Riding in the Hoof Prints of Isabella Bird

Linda BallouBy Linda Ballou      August 5, 2022

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Riding in the Hoof Prints of Isabella Bird
Isabella Bird, the subject of Linda Ballou’s historical novel, “Embrace of the Wild,” rode 800 miles in the Rockies in 1873.
Fired by the rapturous descriptions of Estes Park and surrounds by Isabella Bird, a plucky Englishwoman who rode 800-miles solo in the Rockies in 1873, I headed to Colorado to breathe in the beauty of the region for myself. Isabella, like many people suffering from the damp in England, came to Colorado for “the pure dry air.” She waxed poetic about the granite faces of the peaks flushing crimson at days end with a religious fervor in her travel memoir Lady of the Rockies. Her first stay in Colorado was with the Alexanders, squatters on the land where Sylvan Dale Ranch rests today. Sylvan Dale, established in 1946 by the Jessup family, sits on the banks of the energetic Big Thompson River lined with cottonwoods. With manicured grounds, private cabins for extended families, facilities for weddings and family reunions, it provides an all-inclusive holiday with activities for all shapes and sizes. The ranch land is where the vast open plains meet the staggering peaks of the Rocky Mountains. Horseback rides and hikes at Sylvan Dales take you through varied terrain rich in history of the region. Spring-green grazing meadows spiked with wildflowers are banked by the lush river corridor snaking through towering walls of salmon- colored rock to vistas of the 14,000 foot snow-capped peaks in the distance. Isabella yearned to ride in Estes Park, the gateway to what is now the Rocky Mountain National Park, just 15-miles away as the crow flies. In 1873 the park was a wilderness inhabited by a few hunters, trappers and gold seekers along with a full complement of wild animals. It was once the hunting grounds of the Ute Indians who were run out by settlers claiming it for their own. The bison that roamed here were slaughtered and replaced with cattle grazing in tall stands of grass in the parks (or meadows) framed in stern, snow- streaked sentinels.
Photo by Linda Ballou Alberta Falls Trail is a 1.6-mile out-and-back trail near Estes Park, Colorado. Generally considered an easy route, it takes an average of 42 minutes to complete. The scenic 30-foot waterfall thunders down a narrow gorge on Glacier Creek.
The delicate Victorian lady was subjected to menial labor by the stern, Scottish Alexanders while she waited for a guide to take her to Estes Park. Instead of safe passage, she was taken on a wild goose chase through a series of gulches that ended at an impassable box canyon. Sketches in her notebook identify the spot that remains untouched today. It was not until 1904 that the dramatic canyon, framed in otherworldly rock pinnacles that leads to Estes Park, was able to be navigated via Highway 34. Undaunted, Isabella took an alternate route through Longmont that would eventually deliver her to what she dubbed the “Inner World.”

Resident historian, David Armstrong, gives a workshop in the fall detailing Ms. Bird’s adventures on present day Sylvan Dale land. The ranch also welcomes you to join in a trip back in time with Gray Wolf when part of the ranch is restored to an authentic Cheyenne tipi camp in Cottonwood Gulch. A slide show of the history of the ranch that has endured more than one flood from the tumultuous Big Thompson River is one evening’s entertainment along with a singing cowboy, and square dancing.

Only an hour’s drive out of Denver, just seven miles west of Loveland, the ranch is an easily accessed step back in time. The moment I arrived, my molecules began to settle back into place. A dip in the cooling pool got rid of road dust, followed up by a snooze in my comfy cabin overlooking the river and I was good to go. Sipping a cool one on the porch listening to birds twitter and the lulling voice of the river as a rosy blush marked the end of a carefree day is what I remember best about my stay.
Izzy never had it so good.
Linda Ballou
      August 5, 2022

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