Mount Flora and Lake Ethel (and, to the north, Mount Eva)

Scarlet Paintbrush on the Mount Flora trail

My daughter Mitike crouched low on the Mount Flora trail to closely examine a fuschia-colored paintbrush. "It's beautiful," she told me and my cousin Johanna, reminding us to pause in our hike down the mountain, reminding us to examine the details, to breathe it all in awhile. So we did. We named the flowers we know: King's Crown, Moss Campion, Dwarf Clover, Chiming-Bells, Sky Pilot, Forget-Me-Not, Pussytoes, Alpine Sunflower, Pasque Flower. We could not identify the succulent with the white flowers; we did not know the specific names of any of the lichens or stonecrops. And what was the specific name of each species of paintbrush?

Me, Johanna, and Mitike (with Henry the golden retriever) on the summit of Mt Flora, July 10, 2018

An hour before, at the top of Mount Flora, another hiker, a man named Mark, told me that he had heard these peaks called "the Botanists' Peaks," because they were named for famous 19th century botanists and their wives -- a great lead to my research into the women for whom Mount Flora, Mount Eva, and Lake Ethel were named. Mark then asked me to tell him about other mountains and lakes named for women. Later, Mitike joked affectionately that she thought I would "explode with happiness," as I told Mark about Anna Dickinson and Helen Rich and Margaret Goldsborough. The stories behind these names matter. They do.

As we examined the flora beside the trail, though, Johanna suggested gently that this mountain we had just climbed -- and loved -- may have been so named merely because the botanists loved flowers. I hoped not.

The moment I got home, I googled "botanists' peaks in Colorado," and confirmed what Mark had said: Gray, Torrey, Parry, James, Audubon, Engelmann, and Guyot were all renowned botanists. Charles Parry gave the mountains their names, including his own; the 1997 book The King of Colorado Botany, by William Weber, notes that Parry named Mount Eva for his second wife, Emily ("Eva" must have been a nickname -- some people online have questioned this; is it possible "Eva" was someone else entirely?). Emily and Charles Parry married when they were 36 and 38, respectively, in 1859. Interestingly, they moved to Davenport, Iowa, where the determined Germans from which Johanna and I are descended were just beginning a farm. I know Emily outlived Charles by twenty-five years, and that she was, according to the Davenport Democrat and Leader, "a most estimable woman, whom older residents will remember for her many good qualities." Emily made such an impression on her husband's botanist colleague, Asa Gray, that he named the purple Sand Blossom for her, Linanthus parryae. She often accompanied her husband on his plant collecting excursions.

Left to right: Parry Peak, Mount Eva, Mount Flora

But was the name "Flora" merely a nod to those plants the famous botanists collected? In an era of honoring people with geographical namesakes, it seemed unlikely. I kept researching and found, in a PDF about Clear Creek County's history, two stories. Some say that Mount Flora is so named because Parry "introduced the Colorado flora to the world," as Weber's 1997 biography of Parry insists. Of course, in Latin, "flora" means "flowers." However, others say that Mount Flora was named for early Denver poet and short story writer Chauncey Thomas' mother, Flora Sumner Thomas (1866-1943). Flora Thomas was the sister-in-law of W.N. Byers, the founder of the Rocky Mountain News. According to Thomas, the famous western explorer, Major John Wesley Powell (a member of the first party of white men to summit Long's Peak, in 1868), stayed with Byers in Colorado, and started a Boy Scout Camp at Berthoud Pass. Again, according to Thomas, Powell named two mountains there, one for Byers' wife Elizabeth and the other for his sister-in-law Flora. Thomas' ashes are scattered on Berthoud Pass and on Mount Flora, and the Colorado Historical Society placed a monument to him at the pass in 1943.

This second story rings truer, I think, considering the times, though I wonder why Powell's wife Emma did not get a mountain named for her, too. Or maybe she did, and the record has been lost.

Finally, who was Ethel, for whom the little turquoise lake at the base of Mount Flora is named? I found a 2013 obituary for an Ethel Schwartz, who grew up skiing at the Berthoud Pass Ski Area in the 1920s and 30s, but that doesn't seem to indicate a reason to name a lake for her. None of the famous botanists were married to Ethels; Parry's daughter (who died as a child) was named Elizabeth; and Powell was not connected to any Ethels. Who was she? I emailed the Colorado Ski History organization to see if they know -- I'll update this if they reply.

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Lake Ethel, as seen from Mount Flora's summit

Sometimes, pursuing the people behind the names, immersed in research, I lose sight of the fact that I am trying to more deeply appreciate this place I love even as I am trying to get people to honor historical women. Sometimes I forget to just appreciate the paintbrush. Today, I hiked across tundra meadows for miles with Mitike and Johanna, and I watched the hardy flora blossoming and thriving even in the wind and the cold and the exposure. I am a writer, not a botanist, and so I collected the riot of color and the sweet strangeness of names (groundsel, alpine valerian, arctic gentian). I looked and looked at the mountain ranges. Like the famous botanists who collected here, I never feel like I can gather enough into my mind and my heart, and that in itself is glorious.

Who was Ethel? I DID find that this succulent is Alpine Spring Beauty (Claytonia megarhiza)

How to hike Mount Flora:
1) Drive to Berthoud Pass, and park on the east side. Enjoy reading the informative signs at the pass, especially the one about the Continental Divide Trail, which you will be following to the summit of Mount Flora.
2) Follow the Continental Divide Trail on the east side of Berthoud Pass. The trail follows a service road for 0.89 miles, and then clearly forks to the left (the signage to Mount Flora is clear).
3) Follow the CDT for another 2.5 miles to the summit of Mount Flora. It's a relatively easy hike, though the false summit may temporarily defeat tired 11-year-olds. From the summit of Mount Flora (13,146'), you can peer down into the steep valley at Lake Ethel, which would be a dangerous scramble. Similarly, it does look possible (and challenging ) to climb Mount Eva by following the Continental Divide ridge line north from Mount Flora -- but no trail heads in that direction.


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