John Muir: Father of the National Parks

Black and white photo of John Muir seated on a rock facing right with a lake behind him.

John Muir c1902 courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Naturalist, conservationist, geologist, botanist, mountaineer, prolific writer, mechanical genius, wilderness advocate, founder and first president of the Sierra Club — John Muir was all these things and more. To a greater degree than anyone else, Muir’s name is forever linked to Yosemite National Park. His dedicated involvement with the creation and protection of Yosemite, as well as several other national parks including Grand Canyon, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, and Mount Rainier, have led him to be called “the father of our national park system.”

What kind of person would fight so passionately to preserve and protect the lands of Yosemite? Born in Scotland in 1838, John Muir was raised by a ruthlessly strict, religious extremist father, first in Scotland and then later in the wilds of Wisconsin, where the Muir family homesteaded. Muir, along with his seven brothers and sisters, worked 17 hours a day on their 80-acre farm. As a teenager he was facile with machines and began to experiment with various mechanical inventions while simultaneously developing a keen interest in botany and geology.

Muir arrived in San Francisco in April 1868 and then made his way to Yosemite Valley. He spent a few weeks there, was suitably awed by its wonders, and then headed down out of the mountains to the San Joaquin Valley to find work.When Muir reached college age, he attended the University of Wisconsin, then sought employment in factories in Canada and Indiana. While working at a sawmill, an accident left Muir temporarily blind. He was forced to spend long weeks in a dark room to recover his eyesight. During this trial, Muir made a decision to leave the mechanical world behind and devote the rest of his life to studying “the inventions of God.”

When Muir’s health returned, he set off on a 1,000-mile walk from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico. From there, he planned to head to South America to search for the headwaters of the Amazon River. But a long and painful bout with malaria and typhoid in Florida convinced him to stay out of the tropics. He decided to travel to California instead “to see its Yosemite and Big Trees and wonderful flora in general.”

Muir arrived in San Francisco in April 1868 and then made his way to Yosemite Valley. He spent a few weeks there, was suitably awed by its wonders, and then headed down out of the mountains to the San Joaquin Valley to find work. He toiled as a shepherd for a year, and in the summer of 1869 he drove a flock of sheep from the San Joaquin Valley to the Tuolumne Meadows area of Yosemite. This adventure, detailed in his famous book My First Summer in the Sierra, was perhaps the most significant of Muir’s life. It was during this season that Muir embarked on his long and profound love affair with Yosemite.

Muir died at the age of 76 on Christmas Eve, 1914, in a Los Angeles hospital. He had been visiting his daughter Helen and her family when a winter cold developed into pneumonia. Six of his books were published during his lifetime; five more were published after his death. Muir’s name is immortalized on an Alaskan glacier (one of several he discovered), on a variety of California landmarks from mountain peaks to public schools, in a species of wildflower, and in an ancient redwood forest that is now a National Monument.

Muir’s home in Martinez, California, which he shared from 1890 to his death with his wife, Louie Strentzel Muir, and two daughters, Wanda and Helen, is preserved as the John Muir National Historic Site (925/228-8860).


Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Yosemite.


Maps of Yosemite

Leave a Reply