Chasing Purple in Rocky Mountain National Park

I came to Estes Park, Colorado, to see purple mountain majesties, blue hollows, and flaming red alpenglow. Maybe get some taffy and a T-shirt.

My guide is a marked-up copy of Isabella Bird’s A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, a remarkable travelogue spun from letters the British writer wrote during her trip to Colorado in 1873.

Isabella’s a fascinating figure to follow. She was 4’11”, sickly, unmarried, 42, out of shape, and apparently fearless. She traveled the world for health, and to escape the Victorian age’s expectations of a woman’s life. She wrangled cows, climbed “14er”peaks, and rode through the mountains astride her horse like a man while donning a Hawaiian dress. She lived above a family of skunks in a cabin whose door couldn’t shut. And she famously fell for a one-eyed trapper, Rocky Mountain Jim, who recited his poetry to her by firelight. (He died, from the buckshot of another person in the book, before her book was published.)

This is kind of the original, more tragic, Eat, Pray, Love.

A Lady’s Life is less a literal guide to 2014 Estes Park, of course, than an imaginative one. After all, as one admirer of hers put it to me, “Isabella paints with words.” She teaches us how to see it.

Under Isabella’s gaze, her playland of Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park—which kicks off a yearlong 100th anniversary celebration next month—transforms: valleys become blue hollows, skies lemon, rivers blood red, rocks splashed in carmine and vermilion, and sunken valleys below leadish peaks cast a “purple gloom.”

Purple? I want to see purple.

We know about “purple mountain majesties” from Katharine Lee Bates’s poem “America the Beautiful” (written 15 years after Isabella’s book came out). But in a dozen trips to the Rockies, I can’t recall ever noticing it. On the ground in Colorado this time, I’m finding I’m not the only one.

Boulder-based Linda Batlin, a one-time contracting officer for a government agency, often portrays Isabella as a “storyteller.” I meet her at a café in the plains town of Longmont, just below the Front Range, on a street of late 19th-century brick buildings where Isabella found her ride into Estes Park.

“What drew me to her was that she wasn’t athletic, but became one of the first three or four woman to climb Longs Peak,” says Batlin. She’s skinnier and taller than Isabella (and performs without faking a British accent), but she’s as adventurous a traveler, having climbed Longs Peak a few times, gone dogsledding in the Yukon, and trekked the Republic of Georgia. “But I’m not a born athlete either. I have to work at it.”

But has she seen purple?

“No. Only through Isabella’s eyes. Maybe I need to try a different coffee or something?”

Isabella’s text gains momentum as she leaves Longmont and follows the St. Vrain Canyon, rising and twisting past rugged pine-clad peaks that suddenly take over the ride. Some 141 years later, I follow along, more or less, via U.S. 34. In parts, construction crews repair the road battered from last year’s floods.

This is my first time back to Estes Park since a Reid family trip a few decades ago. I’m expecting to be turned off by my first glimpse of a touristy town even some residents dismiss as just “taffy, T-shirts, and tomahawks.” But when the road swerves and suddenly unveils the vision of the broad valley leading almost skyward between mountains below, it’s impossible to not be pulled in.

I ride past Estes Lake, pop into a local museum, and then grab a turkey Reuben sandwich at a deli in the country’s oldest movie theater. At a bookstore, I browse offerings from local authors. All the while, most locals I meet show quizzical looks when I ask about “purple gloom” or “carmine rocks.” Wondering if I’m on a futile hunt, I head a few miles west into Rocky Mountain National Park, where the tune changes.

“Chasing purple?” a ranger with braided hair falling below her Stetson hat repeats after me. “I love that.”

A big fan of Isabella’s book, Jean Muenchrath is a world traveler who’s been based here since the 1980s. She sees purple all the time. At a back porch of the park’s Beaver Meadows Visitor Center, she sits down with my park map, thinks a bit, then hurriedly marks it up, as if the colors were already fading from view, hours before dusk.

“Yes, there are times, when the light is just right, and you can see it … Here, above the tree line,” she says, circling a 20-mile stretch of road near the Continental Divide in the east half of the park. “Ride back and forth between them, starting at 6:30 p.m. or so, and pull off at every stop, and just look.”

She adds, “It’s there.”

I’m not at all put off that Jean’s directions take me beyond Isabella’s actual footsteps from 1873. Everyone who has tried to “follow” her had ended up going off course. In last year’s O My America!, Sara Wheeler retraces steps of 19th-century women travelers who redefine themselves in their middle-age years in the U.S. Wheeler laments of one locale that moves her: “I was sorry that Isabella had not been to that spot. She would have loved it.”

In another effort, Following Isabella: Travels in Colorado Then and Now, author Robert Root admits finding common ground with Isabella’s inspiration only when using her book as a “template for my own exploring.”

One of the country’s great scenic drives, Trail Ridge Road rises above the pines onto a tundra upland peering over 2,500-foot-deep canyons. I stop at a pulloff that Jean marked and walk out to peer over these “glacial fingerprints,” as Halka Chronic puts it in Roadside Geology of Colorado. At another I see smears of a cirque’s glacial ice caking the sides of a valley.

From the Rock Cut pulloff, a Tundra Communities Trailhead leads me, wind whipping into both ears at once, atop a bald ridge where funny, frizzy-haired picas squeak at my arrival.

No one is here but me. And what I carry with me starts leaving me alone too. First my camera’s battery dies, then my iPhone’s. I try drawing an image I see, and my pen fails. Maybe it’s the altitude—or maybe something is just telling me to be present and look and take it all in.

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So I do.

A window in a ragged formation of granite rock near me frames a distant vision of stacked tundra plains, ridgelines, and fading skies to the southeast. But the colors—they run like slanting horizontal strips of a rainbow. Before me, shadowy tundra’s golden wheats pinken slightly in the last sun’s rays. Beyond, past a sunken valley floor and below a mountain range set against the sky, are lines of smeary blues and grays. Still lower, barely distinguishable, are the positive smears of a lavenderish, violet haze. I take that as purple.

This is worth the effort, of course, the huffing and puffing, and the failed gizmos at the moment of truth. To see it ultimately, I think, you only have to look for it. It’s fantastic. And, in the end, it wasn’t Isabella that ended up bringing me to this thrilling pocket of isolation in the tundra of a busy national park. It was just the purple.


Read the book. Isabella Bird’s A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains prominently features Estes Park. You can find it at many businesses here, including Macdonald Bookstore on Elkhorn Avenue. Some passages from Isabella’s letters to her sister—including some more detailed declarations of her fondness for Jim—appear only in the more elusive Letters to Henrietta.

Travel back in time. Despite all the souvenir shops, Estes Park has some interesting nods to bygone eras. Just off the main street, the Historic Park Theatre, which turned 100 last year, is the oldest continuously run theater in the U.S.

Toward the Black Canyon (where Jim trapped beavers), the MacGregor Ranch has been open since the year after Isabella’s visit.

Across from Estes Lake as you’re entering town, the free Estes Park Museum does a good job of highlighting the town’s origins. It also hosts interesting walks around town.

Stay at the Shining hotel. That triumphant historic white hotel on the hill is the Stanley. It’d be fun in its own right, but it’s been made irresistible by one of its former guests, Steven King, whose isolated stay here off-season inspired The Shining. And from its front porch chairs, you can sit and watch the morning sun turn Longs Peak into a reddish glow.

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