The trip that changed national parks forever

Retrace the path of a legendary naturalist across California, a journey that would alter the landscape of conservation around the world.

Facing the setting sun, a buck with a towering rack of antlers stood silhouetted at the top of a rise. I’d surprised him, and he’d certainly surprised me. Somehow, in Yosemite National Park, one of the most famous places in the world, this glorious buck and I had found a moment of total solitude.

In large part, the fact that this encounter could even take place is thanks to a single, almost accidental trip. In March of 1868, an unknown Scottish-born wanderer and amateur botanist named John Muir arrived in San Francisco with plant-collecting gear and a thirst for the wild. Muir had finished an aimless 1,000-mile walk from Indiana to Florida, and planned to head next to South America to seek the source of the Amazon River and raft its length. However, a bout with malaria in Florida led him to contemplate a less strenuous journey, so he set course instead for California, where he’d read about the beauty of Yosemite Valley. A week-long visit to Yosemite turned into a five-year stint in the Sierra Nevada, and there blossomed a life-long passion for the wilderness that would change the face of global conservation.

One hundred years after Muir’s death, his initial 300-mile cross-California walk from San Francisco to Yosemite is not well known, but his conservation legacy lingers. In the United States, Muir is often called “the father of the national parks” both for his political advocacy through the environmental organisation the Sierra Club, which he cofounded in 1892, and also for his writing, which helped introduce the concept of wilderness conservation to new audiences around the world. Even today, in his home country, the Scottish Campaign for National Parks cites Muir as an inspiration for its continued efforts to turn more Scottish wilderness into national parks, and in April 2014 the new 134-mile trail from the town of Helensburgh to Muir’s birthplace of Dunbar was named in his honour.

By the time Muir arrived in San Francisco, Yosemite’s fame was already on the rise. Four years earlier, Abraham Lincoln had signed the Yosemite Grant Act, establishing Yosemite as a California State Park, the first land to be set aside by the US government for preservation and public use. Many more parks would follow suit, and Muir would be crucial to the process.

Muir knew the fastest route to Yosemite from San Francisco, but he didn’t take it. Instead, he chose the wildest: the one that would get him away from cities quickly and ensure wildflower spotting along the way. I recently followed Muir’s route by car, hoping to find what’s left of Muir’s California.

I picked up Muir’s trail in the city of Oakland, where he set out on foot after hopping a ferry from San Francisco. I then headed south past San Jose, cutting east at the town of Gilroy, and drove into the Diablo Range toward Pacheco Pass. Muir’s account of his trip, spread across more than a dozen of his publications, is at times dry and laced with botanical Latin, and at other times poetic and effusive. At a point near Pacheco Pass, Muir first saw the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the distance, a moment he described in his 1912 book The Yosemite:

"At my feet lay the Great Central Valley of California, level and flowery, like a lake of pure sunshine… And from the eastern boundary of this vast golden flower-bed rose the mighty Sierra, miles in height, and so gloriously coloured and so radiant, it seemed not clothed with light, but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city…Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light."

Reaching Pacheco Pass on a cool autumn dawn a day after it had rained, I’d hoped to experience that same magical reveal of the Sierra Nevada, but my view was obscured by clouds and valley fog. Muir had been greeted by the shouts of California quails, and sure enough a bevy of quails scattered as I made my way down the otherwise empty Dinosaur Point Road, which follows the old road’s path until it disappears under the waters of the San Luis Reservoir. The stretch from the Diablo Range foothills to the valley floor remains, and in the spring, visitors can still experience some of the “seas of flowers” that Muir waded through in 1868.

Retracing the trip in autumn, I wasn’t graced with the heavenly bloom that Muir described, but the route afforded other moments of natural splendour: yellow shocks of cottonwoods along the Merced River; thousands of sandhill cranes on the grasslands of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. In the Wildlife Refuge’s visitor centre, a new LEED-certified building that blends into the landscape, I sat in a comfy armchair watching a herd of tule elk and California quail pass in the meadow outside. On an hour’s-drive through the wetlands, I saw more hawks and waterfowl than I had seen in the last year, but not a single other person. When Muir passed by here, it must have looked much the same.

Muir was prescient when he said, “The battle for conservation will go on endlessly.” During his lifetime, the battle was as much internal as external, with fierce divisions emerging between those like Muir who wanted wilderness to be preserved solely for education and recreation (the “preservationists”), and others who wanted to protect land but also tap into their natural resources for the benefit of society (the “conservationists”).

“Any fool can destroy trees,” said Muir, in arguing for the preservation of national parks against all who might exploit them. “God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches and a thousand straining, levelling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools – only Uncle Sam can do that.”

Traveling the Muir route today, you see successes and failures from both camps: urban natural areas that go largely ignored, wildlife areas preserved for the enjoyment of hunters, and Yosemite, a remote museum of natural beauty, whose visitors are worryingly aging and affluent. As the conservation battle goes on, the battle to get people outside and appreciating nature seems to be in need of reinforcements.

As the road gets closer to Yosemite, Muir’s fingerprints become more evident. From the historic Gold Rush town of Coulterville, a 28-mile stretch of Highway 132 has been commemorated as the John Muir Highway. In the town itself you find the recently established John Muir Geotourism Center, a great place to stop to get a full appreciation of Muir’s legacy, housed in a building that was a saloon and dance hall in Muir’s day. Across the street, the historic Hotel Jeffery’s guest book contains the signature of US president Theodore Roosevelt, there at Muir’s personal invitation.

In 1903, Roosevelt left his security detail and the comfort of the Hotel Jeffery behind and spent three days with Muir and a few park rangers, exploring Yosemite’s peaks, canyons and waterfalls, sleeping beneath the giant sequoias of Mariposa Grove and waking one morning in several inches of fresh snow.

Roosevelt treasured the experience and later recalled, “The majestic trunks, beautiful in colour and in symmetry, rose round us like the pillars of a mightier cathedral than ever was conceived even by the fervour of the Middle Ages.” Muir’s words, and the persuasive powers of Yosemite itself, hit the mark. Under Roosevelt, Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove were placed under federal protection, making them part of Yosemite National Park, and Roosevelt went on to create five additional national parks, as well as scores of national monuments, bird sanctuaries, wildlife refuges and national forests.

The evening that I saw the buck, I was near the spot that Muir first laid eyes on Yosemite Valley. I took one step forward, and it bolted away down the steep slope. The spell was broken, and as if on cue, a Forest Service Jeep came rolling down the road in the dying light.

I’ve come into Yosemite Valley more than a dozen times in my life, and it never fails to awe. Yosemite’s sights are so iconic – the shining sheer face of El Capitan, the dramatically cleft Half Dome, the thundering double cascade of Yosemite Falls – that suddenly finding yourself among them is like stumbling uninvited into the middle of the Last Supper. And yet the sensation is welcoming; the valley beckons you in.

Muir must have felt similarly. “It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter,” he wrote. “It must be the sanctum sanctorum of the Sierra, and I trust that you will all be led to it.” And we were, on a trail blazed by John Muir.

The Muir Ramble Route book is the definitive guide to recreating Muir’s original route today.


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