Nobody is talked about more in Yosemite National Park than John Muir.
It seems that on every trail you hike, whether in the Valley or elsewhere, when you talk to someone long enough (especially private tour guides or park rangers), the topic of Muir always comes up. Why is he so famous in Yosemite, and even in San Francisco? Who was this man? What did he do?
Let’s begin with what he was good at, which was just about everything. A Scottish immigrant who landed in Wisconsin to take up blacksmithing, Muir made his way to San Francisco and the West Coast to pursue new opportunities. After living in San Francisco for a few days, he famously asked someone the directions to “anything wild,” and was pointed toward Yosemite. He then began to walk there.
Yosemite and John Muir
His first experience in the park was as a sheep herder. He let the sheep graze the high Sierra meadows, such as Tuolumne Meadows, and began to learn about the beauty and botany around him. The area he explored was not yet part of Yosemite. In 1868, only Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove were protected by the federal government.
After his sheep herding days, Muir decided to live in Yosemite, and he built a cabin near the base of Lower Yosemite Fall. From there, he would explore the park on foot and learn firsthand about the beauty around him, from the Valley to the high country. The most famous route now connecting the two areas is called the John Muir Trail, and it’s one of the most renowned foot paths in the world.
It was from these explorations that Muir began to understand the geology of Yosemite, and how the different elevations played a role in the ecosystem. Specifically, he noticed that the boulders in the Valley were not from the Valley walls themselves, as one would assume, but instead matched the composition of boulders in the High Country, leading to his hypothesis that the Valley was formed by glaciation, meaning the Valley walls were carved from giant glaciers as they melted at the end of the last Ice Age. Leading biologists and surveyors at the time laughed at Muir when he made this assessment. He was a mountaineer, they said, not a biologist or geologist.
Muir’s Writings and Stories
Regardless, Muir continued to wander and write about his explorations, even naming some of Yosemite’s peaks. For example, when he climbed Cathedral Peak in 1869, no easy feat even by today’s standards, he decided to name it because of the awe-inspiring views and granite stone:
“This, I may say, is the first time I have been at church in California…In our best times, everything turns into religion, all the world seems a church and the mountain altars.” -John Muir
Years later, this and other views inspired Muir to call the Sierra Nevada not the snowy range but the “range of light.” When you hike in the High Country on a Yosemite privately-guided hiking tour, you’ll understand why.
As Muir’s writings about Yosemite became more popular—he wrote so well you could visualize the waterfalls and incredible features without being there yourself, which made him one of the most well-known nature journalists in the world—he began to use it for the good. Specifically, he lobbied to expand the borders of Yosemite. His argument was there was no point in protecting the Valley if you did not protect every drop of water which flows into it as well. And he was right. Today, with the park expanded to include the entire watershed, we can thank John Muir for his insight and determination.
John Muir Was Right
Scientists, years later, also learned Muir was correct with his glaciation hypothesis. It showed others he was keen in his observations and did not always need official testing and statistics to reach his conclusions. Instead, he could figure out his environment simply by living there and enjoying exploration.
These stories are just a hint of the hundreds involving John Muir and his beloved Yosemite and other natural locations in America. Unlike many explorers of the time, Muir had the skill and insight to record his findings, to try to protect the beauty of the Range of Light for future generations.