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

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…

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