Hiking Mount Ida for Ida Ruth

My gram, Ida Ruth Miller, was the kind of woman people would have named mountains or lakes or flower species for. She was an intent listener, a keen observer of the natural world, a lover of family and home. She was quick to laugh deep from her belly, and she was as content kneeling to nurture her bloodroot flowers (Sanguinaria canadensis) in the Iowa woodlands section of her lush Des Moines garden as she was to sit in the cool shade of the gingko my grandfather planted, discussing a New Yorker article with me, her oldest grandchild. A gifted writer who worked as a food editor and director of the test kitchen for Better Homes & Gardens before she married my grandfather Wayne, Gram wrote me long letters on canary yellow legal pad paper, detailing her thoughts about the world, the newest blooms in her garden, and her wonderings about my life. When I visited from wherever I was living or traveling, Gram and I would talk and talk for hours. She was brilliant, radiating love for me, for her home and her family, for her garden and the world. She had set out a rock cairn in her front yard, in view of her living room window, a rock cairn like the ones we followed on the trails we hiked in Rocky Mountain National Park on our summer vacations. "This cairn," she would tell me, "is the first marker on each family member's journey when they leave here." Always, when I pulled into her driveway for a visit, that perfectly balanced cairn of Iowa rocks would reassure me that I'd made it home again.
My gram's BH&G profile photo from
1948. The best Ida I knew.
Gram wasn't ever entirely sure she loved her name, though she allowed my sister Katie to incorporate it into "Elida," her daughter's name. I wonder if Gram knew that the ancient Greek name "idi," or "ida" in Doric dialect, meant a wooded mountain, a sacred forest. Crete's Mount Ida was so-named because it was once covered by a rich green forest. This etymology fits my gram, who loved to walk for hours in the Iowa woods, who invested her time and her money in returning a section of those woods at Living History Farms in Des Moines to native Iowa plants and flowers.

Some people have assumed that Rocky Mountain National Park's Mount Ida, a 12,889 foot mountain on the western side of the park, was named in allusion to that mountain in Crete. However, my sleuthing -- and my heart, now that I've climbed our Mount Ida -- suggest a different possibility.

When my mother Mary, my sister Katie and I planned our hike up Mount Ida, we compared calendars and found that Saturday, July 28, was the only possibility in the entire summer. Only later did we realize, with astonishment, that that date was the exact five-year anniversary of Gram's death, at age 97 (she would have turned 98 one month later). Of course. We were hiking Mount Ida as part of my quest to hike the mountains and lakes named for women in Colorado, but we were hiking together to honor Gram, the Ida we love and admire and miss dearly. The date was no coincidence.

On the Mount Ida trail (July 28, 2018)

As we ascended the mountain that morning at 6 am, in silence, our labored breath audible, I wondered about the Ida for whom this mountain had been named. It seems unlikely that the 19th century mountain-namers, who loved to honor themselves and their famous sponsors, would have just named it after a mountain in Crete. Surely, Ida was a woman worth naming a mountain for.

On our hike, the Ida who mattered was Ida Ruth Miller. As the white granite trail climbed upward through the tundra, along the side of an unnamed 12,000-foot mountain toward the right-triangle of Ida, the three of us admired the early sunlight on the Never Summer range, and we identified plants, as Gram would have done: white Yarrow, yellow Arnica, pink Moss Campion, purple Aster, purple Mountain Harebell, blue Jacob's Ladder. Some we didn't know, but we observed so we could identify them later: Dotted Saxifrage, Miners-candle, American bistort. We laughed in delight as the little pikas darted out from their rock caves, as the fat brown marmots squeaked alarms at us. And we climbed.

Mount Ida is the summit to the far right.

Of the 4.1-4.6 miles (depending on the route one takes through the boulderfield in the last stretch) to the summit of Mount Ida, all but 1.2 miles is above treeline. In the sunshine, beneath a blue sky, that means it is a stunning, expansive, exhilarating hike at the top of the world. It's true that the trail ascends 2100 feet from the trailhead, and that it is a strenuous hike, but it is also glorious, even for those exhausted by the effort. When Mom, Katie and I finally stepped onto the summit at 10:30 am, with a view of the turquoise Azure Lake and the blue Inkwell Lake down the steep cliffs, and the massive flat-topped hulk of Long's Peak rising to the southeast, we congratulated each other on the accomplishment. Mom, nursing a bruised chin from a fall, wanted us to stay away from the steep edges, but she smiled as she ate her sandwich, obviously relieved to have reached the top with us. Above all, we knew, the best way to honor our Ida was in our togetherness. She loved and valued family above all.

On the summit of Mount Ida (me, Mom, and Katie)
Azure Lake, from the summit of Mount Ida.
We were wise, watching the cumulonimbus clouds darkening in the west, to start our descent at 10:45. With over three miles of exposed trail before we reached the safety of the trees again, we knew we needed to hike to beat the thunderstorms that growl across the tundra in the afternoons.

We didn't expect the first thunderstorm to strike only an hour later.

The clouds darkened quickly, blotting out the blue, shadowing the sun, as sheets of rain blurred the Indian Peaks to the south and the Never Summers to the west. Then, a hiker's worst nightmare: an electric white zigzag of lightning that seemed to blaze into the ridge just ahead of us. Katie and I looked at each other with wide eyes. We were still above 12,000 feet, with miles ahead of us. We could glimpse treeline a steep five hundred feet to our left, but it was as dangerous to hurl ourselves down that rocky ravine as to continue on. Between us, Mom kept hiking forward, one foot in front of the other, her head down.

In all my miles of hiking, I have never been so close to lightning strikes as we were that morning. Thunder cracked ahead of us, and freezing rain stung us -- and another lightning bolt zigged to the ground in front of us.

I am not religious, but I hold deep beliefs. I closed my eyes for a moment and thought of Gram, of her deep love for us, of her delight in the natural world, and I imagined a golden bubble around me, my sister, and my mother. And when I opened my eyes, I felt it -- from the east, where Ida Ruth's Bloodroot and Black-Eyed Susan and Oxeye Daisy still bloom, I felt this intense certainty that we three were safe. Another lightning bolt struck ahead of us, and Katie turned to me, panicked, and I said, "We're okay. We're safe," and within minutes, a spherical space cleared around us, a circle of blue sky opened above us, pushing the lightning and the thunder and the rain away from us until we stood in bright sunshine again beneath feathery cirrus clouds.

We hugged each other, hearts hammering, our legs shaky on the tundra trail. And then we applied sunscreen.

It's not that I believe Gram saved us. Gram herself told me, when I asked her in her last year of life, that she simply believed she would nurture the flowers and the plants in her spot beside my grandfather. But there is something besides fatal lightning that vibrates in the world. Great love does. Memory of being greatly loved does. The whole rest of the way down Mount Ida, my mom and my sister and I talked about this. Our legs ached and we wanted iced tea, but every moment had been worth it, if only to remind us how loved we are.

After a high-altitude lightning storm, it's easy to make fun of our fears. . .

Safely back in Denver, I started my research. Gram never loved her name, but she loved to ask good questions and pursue their answers. I learned that in 1904, when Estes Park pioneer Abner Sprague and Estes Park civil engineer Julian Hayden embarked on a fishing trip, they hiked and camped near Mount Ida, already named. That means the mountain must have been named by one of the late 19th century geological surveys -- by Hayden or King or Powell (Wheeler's survey did not stretch this far north). I exhausted Google, meticulously researching each man on each survey -- but I found no Idas as wives or daughters. I searched in Grand Lake and Estes Park histories, and found an Ida McCreery (1875-1941), a the daughter of a homesteader in Estes. I found famous Idas of the late 1800s: Ida B. Wells (1862-1931), the African American journalist and reformer; Ida Tarbell (1857-1944), the famous "muckraker" journalist who exposed the corruption of Standard Oil; Ida Kruse McFarlane (1873-1940), a Colorado poet and the head of the University of Denver English Department. Though Gram may have begun to love her name a little more after reading about all these other incredible Idas, none of them had any connection with the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park. 

Cairns on the top of Mount Ida.

I called museums. The Estes Park Museum had no idea who Ida might have been. The Grand County Historical Association had no record of Idas during that time. 

I spent an afternoon buried in the stacks on the Western History/Genealogy Floor of the Denver Public Library, paging through brittle type-written papers and old scribbled diary entries in the glassed-in reading room. The old documents explained the origin of nearly every mountain named for men in Colorado, but they mentioned Mount Ida not at all.

Who was Ida? My daughter Mitike suggested, as we ate Ethiopian food from a food truck in Civic Center Park, that we could just say it was named for Gram, "because she was the best Ida of all." I agree, but the historian in me needs to know. Why do these women get lost, while every website and book explains in detail who Stephen Long and Nathan Meeker and William Hallett were? 

After more meticulous research in the stacks, I began to develop a theory. Both Clarence King, the leader of the survey exploring California and the railroad route planned west, and Ferdinand V. Hayden, the leader of the survey exploring the Colorado and Wyoming territories, admired and were influenced by the famous Harvard geology professor Louis Agassiz, that controversial man revered for his glaciology and reviled for his racist beliefs. Agassiz's daughter Ida (1837-1935) married the banker Henry Higginson five years before the King and Hayden surveys explored Colorado, and either man may have thought to honor her -- and thus her father -- with a mountain name, King because he admired the man who had been his professor and Hayden because he wanted the scientific world to take his survey seriously. Hayden's botany surveys and reports threatened Agassiz's dream to found a museum of comparative zoology, and Hayden may have wanted to smooth over that conflict.

Maybe. From 1868-1873, when the surveys were naming mountains in the area, Ida Agassiz Higginson was in her early thirties, corresponding with famous people like Ralph Waldo Emerson, moving in the scholarly circles created by her stepmother, Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz, a co-founder of Radcliffe College, and benefiting from her brother Alexander's fortune in copper mining. What else? Like other wealthy women of her time, Ida stayed home while her father roamed west in search of fossils and glaciers. She never viewed Mount Ida.

And maybe Colorado's Mount Ida wasn't named for Ida Agassiz Higginson at all. Maybe a map-maker loved an Ida who has been lost to history now. Maybe a pioneer named Ida lived there awhile and has now faded into dust.

And maybe Mitike is right: when our family is hiking Mount Ida, we will tell ourselves it is named for the Ida who will always be dearest and most famous to us, Ida Ruth Younkin Miller, lover of wildflowers and names and stories and, above all, the family love that can comfort even in the midst of a high-altitude lightning storm.

Ida Ruth's granddaughter Katie (my sister) on the summit of Mount Ida.


Getting to the trailhead: Drive to the parking area at Milner Pass trailhead, on Trail Ridge Road, 4 miles south of the Rocky Mountain National Park Alpine Visitor Center and 16 miles north of the Grand Lake entrance.

Roundtrip distance to the summit from the trailhead: 9.2-9.6 miles RT, depending on the route 
you choose to take through the boulder field

Elevation gain: 2,465 feet

How to reach the summit: 
1. Follow signs to Mount Ida (note that the sign says only 4.0 miles) from the parking lot, continuing on along the southern shore of Poudre Lake. 
2. At the intersection, take the righthand fork to the south, toward Mount Ida (the lefthand fork takes 
hikers up the Alpine Visitor Center).
3. After the trail emerges from treeline at about 1.2 miles, continue south toward Mount Ida, which is 
the right triangle peak straight ahead of you. 
4. At the summit of the unnamed Peak 12,150, the trail diverges. Take the righthand trail, descending 
toward the saddle.
5. From the saddle, which is about 3.5 miles into the hike, the trail climbs through tundra and a boulder field. Several routes exist here, mostly marked by cairns and the worn paths of feet in sections of tundra. Climbing straight up shortens the hike but is far rockier. The routes that curve to the right and then up take hikers through a softer tundra. 
6. Finally, climb the boulders to the summit, for an impressive view of Long’s to the southeast and of Azure and Inkwell Lakes straight below. 



Delbert, Jack E. and Brent H. Breithaupt. Tracks, Trails and Thieves: Hayden's 1868 Survey. Geological Society of America, 2016. Book.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "To Ida Agassiz Higginson, Concord, November 11, 1870." The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Columbia University Press, 1941. 

Fleming, Barbara. "Fleming: Abner Sprague left a large footprint behind." Coloradoan.com, Coloradoan, 7 May 2017, https://www.coloradoan.com/story/news/2017/05/07/fleming-abner-sprague-left-large-footprint-behind/101416518/.

"History: Psiloritis." Psiloritisrace.com, 2018, http://www.psiloritisrace.com/en/pages/history-en.php

Jones, Keith. History of Jelm, Wyoming, Vol. 1. Lulu.com, 19 April 2014, http://www.lulu.com/us/en/shop/keith-jones/history-of-jelm-wyoming-vol-1/paperback/product-21587948.html.

Koster, John. "He tried to solve earth's mysteries and left a few mysteries of his own." History.net, 3 March 2017, http://www.historynet.com/tried-solve-earths-mysteries-left-mysteries-clarence-king.htm.

"Photo Record." Catalog number 2004.024.134. Estespark.pastperfectonline.com, Estes Park Museum, 1940, https://estespark.pastperfectonline.com/photo/63A7BBA5-DA66-47CA-83CF-892962937260.

Sargent, John Singer. "Ida Agassiz Higginson." Drawing, 1917. Harvardartmuseums.org. https://www.harvardartmuseums.org/art/309242. 

Sprague, Abner. My Pioneer Life: the Memoirs of Abner E. Sprague. Karen Sue Stopher, 2005. Book.

Hiking Mount Ida for Ida Ruth

My gram, Ida Ruth Miller, was the kind of woman people would have named mountains or lakes or flower species for. She was an intent ...