Isabella Bird, a tough-as-nails 1800's era British world traveler and author, spent some of her favorite days in the area that became Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. Her book, "A Lady's Life in the Rocky's" vividly captures her adventures and is a must read if you are an Estes enthusiast. All of her most romantic writing centers on the scenery in what is today RMNP.
Hit these four trails to see why, and read the passages from A Lady's Life linked with each to understand what Bird saw and felt on her adventures. Andy Hansen, a guide with Colorado Mountain School, loves her book and recommends these trails based on Isabella's travels in the area.
Sky Pond from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead
9 miles roundtrip. Elevation gain: 1,780 feet
Hansen says this varied hike with an elevation gain of 1,780 feet is one of his favorite trips in Rocky. From the trailhead, located on Bear Creek Road, walk mostly flat ground to a convergence with the Glacier Creek Trail (just past Chaos Creek). Follow it for about a mile to the North Long’s Peak trail junction. Turn right, and keep hiking. When you come to a junction with the Mills Lake trail and the Black Lake trail, proceed straight ahead to the Loch Vale Trail, where things become steep. At roughly 2.8 miles in you’ll reach Loch Vale—great for breakfast. Another 3.6 miles of climbing and you’ll reach the Sky Pond/Andrews Glacier split. Stay left and climb for another one-half mile. Best American Hikes Rocky Mountain National Park says the hardest part is still to come. Think of Bird as you climb scramble up a steep chute where you don’t want to fall. Feel as humiliated as you want—that’ll soon change. You’re rewarded with Lake of Glass, an breathtaking alpine lake beneath The Sharkstooth, Taylor Peak, and Powell Peak; and then, at 4.5 miles in, Sky Pond, reflecting the color of the sky—be it blue, red, orange, or purple—off a rocky cirque surrounding it on all sides. Read “Letter IV” in which Bird describes her first look at the Rockies near Estes Park (and Estes Park) in September of 1873.
Emerald Lake from the Bear Lake Trailhead
3.5 miles roundtrip. Elevation gain: 650 feet
For another hike that delivers a serious bang for your buck (with over a lake-per-mile ratio), Emerald Lake offers an opportunity to take in the sights with the whole family. Take on the Emerald Lake hike, with just 650 feet of elevation gain. From the trailhead at the end of Bear Lake Road, take the Bear Lake Loop trail for gorgeous views before heading off to Emerald Lake. You’ll hit Nymph Lake first, with a peek-a-boo view of Long’s Peak. Then forge on to the junction for Lake Haiyaha. Turn right and walk a short distance to the shores of Dream Lake. Prepare to fall over—the views of Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain are that awesome. Once past the lake, the trail climbs Tyndall Gorge. Up at the top—at 10,110 feet—you’re at Emerald Lake. Celebrate: You’re in the beating heart of the Rockies. Soak it in. Picnic. Read some Isabella. Retreat. Read “Letter V,” in which Bird first describes the region of Rocky Mountain National Park, which she calls “no region for tourists and women, only for a few elk and bear hunters at times, and its unprofaned freshness gives me new life.”
Black Lake via the Glacier Gorge Trailhead
9.6 miles roundtrip. Elevation gain: 1,480 feet
You might not be alone on this hike (especially in summer), but with view this good, you won't mind sharing. It accesses spectacular views of The Arrowhead, McHenry’s Peak, and Chief’s Peak, all stunners. Follow the same directions to the Mills Lake and Black Lake trail junction in the Sky Pond hike. But instead of going to Loch Vale, head south direction to Black Lake. You’ll cross Vale Brook and enter the Glacier Gorge. At 2.4 miles in, you’ll cross Glacier Creek. A short ways on, you’ll reach Mills Lake, a beautiful subalpine pool nestled below Half Mountain. (Interestingly, Mills Lake is named after Enos Mills, the so-called “Father of Rocky Mountain National Park,” but the only feature named after Isabella Bird is a cabin.) Take a break here because you’ve got a few more miles left with a fair amount of climbing. At about 4.6 miles in, you’ll reach a meadow spliced by Ribbon Falls. Climb above it, and you’re at Black Lake. Read an excerpt from Bird describing the breathtaking beauty of the Estes area: “From the ridge…at a height of 9,000 feet, we saw at last Estes Park, lying…in the glory of the setting sun, an irregular basin, lighted up by the bright waters of the rushing Thompson…with Long’s Peak rising above them all in unapproachable grandeur… The rushing river was blood-red, Long’s Peak was aflame,, the glory of the glowing heaven was given back from earth. Never, nowhere, have I seen anything to equal the view into Estes Park. The mountains ‘of the land which is very far off’ are very near now, but the near is more glorious than the far, and reality than dreamland.”
Twin Sisters via the Twin Sisters Trailhead
7.2 miles roundtrip. Elevation gain: 2,395 feet
One to add to your list if you're prone to summit fever. Twin Sisters offers breathtaking panoramas of the Estes Valley and Rocky Mountain National Park, with a front seat view of Longs Peak, "the Mont Blanc of Northern Colorado," according to Bird. Longs is the only 14er in RMNP, and was summited by Isabella Bird, in the winter in a dress! Read “Letter VII” in which Bird recounts her ascent of Longs Peak.