BRITISH travel writer Isabella L. Bird, the first woman elected a fellow at the Royal Geographical Society, hopscotched Colorado alone on horseback in 1873. Like Victorian armchair travelers before me, I was rabid for Ms. Bird. I’d read her book on the Colorado journey she took at age 42, “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains,” which she’d culled from her letters to her sister Henrietta in Scotland. She described scrambling up 14,259-foot Longs Peak—the tallest in what’s now Rocky Mountain National Park—and had a secret romance with an Irish squatter, “Rocky Mountain Jim” Nugent, who’d lost an eye to a grizzly bear. He lived with his dog outside what is today the town of Estes Park. As she wrote: “I am now eating and sleeping like a hunter.”
While it would be impossible to truly live like Ms. Bird, who rode her horse throughout a region now pockmarked with freeways and fences, I set out to trace a few of her steps with my husband, James. For our first foray, I booked a five-hour guided horseback ride to Rocky Mountain National Park’s Bierstadt Lake, a mirror-like surface encircled by towering pines.
Ms. Bird once traversed 51 miles of the Front Range in a single day. On the cool September morning that we mounted our horses we were going to keep up no such pace. We left the barn just after daybreak, as wild turkeys foraged for their breakfasts. I rode bourbon-hued Durango, upward of 1,000 pounds of graceful power.
After a break at Bierstadt Lake we descended on switchbacks. Hallett Peak, Thatchtop and Longs Peak formed a cinematic cradle around us. Absent the snaking road below, Ms. Bird would have had the exact same view. Nineteenth-century Estes Park, then an unsurveyed valley of squatters’ cabins, “exceeds all my dreams,” wrote Ms. Bird, who struggled with various illnesses. “There is health in every breath of air.”
Shortly after Ms. Bird’s arrival, a local warned her about Jim Nugent. “‘When he’s sober Jim’s a perfect gentleman; but when he’s had liquor he’s the most awful ruffian in Colorado.’” When she actually met the man for herself, she found in him a like-minded friend. “His appearance was frightful but as soon as he spoke he was fascinating with his gentle cosy manner… His poor disfigured face literally beamed with nice kindly feeling.”