Riding in the Hoof Prints of Isabella Bird at the Sylvan Dale Ranch
By Linda Ballou, NABBW’s Adventure Travel Associate
Fired by the rapturous descriptions of Estes Park and surrounds by Isabella Bird, a plucky Englishwoman who rode 800 miles solo in the Rockies in 1873, I headed to Colorado to breathe in the beauty of the region for myself.
Isabella, like many people suffering from England’s damp, came to Colorado for “the pure dry air.” With religious fervor, she waxed poetic in her travel memoir Lady of the Rockies about the granite faces of the peaks flushing crimson at day’s end.
Her first stay in Colorado was with the Alexanders, squatters on the land where Sylvan Dale Ranch rests today.
Sylvan Dale, established in 1946 by the Jessup family, sits on the banks of the energetic, cottonwoods-lined Big Thompson River.
It is one of the most gracious dude ranches in the American West. With manicured grounds, private cabins for extended families, facilities for weddings and family reunions, it provides an all-inclusive holiday with activities for all shapes and sizes.
Spring-green grazing meadows spiked with wildflowers are banked by the lush river corridor snaking through towering walls of salmon-colored rock to vistas of the 14,000-foot, snow-capped peaks in the distance.
Isabella yearned to ride in Estes Park, the gateway to what is now the Rocky Mountain National Park, just 15 miles away as the crow flies. In 1873, the park was a wilderness inhabited by a few hunters, trappers, and gold seekers along with a full complement of wild animals.
It was once the hunting grounds of the Ute Indians who were run out by settlers claiming it for their own. The bison that roamed here were slaughtered and replaced with cattle grazing in tall stands of grass framed by snow-streaked sentinels.
The delicate Victorian lady was subjected to menial labor by the stern, Scottish Alexanders while she waited for a guide to take her to Estes Park. Instead of safe passage, she was taken on a wild goose chase through a series of gulches that ended at an impassable box canyon.
Sketches in her notebook identify the spot that remains untouched today. It was not until 1904 that the dramatic canyon framed in otherworldly rock pinnacles that leads to Estes Park was able to be navigated via Highway 34. Undaunted, Isabella took an alternate route through Longmont that would eventually deliver her to what she dubbed the “Inner World.”
Resident historian, David Armstrong, gives a workshop in the fall detailing Ms. Bird’s adventures on present-day Sylvan Dale land. The ranch also welcomes you to join in a trip back in time with Gray Wolf when part of the ranch is restored to an authentic Cheyenne tipi camp in Cottonwood Gulch.
A slide show of the history of the ranch that has endured more than one flood from the tumultuous Big Thompson River is one evening’s entertainment along with a singing cowboy and square dancing.
After a dip in the cooling pool followed by a snooze in my comfy cabin overlooking the river, I was good to go. Sipping a cool one on the porch listening to twittering birds and the lulling voice of the river as a rosy blush marked the end of a carefree day is what I remember best about my stay.
Izzy never had it so good.
If you go:
Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch
2939 N County Rd 31D
Loveland CO 80538
Photo credits: Sylvan Dale Ranch
Linda Ballou says her mission is to experience as many beautiful places on our planet as she can, before they are no more. “Travel tales relating my experiences while kayaking, horseback riding, sailing, birding and hiking about the globe have appeared in numerous national magazines.”
I had a great deal of fun collecting travel stories, and profiles of people I have met in “naturally high places” for my book, Lost Angel Walkabout-One Traveler’s Tales, while my latest book, The Cowgirl Who Jumped Over the Moon, deals with horses, World Cup racing, and the beauty of California’s High Sierras.
For a complete bio as well as published on-line clips with photos go to my website LindaBallouAuthor.com. Your reward, aside from learning about me and my work, will be to discover the secret to youth! Follow my blog or friend me on Facebook to keep up with my latest adventures.”