Growing up, national park leaders didn't look like her. So she became one.

Eve Chen
  • Women weren't allowed to work in national parks in early years.
  • Kayci Cook Collins is the first woman in four generations of her family to serve in the parks.
  • She and NPS are making room for other traditionally marginalized people to blaze their own trail.

America's national parks have been around 150 years. Kayci Cook Collins' family has served them for nearly a century.

"The National Park Service is my family business," said the superintendent of Mesa Verde National Park and Yucca House National Monument.

Her father, both grandfathers and great-grandfather all served in the parks. While Cook Collins is the first woman to officially carry on her family's legacy, she's quick to call out her mom and grandmothers' contributions.

"Although they didn't wear the uniform, they didn't get the paycheck, they were very, very much a part of the success of their husbands," she said.

Women weren't allowed to work for national parks in the early days, but they've since risen to the very top and are making room for others.

HER FAMILY COULDN'T TALK ABOUT IT:Now this park superintendent educates others about this dark point in US history

'I JUST WANT TO SEE MORE OF US':The importance of seeing people like you while traveling

Kayci Cook stands between her grandparents John O. and Bee Cook at Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park on the Georgia-Tennessee border in 1964.

"I look around the organization of the Park Service and I have seen women at all levels now," Cook Collins said. "When I was growing up and seeing role models, most of what I was seeing were men."

Among many roles in nearly 40 years with the park service, she was the first female deputy superintendent for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and last year became the first female superintendent of Mesa Verde and Yucca House – a position held decades earlier by her grandfather Meredith Guillet.

Kayci Cook began her four-decade career with the National Park Service in 1982 as a seasonal interpretive park ranger at Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona.

"I had some really great women that broke trail for me," Cook Collins said. She does the same for others. At her previous post, Flagstaff Area National Monuments, she hired the site's first female facilities manager, a position traditionally been dominated by men.

She said her dad, John E. Cook, also promoted many women to leadership positions over his 43-year career. He also helped end decades of inequality in uniform standards for men and women across the park service.

Kayci Cook with her dad John E. Cook in 1999 when she served as superintendent of Fort McHenry National Monument in Baltimore.

The park service has made a concerted effort in recent years to be more inclusive of various identities, in staffing and storytelling.

Celebrating Yellowstone's 150th birthday on March 1, park service Director Chuck Sams acknowledged, "Native peoples have cared for these lands since time immemorial." 

Sams is the park service's first Native American director. He comes from the Umatilla Indian Reservation in northeast Oregon and is Walla Walla, Cayuse and Yankton Sioux.

"Obviously, the people that work in the National Park Service should look like the people that live in the United States of America and reflect all of those all of those differences and all of those their attitudes and the things that are important to them," Cook Collins said, also acknowledging the Indigenous communities that predate the U.S.

Kayci Cook Collins grew up seeing very few women in leadership roles at national parks. Now she's leading by example as superintendent at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.

As more people from all walks of life have explored the outdoors during the pandemic, she hopes they will all be inspired to protect these spaces – including more women.

"The national parks are gifts that each generation gives to the next," Cook Collins said."I want women to see themselves as both the stewards that take care of that history (and) I want to see them to see themselves in that history. There's not a National Park Service unit anywhere that doesn't have women's history associated with it. And when we work there and we protect that history and we share it with visitors, we're a part of that unending chain."

Kayci Cook Collins and her son Sean are at home in New Mexico in 2005 when she served as superintendent of El Malpais and El Morro National Monuments.

Women's history in US national parks

  • 1872 - Yellowstone becomes America's first national park.
  • 1916 - The National Park Service is established.
  • 1918 - Clare Marie Hodges and Helene Wilson become the first two "rangerettes" at national parks, temporarily hired to fill openings left as men went to serve in WWI. 
  • 1940 - Gertrude Cooper becomes the first female superintendent in the park service, overseeing Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site.
  • 1960 - The park service issues a written statement urging administrative leaders to disregard gender and employ the "best qualified men and women available" for uniformed positions, except park ranger roles "in which the employee is subject to be called to fight fires, take part in rescue operations, or do other strenuous or hazardous work."
  • 1964 - More jobs open to women after Title VII of the Civil Rights Act becomes law, banning employers from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. 
  • 1977 - After decades of unequal attire standards for women, including dress and skirts ill-suited for the outdoors, John E. Cook directs there be one uniform across genders, with the option for skirts based on preference. Changes take effect in 1978.
  • 2001Fran P. Mainella becomes the first woman to direct the park service. The same year, Gale Norton becomes the first female secretary of the Interior, which oversees the park service.
  • 2020 - Women hold more than 37% of permanent jobs within the park service.
  • 2021- Deb Haaland becomes the first Native American to serve as secretary of the Interior. She is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, which is historically tied to the lands that comprise Mesa Verde.

Source: National Park Service