Isabella Bird was a plucky English woman who rode 800 miles solo through the Front Range of Colorado in 1873. Horseback riding through the rugged outback while the gold rush was raging seemed a miraculous feat. I wanted to see the region she described so vividly in her book A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains. She made this trek in the winter, often ending her day with her feet frozen to the stirrups. I followed her tracks in September when the mountains are ablaze with aspens spinning gold.
I left Denver on the 1-70 to Highway 285, which was once the Denver Stage Coach road that Isabella described as the worst stretch of her Mountain Tour. She slogged through shoulder-high snow, following freight wagon tracks that were often drifted over by snow. Today Highway 285 swoops through gorgeous country, climbing ever higher on the way to Fairplay, where Isabella ran into rowdy miners working the early gold mines. It traces the energetic Platte River where fishermen cast their lines. Mostly private property, with little opportunity to explore, it frames the highway until you hit the Kenosha summit where you can pull off at the Colorado Trail Head for an adventurous hike with stunning views.
The highway crests over South Park, a massive expanse of flatland that looks like a meteor might have landed here a millennium ago. A rolling plain, seventy-five miles wide, elevated over 10,000 feet, treeless, girdled by mountains, the park was once the summer hunting grounds for Native Americans. Large herds of elk and other game are long gone, but I spied a herd of fluffy white-bottomed antelope grazing peacefully. Rushed by miners in 1859 when gold was discovered in the Tarryall Valley, South Park was pocked with mining outfits when Isabella arrived. She rode here with an unlikely companion named Comanche Bill, a notorious Indian killer draped in guns and knives.
At Jefferson, a spit in the road, I took Hwy 77, which snakes through Tarryall Valley through a rust-colored meadow, split by a meandering stream. This less-traveled byway lined with pudgy brown cliffs allowed me to cruise slowly, without traffic pressing me to go faster. Dilapidated, weathered cabins that dot the roadside are left from the days Isabella rode through Tarryall. Today you will find a few people and picnic tables at the Tarryall reservoir.
Once in historical Fairplay, I settled into my cozy room at the Hand Hotel, built in 1879. Isabella spoke of ruffians and vigilante law in this stop in time. A recent lynching saw a man swinging on a tree nearby. Today there is an outdoor western museum where you can wander among 43 structures, built in the 1800s, that have been relocated here at great expense. For ten bucks you may explore The 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 Highway 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 riverwalk in Breckenridge. When raindrops 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 narrow-gauged train that puffs its way through aspen, spruce and pine trees is an adventure anyone can enjoy. Isabella came through here on her way to Green Lake. She was warned off of making the climb but was undaunted. When she arrived at her ultimate destination, after an arduous slog through snow drifts, she found the lake 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.
I agree with Isabella that the Front Range, with dramatic ascents, charging rivers, and daunting peaks, is not to be missed, but that Estes Park remains the fairest. It is the gateway to the Rocky Mountain National Park, with miles of well-groomed trails to lakes and waterfalls for all to enjoy. She is considered to be the Mother of the RMP because her powerful descriptions brought throngs of tourists and writers like me to know what she described so lovingly in her letters to her sister Henrietta in 1873.
Linda Ballou is the author of Embrace of the Wild inspired by equestrian explorer Isabella Bird