Following British Explorer Isabella Bird’s Footsteps Through the Rockies, 150 Years Later

The intrepid Victorian-era author proved that a lady’s life could be in the mountains, and I am forever grateful for that

Longs Peak in Colorado
Isabella Bird ascended the 14,259-foot-tall Longs Peak, now part of Rocky Mountain National Park. JeffGoulden/Getty Images

Using a fixed steel cable to navigate my way along an exposed cliffside in Colorado’s Estes Park, I climbed slowly while taking in the surrounding scenery. In the distance I could see the peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park, a few wondrous lakes and, far down below, winding roadways that looked like mazes.

This was my first-ever via ferrata (Italian for “iron way”), a type of rock climbing that utilizes a series of metal rungs, bridges and handles to help provide stability as you maneuver your way upward, assisted by a harness, bungee cords and safety carabiners. Thanks to Kent Mountain Adventure Center and guides Meg and Xiao, I felt invincible. Though maybe I was channeling the spirit of Isabella Bird, a Victorian-era traveler whose sheer determination and curiosity brought her to explore this same region 150 years earlier. The Englishwoman is undoubtedly a local legend—and a solo traveler after my own heart.

Laura Kiniry climbing a via ferrata in Estes Park, Colorado
The author, Laura Kiniry, climbed a via ferrata in Estes Park, Colorado. Courtesy of Laura Kiniry

“Nothing that I have seen in Colorado compares with Estes Park,” wrote Bird in A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, an 1879 travelogue composed of a series of letters that the author wrote to her sister, Henrietta (Hennie), while journeying through the Western United States. The letters first appeared in the magazine Leisure Hour, before being brought together as Bird’s fourth and best-known book, since called a “classic of Western literature” for its straightforward account of 19th-century life in the Rocky Mountains. One written by a female adventurer, no less.

I’d just finished reading it before visiting Estes, which these days serves as the eastern gateway for the 415-square-mile Rocky Mountain National Park, and had been inspired by her many adventures. They included sleeping on a “bed” of pine shoots and an ascent of 14,259-foot-tall Longs Peak, “The ‘American Matterhorn,’ as some call it,” wrote Bird. For the author, photographer, explorer and naturalist, travel provided an anecdote for illness (she suffered from a spinal condition), and while my own prompts for seeing the world are different, I definitely have the same wanderlust.

Isabella Bird
Isabella Bird, 1880 Elliot & Fry/Royal Geographical Society via Getty Images

“Everything suggests a beyond,” wrote Bird in A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains. Over the course of her lifetime, Bird’s travels took her to places like Canada, Japan, Hawaii (when it was not yet a U.S. state), China and Morocco, and much of it happened in her later years. She inevitably formed a career as a world traveler, producing at least one volume of writing with each of her journeys. Bird then used the proceeds from her book sales and payment for magazine articles to fund further excursions. In 1892, she even became one of the first female fellows elected into the Royal Geographical Society, a professional organization dedicated to the advancement of geography and geographic knowledge. But it was Estes Park, a place that Bird visited in her 40s for its “pure air” and natural beauty (“I never feel well except in the quiet and freedom of the wilds,” she wrote on a later journey to Malaysia) that many people associate with this pioneering woman, one who not only challenged traditional gender boundaries but also defied and helped redefine cultural norms. Bird was fiercely independent and traveled freely, making it more acceptable for other women to do so. She was also highly outspoken. “To a person sitting quietly at home,” she wrote in A Lady’s Life, “Rocky Mountain traveling, like Rocky Mountain scenery, must seem very monotonous; but not so to me, to whom the pure, dry mountain air is the elixir of life.” Her love of Estes Park is just one of the reasons why the city, and what’s now Rocky Mountain National Park (established in 1915), are celebrating the 150th anniversary of her visit.

Estes Park has changed dramatically in the years since Bird made its acquaintance. Even decades ago, when American historian Daniel J. Boorstin penned the introduction for the 1960 University of Oklahoma Press edition of A Lady’s Life, he wrote, “The trip which took all the courage and stamina of this brave English horsewoman in 1873 has now become a casual summer excursion for American families.” Today, Elkhorn Avenue—the town’s main street—is a bumper-to-bumper stretch of T-shirt and souvenir stores, interspersed with saltwater taffy and ice cream shops, restaurants, and bars. However, the many mountain peaks that rise up as Estes’ backdrop remain seemingly frozen in time, including that of Longs Peak.

Estes Park, Colorado
Today, Elkhorn Avenue—the town’s main street—is a bumper-to-bumper stretch of T-shirt and souvenir stores, interspersed with saltwater taffy and ice cream shops, restaurants, and bars. However, the many mountain peaks that rise up as Estes’ backdrop remain seemingly frozen in time. Victoria Chen/Getty Images

As Rocky Mountain National Park’s only “fourteener” (a moniker for the 58 Colorado mountains that rise more than 14,000 feet above sea level), Longs Peak towers over area summits. Bird was determined to reach the mountaintop, becoming one of less than a handful of women to have done so by 1873. However, her ascent was anything but easy. In the author’s own words, she was literally dragged up “like a bale of goods, by sheer force of muscle” by James Nugent, a.k.a. “Rocky Mountain Jim,” a notorious desperado whom Bird grew especially fond of over her stay. Their relationship of mutual admiration and fascination has become so legendary that the Estes Park restaurant Bird & Jim is named for the unusual duo.

Slow-moving, middle-aged and far from athletic (and dressed in Victorian-era boots and a Hawaiian riding dress, akin to a long skort), Bird confessed to Hennie, “Had I known that the ascent was a real mountaineering feat I should not have felt the slightest ambition to perform it.”

Longs Peak is known as the “fourteener with the highest failure rate” when it comes to reaching the summit, and climbing it is not something to take lightly. So instead, I embarked on a different route: an easier 5.4-mile round-trip hike to Ouzel Falls in the national park’s southeast Wild Basin area. Together with Sharon Saternus, founder of Femme Trek, a female-owned business that offers guided hiking and snowshoeing tours for women in Rocky Mountain National Park, I and five others set out across footbridges and through forests of aspen, spruce and pine to reach the 40-foot-tall waterfall, which cascades down a cliff onto a heap of boulders. Along the trail, Saternus pointed out some of her favorite natural landmarks as well as pathways leading to several hidden alpine lakes. With weaving switchbacks and a relaxing pace, our hike was more reminiscent of some of Bird’s quieter moments in the Rockies.

Lily Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
Lily Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park Laura Kiniry

Later that day, I joined the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Conservancy and Leanne Benton, a former ranger-naturalist in the national park who has led wildflower and tundra ecology walks there for 25 years, for an edible and medicinal plants walk around the park’s Lily Lake. It happened to be a place that Bird also visited on her travels, describing it as a “lily-covered lake” with “amethyst-colored water” that was “enclosed by high mountains.” The lake’s namesake lilies are long-gone. “They haven’t been here as long as people [that are alive today] can remember,” Benton told me. And yet the “magical” beauty that Bird wrote about was still clearly visible and just as spectacular.

Starting our stroll around the water, Benton pointed out that long before Bird’s arrival, the area was inhabited by the Ute and Arapaho people. Unfortunately, said Benton, by the time that Western immigrants arrived “the transfer of knowledge didn’t really happen, because there was already so much hostility. This means that a lot of plants and their medicinal uses are being learned anew.”

Still, before we’d even walked halfway along the lake’s perimeter, Benton had pointed out more than a dozen different types of flora and their healing qualities. “The best plant to know as a hiker in the Rockies is a little white thing called yarrow,” said Benton, which can be crushed and applied as a blood coagulant, or used as an anti-inflammatory for bee stings and mosquito injuries. “It grows at all elevations and is a hiker’s friend.” We passed alongside mountain gumweed, a coarse-looking plant with sticky buds that acts as an aromatic, and juniper berries (“They are actually cones,” said Benton), which are often used as an antiseptic or salve. We saw lavender-colored mountain harebells, with their five-petal, bluebell-shaped flowers good for brightening up salads, and rose hips (the small fruits of rose plants) that are excellent sources of vitamin C. When it came to the tiny purplish berries known as chokecherries, Benton said that they are so prominent within Rocky Mountain National Park that they make up the bulk of the local black bears’ diets.

Our lesson was just one of many offered by the Rocky Mountain Conservancy, including its Bettie Courses, designed to help women build outdoors skills and knowledge, and to foster a conservation ethic, through educational experiences like climbing, fly fishing and hiking. Inspired by the work of Beatrice “Bettie” Willard, a foundational instructor at the conservancy, the classes are being offered through October to help celebrate the anniversary of Bird’s seminal visit.

On the heels of an August tribute hike that involved summiting the region’s Twin Sisters in dresses, to honor Bird, and a symposium exploring women on Longs Peak, upcoming events include Women of Rocky History scenic bus tours that focus on Bird and the impacts of other European homesteading women and run weekly through mid-November, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains book discussion that occurs both on Zoom and in person September 13, and a presentation on women in Rocky Mountain National Park held October 21. In-town stops such as the Macdonald Book Shop and Bear & Bee, a “one-of-a-kind art bar,” sell copies of Bird’s book.

Unfortunately, my time in Estes was too short to do it all, but since much of Bird’s Estes Park adventures took place on horseback, I ended my trip with a little riding of my own at Jackson Stables, part of the larger YMCA of the Rockies. Together with my horse, Pepsi, and more than a dozen other equine-rider pairs, I ventured out on a one-hour journey through Glacier Basin, meandering among forests of lodgepole pines and open stretches punctuated with the gurgling sounds of a nearby creek. The path was undulating, the views of the Rockies’ northern Front Range and its prominent Longs Peak superb.

Much like Bird, it’s larger visions like these that keep me moving forward. “I have found a dream of beauty,” wrote Bird, “at which one might look all one’s life and sigh.”

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