Then and Now in Colorado with Isabella Bird

Linda BallouBy Linda Ballou      October 14, 2022

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Then and Now in Colorado with Isabella Bird
Photo courtesy of Linda Ballou Linda Ballou enjoyed some quiet time in the mountain community of Conifer before giving her talk about Isabella Bird to the historical society.
Our travel writer Linda Ballou was chosen as the Isabella Bird expert to be interviewed for ‘Trailblazers,” a three-part BBC documentary about the Victorian Age adventurer who endured tremendous hardships in her explorations of the Rockies in 1873, and became the best-loved travel writer of her time.
Evergreen, a bustling mountain town just 34 miles outside of Denver was the first stop on my Majestic Mountain Tour following in the hoof prints of Isabella Bird. It boasts miles of hiking trails in easy striking distance for weekenders in need of fresh pine-scented air. I was joined by fellow historical fiction authors Pat Jurgens and M.J, Evans for the “Strong Women in the West” author panel at the Hearth Fire Bookstore.

Just ten miles south lies Conifer, a sleepy mountain community with a network of less-traveled trails donated to the public by the owners of the Flying J Ranch. I enjoyed quiet time there before my talk about Isabella Bird, the woman who inspired my novel, “Embrace of the Wild,” at the Conifer Historical Society. From there I traced Isabella’s hoof prints through the Front Range where she rode 600-miles solo though the high country in the winter of 1873.

The day broke clear when I headed up Hwy .285, which was the Denver Stage Road in Isabella’s day. It is a sweeping highway that curls through forests of Ponderosa Pine with splotches of orange willows and lemon-colored aspen on the left and the energetic North Fork of the South Platte River on the right. If you are looking for an adventurous hike with staggering views take the Colorado Trail at the summit of Kenosha Pass. Just around the bend is 75-mile-wide South Park, once the summer hunting grounds of the Ute, Arapaho and Cheyenne.
In need of company in this lonely expanse, Isabella followed a stranger who turned out to be Comanche Bill, a notorious Indian killer. She shared the trail with him through Tarryall Valley where gold was discovered in 1859. I followed their tracks through this rust-colored valley watered by a stealthy stream. Weathered cabins likely built in her day spoke of the hard times of miners who rushed the valley in search of treasure. Bill directed her to Fairplay, my next stop.

Isabella rode an average of 25 miles a day stopping when she saw a light in the window of a cabin. Knocking on the doors of strangers to get out of the weather, she often slept with the children. I settled into my cozy room at the Hand Hotel, built in 1879 wondering how she could have managed that rough life. Isabella spoke of ruffians and vigilante law in this stop in time. Today there is an outdoor western museum where you can wander among 43 structures built in the 1800s relocated here at great expense. For ten bucks you may survey this South Park Museum for as long as you like.
On the way to trendy Breckenridge, I saw swaths of lemon-colored aspen carving a path through the deep green of the pine-sheathed peaks. This stretch on Hwy. 9 is a bit of a nail-biter with dizzying descents and tricky hairpin turns, but worth the butterflies. I stopped for a leg stretcher on the charming river walk in Breckenridge. When rain drops started falling on my head I pressed on toward Hwy. 119, the glorious Peak-to-Peak Highway.

A stop at Georgetown, home to the most restored Victorian homes in the state, garnered a BBQ lunch to fortify me for the rest of the drive. The popular Georgetown Loop’s narrow-gauged train that puffs its way through aspen, spruce trees and Ponderosa pines is an adventure anyone can enjoy. Isabella came through here on her way to Green Lake. She was warned off making the climb but was undaunted. When she arrived at her ultimate destination after an arduous slog through snow drifts, the lake was frozen solid.

It is a short hop from Georgetown through Central City to the Peak-to-Peak Highway (aka Hwy 119 that turns into Hwy 7) that delivers you to Estes Park where Isabella began and ended her mountain tour. It is a spectacular cruise through some of Colorado’s most glorious scenery. Isabella averaged 25 miles a day on Birdie, her steadfast mare, to do her mountain tour in about a month. On especially horrible days she would have to ride fifty miles to reach a cabin with a light in the window where she could stay the night. After seeing the vast expanses through some of our country’s most daunting landscapes, my admiration for this indomitable woman has only deepened along the way.

I agree with Isabella that the Front Range with its dramatic descents, charging rivers, and austere granite peaks, is not to be missed, but that Estes Park remains the fairest. It is the gateway to the Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) with miles of well-groomed trails to lakes and waterfalls for all to enjoy. I was well-received at the YMCA Library where I shared a PowerPoint presentation about my mountain tour. Brett Wilson, host of the Rocky Mountain Channel podcast, attended and offered to take me on a private ride in the park. It was a fitting finale to my Majestic Mountain Tour.
Steaming away in the spa at my lodge watching the aspen shimmy in wild wind, I felt gratified to know I was welcome here in Estes Park and thought of all the new friends I made on my journey. Isabella Bird is considered to be the Mother of the RMNP because her powerful descriptions brought throngs of tourists and writers like me to know what she described so lovingly in letters to her sister Henrietta in 1873 that became “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains.”
Linda Ballou
      October 14, 2022

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