History and Culture

John Muir, Yosemite National Park's Protector

A camping trip with President Roosevelt and Muir led to an explosion of wilderness protection across the country and a push to make Yosemite a national park.

Often said to be the founder of the modern American environmental movement, John Muir’s wild enthusiasm for nature led him to wander across North America. His adventures included a “long walk” of 1000 miles from Indiana to Florida’s Gulf of Mexico, sailing to Cuba, and eventually exploring California. Muir’s walk east from San Francisco Bay into the Sierra Nevada Mountains inspired him to call the Sierra’s “The Range of Light.”

At Home in Yosemite Valley

In 1869, Muir spent his first summer in the Yosemite Valley, earning money by herding sheep. It was the beginning of a life-long love affair with Yosemite, both its verdant valleys and its mountain peaks. Fellow nature lover and literary icon Ralph Waldo Emerson was among Muir’s visitors in Yosemite. When Muir wrote about his experiences with wilderness in the Sierra Nevada, he launched his own career as a popular writer in 1874.

Muir eventually left the Sierra Nevada to travel the world, first to explore the glaciers of Alaska, as well as to make trips to Asia, Australia, Africa, and Europe. In 1880, he married Louisa Wanda Strentzel, with whom he had two daughters. The family lived on a ranch and farm in the San Francisco Bay Area. Nevertheless, Muir often returned to the Sierra Nevada, which he called his true home, leaving his capable wife to run the family business and raise their children.

Starting The Conservation Movement

As he became an ever more prolific writer, Muir also started working politically to preserve Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada as national park lands. In 1892, he co-founded the Sierra Club to “do something for wildness and make the mountains glad.” Muir’s book Our National Parks was published in 1901, in time to influence President Theodore Roosevelt, a wildlife hunter and outdoorsman, to become a conservationist and national parks supporter.

President Roosevelt and John Muir Go Camping

President Theodore Roosevelt (left) and John Muir (right) at Glacier Point overlooking Yosemite Valley.
President Theodore Roosevelt (left) and John Muir (right) at Glacier Point overlooking Yosemite Valley. (May 1903)Public Domain

An early meeting between President Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir led to an explosion of wilderness protection across the country. In the spring of 1903, Muir took the president on a three-day backcountry trip through Yosemite. They spent their first night in Mariposa Grove: “The majestic trunks, beautiful in color and in symmetry, rose round us like the pillars of a mightier cathedral than ever was conceived even by the fervor of the Middle Ages,” Roosevelt later wrote of the evening in his autobiography. They spent the next two nights at Sentinel Dome and near Bridalveil Meadow in the Valley.

Around the campfire one night, Muir urged Roosevelt to give the Yosemite Grant lands back to the federal government as part of the existing national park system to streamline their protection, as well as to set aside more lands nationwide. The trip and that conversation stuck with Roosevelt. In 1906, he folded the Yosemite Grant lands into Yosemite National Park, and by the end of his presidency, he’d protected 148 million acres of land reserves and doubled the country’s number of national parks.

Although Muir’s political accomplishments were monumental, not all of his efforts were successful. His campaign to save Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley failed when the Tuolumne River was dammed to provide more water to the San Francisco Bay Area, flooding the entire valley. (Learn more about the Hetch Hetchy controversy.)