wounded officers.

Seacole survived cholera and treated patients with yellow fever. Throughout her travels, she picked up knowledge about using local plants and herbs as medicine. Her novel, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, published in 1857, was one of the first travel memoirs ever published by a black woman.

Isabella Bird

Travel writer and photographer (1831-1904)

Illustration: Wiki Commons

Had Instagram been around in the late 19th century, you'd be following Isabella Bird. She was one of the first women to make a living as a travel writer and photographer—Bird was a full-blown professional adventurer. Authoring The Englishwoman in America and A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains along the way, she explored (among other places) Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park, usually alone and unarmed.

Beginning in her childhood, Bird suffered from insomnia, headaches, and spinal pain, and her doctor prescribed plenty of time outdoors. Listening to his advice, she began to travel and flourished as an explorer. Her travel log included places like Malaysia, India, Japan, Singapore, Tibet, Persia, Turkey, China, Vietnam, Iran, Korea and Morocco. She’s famous for her poetic description of her 1873 ascent of Longs Peak, the highest mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park, and she was the first woman ever to be inducted into the Royal Geographical Society.

Emma Rowena Gatewood “Grandma Gatewood”

Appalachian Trail thru-hiker (1887-1973)

Photo: Stratness, Wiki Commons

A domestic violence survivor, Emma Rowena Gatewood often turned to the wilderness for solitude and escape. But, it wasn’t until she was 67, divorced after 30 years, and her 11 children were adults, that Gatewood made her mark on hiking history.

Hence her nickname, Gatewood, a grandmother to 23, became the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail solo. She covered those 2,189 miles in Keds tennis shoes and didn’t stop there. "She  brought a blanket and a plastic shower curtain to protect her from the elements, but she didn’t bother with a sleeping bag, a tent, a compass or even a map, instead relying on the hospitality of strangers along the way and her own independent resourcefulness," the Washington Post published in an article on Gatewood.

Within a year, Gatewood was at it again, becoming the first person, male or female, to thru-hike the AT twice. Later in her life, she’d complete the trail again, in sections; only outdoing herself, and making her the first person to hike it three times.

Along with her accomplishments on the AT, Gatewood also completed a 2,000-mile, 95-day hike from Independence, Missouri, to Portland, Oregon, as part of the Oregon Centennial celebration and helped pioneer Ohio’s Buckeye Trail. A six-mile section of the Buckeye trail was dubbed the Grandma Gatewood Trail in her honor.

Clare Marie Hodges

National Park Service ranger (1890-1970)

Photo courtesy of the NPS

Near the end of WWI, Clare Marie Hodges, a schoolteacher at Yosemite Valley School, became the first female National Park Service ranger. Hired by Washington B. Lewis, Yosemite’s superintendent at the time, Hodges was a regular badass, frequently traveling overnight on horseback from Tuolumne Meadows to park headquarters to deliver gate receipts.

She spent her first summer with the NPS on mounted patrol. Although encouraged to carry, Hodges decided not to bring a gun and always rode in a split skirt. Proudly donning her uniform Stetson hat and rangers badge, Hodges would stand as the only fully commissioned female park ranger for the next 30 years.

Ruth Dyar Mendenhall

Mountaineer (1937-2004)

Photo courtesy of Amazon

One of the first female mountaineers, Ruth Dyar Mendenhall paved the path for many who followed her. Breaking gender norms in the 1930s, Mendenhall, a mother of two, famously climbed California’s Sierra Nevadas. Along with her husband, Mendenhall pioneered climbs in the Tetons of Wyoming, the Cascades of Oregon and Washington, and the Alps. The couple has been credited as the first to summit both Mount Confederation (1947) and Aiguille Peak (1952).

Along with her climbing career, Mendenhall authored The Challenge of Rock and Mountain Climbing and multiple introductory climbing books. The Mountaineering Letters of Ruth Dyar Mendenhall is a compilation of documents and letters written during Mendenhall’s excursions.  

Arlene Blum

Mountaineer (1945-Present)

Photo: Cullen328, Wiki Commons

Arlene Blum led the first American—and all-women’s—ascent of Annapurna I, one of the world’s most dangerous and difficult mountains. She also led the first women’s team up Mt. McKinley and was the first American woman to attempt Mt. Everest.

Blum started climbing in her youth, and although she failed to complete her first summit attempt on Washington’s Mount Adams, Blum persevered, climbing throughout college. As someone who compares mountaineering to life, Blum’s grit has served her equally well in both. “I encourage everyone to think about what they care about; find others who relate to, connect with, and believe in your vision,” says Blum.

Her vision expanded beyond being an alpinist and led her to UC Berkeley, where she earned a PhD in biophysical chemistry. She later went on to found the Green Science Policy Institute, working toward protecting people and the environment from toxic chemicals. She’s also an accomplished speaker and writer. Blum has published two award-winning books: Annapurna: A Women's Place and Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life.

Jennifer Pharr Davis

Appalachian Trail thru-hiker (1983-Present)

Photo: Maureen Robinson

After college, when many follow their wanderlust by backpacking through Europe, long-distance hiker extraordinaire, Jennifer Pharr Davis, hiked the AT. “It changed my life,” says Davis. She set the record for the fastest overall (male or female) completion time on the AT, reaching Mount Katahdin after 57 days and 8 hours—and was the first woman to set that mark. She held her record for four years. (It was broken in 2015 by Heather 'Anish' Anderson, who finished in 54 days, 7 hours, and 48 minutes.)

Along with her record-setting AT thru-hike, Davis completed the Pacific Crest Trail, summited Kilimanjaro, and set a Women’s Vermont’s Long Trail record, along with penning a multitude of books and articles.

Today, along with her treks, Davis juggles running Blue Ridge Hiking—the company she founded in 2008—and her family. “When I got pregnant, people kind acted like I was retired. I wanted to change that. During my first pregnancy, I backpacked 100 miles,” says Davis.

She now has two children, and thanks to her hiking company, she’s been able to focus on her life's mission: to get people outside. “People have this mystic thought or fear about being in the wilderness,” says Davis. “But really, a hike is just a walk in a natural area.”

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