NewsWomen's History Month


Highlighting the history-making women who left their mark in Colorado's outdoors

Gudy Gaskill
Posted at 10:04 PM, Mar 29, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-30 00:04:12-04

This Women's History Month, we are sharing stories of women who have left immense legacies in Colorado, including in the outdoor space, where they weren't always welcome.

These trailblazers went up against social norms and great odds to accomplish something no other woman had done before — from leading a guided hike up one of the state's tallest mountains to connecting the Colorado Trail.

While there are countless women who have broken barriers in the outdoors, we're highlighting three here.

Women's History Month: Trailblazing Colorado women

Gudy Gaskill

When it comes to pioneering women in Colorado, it's hard not to start with Gudy Gaskill, nicknamed the "Mother of the Colorado Trail." She fought tooth and nail to connect sections of the Colorado Trail into one, 500-mile-long pathway that would lead adventurers of all kinds from Denver to Durango.

Beginning in the 1970s, she pushed the effort forward, ignoring those who felt that women should stay out of that space.

How the tenacious 'Mother of the Colorado Trail' built her dream into a reality

Armed with a knack for gathering volunteers, she led a team of passionate people to complete the trail in 1987.

Today, thousands of people use the trail every year. Her son, Craig Gaskill, spoke with Denver7 about the impact his mother left behind.

"I think where I feel it the strongest is when I've been hiking the Colorado Trail. And you meet people and they are —" he paused to collect himself, eyes shining. "Sorry about that — they are so moved by their experience of the Colorado Trail and what it means to them to be out in the wilderness for so long. And life-changing experiences by doing that. I think, 'Well that's because of my mom — that's kind of what she wanted them to do.' She wanted people to have that experience. She wanted people to feel so in touch with nature, that they would protect nature... So when I hear these people that I'm talking to on the trail, and I feel that experience that they're having, then it makes me recognize how important it was for her to build a trail. That makes me really proud."

Read more about Gudy Gaskill here.

Elizabeth Burnell

During the summer of 1916, Elizabeth Burnell arrived in Estes Park, alongside her sister Esther. What started as a vacation would turn into a life-long passion, the National Park Service reported.

They met Enos Mills — a naturalist and one of the main figures who pushed for the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park. He encouraged the college-educated sisters to pursue their passions in the outdoors, and both became licensed as nature guides in the national park, the NPS said. However, the Burnells were told on multiple occasions by the RMNP superintendent that women were expected to stay below the treeline.

Elizabeth Burnell leading hike.jpg

But Elizabeth Burnell decided that would not work for her. She went on to become the first woman to guide hikers up to the 14,259-foot summit of Longs Peak.

She continued seasonal guiding at least through 1924. She apparently frequently told people that she believed a man did not need to join a woman if she wanted to explore the outdoors. She also mentioned, according to the NPS, that she had "camped absolutely alone for a week at a time and wandered around Mt. Long alone at night."

Courtesy Estes Park Museum_Elizabeth Burnell
Estes Park Museum

Elizabeth Burnell ran Enos Mills' trail school for about 12 summers before moving to California, according to the NPS. She passed away in 1960.

Her sister Esther married Mills in 1918.

Julia Archibald Holmes

In 1858, Julia Holmes set out for an adventure with her new husband that would take them west with about 50 other people in search of gold. Little did she know that this trek would keep her name in history books for decades to come.

While traveling, Holmes wore a "bloomer costume," which included a calf-length skirt with puffy pantaloons underneath, according to the NPS. This feminist statement irritated some of the people she was traveling with, as most women still wore long dresses. But for Holmes, it was a practical choice — she not only insisted on sharing the duties of the men on the trip, but she planned to hike to the summit of Pikes Peak, the NPS said. Long walks were good practice, she would tell people.

Julia Archibald Holmes, circa 1870.jpg

Once they arrived in Colorado, 20-year-old Julia did indeed hike to the top of the 14,115-foot mountain on Aug. 5, 1858, becoming the first recorded European-American woman to do so. This became a public statement for women's equality, the Colorado Women's Hall of Fame said.

A letter she wrote to her mother about the climb read: "I have accomplished the task which I marked out for myself and now I feel amply repaid for all the toil and fatigue. Nearly every one tried to discourage me from attempting it, but I believed that I should succeed; and now, here I am, and I feel that I would not have missed this glorious sight for anything at all."

Pikes Peak

After this accomplishment, the couple continued their travels before separating. Holmes went on to become the first female member of the U.S. Board of Education and was a secretary for the National Woman Suffrage Association. In addition, she fought — and received — equal pay to her male counterparts while working for the U.S. Department of the Interior, the NPS said.

She passed away in 1887.

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