Muir, Roosevelt and the Camping Trip that Saved Nature in the U.S.

Credit: Underwood & Underwood

“God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.” “Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.” “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” John Muir wrote almost as many famous phrases about the beauty —almost mystical in his eyes— of wild nature as Americans he convinced to conserve it. He is considered the “father” of U.S. national parks, but only one was his true love: the California Sierra Nevada, a formidable granite structure perched between the turbulent Pacific Ocean and the reddish, ochre soil of the state of Nevada. And from the Sierra Nevada one valley: Yosemite.  There he spent three days with President Roosevelt, three crucial days for U.S. conservation.

Muir first came to Yosemite in 1868. Credit: National Park Service

Born in 1838 in rainy Scotland, John Muir emigrated with his family to the United States at the age of 11. When he died aged 76 he had become the most famous and influential naturalist of a country brimming with a wealth of wilderness within the approximately 4,200 kilometres that separate its ocean shores and that by the end of the nineteenth century had already begin to pale. 

Until he first came to Yosemite in 1868, Muir’s life had certainly been full: he had studied geology, chemistry and botany at Madison University but never graduated; he had invented amazing mechanical devices—like a spring to lift one out of bed; he had lost his sight in one eye while working in a factory, only to recover it unexpectedly months later; he had travelled through Canada during the US Civil War; he had contracted malaria… And it was precisely in search of a benign climate to recover from this disease that Muir arrived in Yosemite. 

A deep connection with Yosemite

He remained here, more or less permanently, until 1874, dedicating himself to exploring every corner of the mountain range, climbing mountains, guiding sheep, studying their geology —he correctly suggested that glaciations, and not earthquakes, had been the forces from which Yosemite had been born— and observing trees, flowers and beetles. As Miguel Delibes de Castro, former director of the Doñana biological station, writes in the prologue to the book about Muir, Cuadernos de Montaña: “Nothing for him lacked interest, from the highest geological monuments to the most modest creatures. Muir became a sage, a tall, ungainly man who felt a deep connection with the natural world.” 

View across Hetch Hetchy Valley, early 1900s. Source: Sierra Club

In 1874 he began to describe this relationship in the main magazines of the time: Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, New York Tribune, Scribner’s and Century. With evident literary talent, he shared his love for nature with the American middle class and they, according to Delibes de Castro, were “transported to the mountains, caressed by the wind, purified by the waterfalls, at the same time as they realized that those wonders could disappear”. Muir began a campaign to ensure that Yosemite received the same degree of protection as Yellowstone National Park (the world’s first) had obtained in 1872. In 1890 it did: Yosemite went from a state-run reserve in California to a national park. Two years later, Muir founded the Sierra Club, a nature protection organization that he presided over until his death and that is still active today. 

For Delibes, Muir’s capacity for suggestion had more to do with the emotion and respect for nature distilled in his writings —he published more than 300 articles and a dozen books —than with calls to preserve it. 

Three nights among sequoias with the president

In 1901, Our National Parks was published, and after reading it, then-President Theodore Roosevelt wrote to Muir asking him to be his guide at Yosemite. “I do not want anyone with me but you, and I want to drop politics absolutely for four days and just be out in the open with you,” the president wrote. The camping trip finally took place in 1903. Roosevelt and Muir camped for three nights among sequoias, woke up covered by a thin layer of snow, visited el Capitan and were photographed at Glacier Point. For the National Park Service this trip can be considered the most significant in the history of conservation. 

On his return, Roosevelt took a series of decisions that seem to confirm this: in 1906 he signed a federal law to make Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove part of Yosemite National Park, after a 17-year campaign by Muir and the Sierra Club, while declaring Petrified Forest in Arizona a national park. Two years later he proclaimed the Muir Woods National Monument, a forest of elegant sequoias north of San Francisco, in honour of his Yosemite guide. 

John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt on horseback, Yosemite Valley. Source: California Historical Society

Muir lived to see more of the fruits of his literary and environmental work: the birth of Sequoia National Park in California, Mount Rainier in Washington State, Grand Canyon in Arizona and General Grant Grove, part of the great Kings Canyon National Park also in California. 

He died in 1914, two years before the U.S. Congress created the National Park Service (August 25, 1916), one of Muir’s old dreams. Stephen Mather, a member of the Sierra Club, was its first director. Muir ended his first article entitled “The Yosemite Glaciers,” published in 1871 in the New York Tribune, with these lines: “But I am weary and must rest. Good night to my two logs and two lakes, and my two domes high and black on the sky, with a cluster of stars between.”

Eugenia Angulo 

@eugenia_angulo