The Yosemite Camping Trip that Changed America

I call it a successful camping trip if I don’t forget the mosquito repellant and a roll of TP. But it seems Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir left the marshmallows at home when they camped together for three nights in 1903. Instead of bringing home questionable personal hygiene or a spanking case of poison oak, these titans of conservation came up with the National Park Service. 

Known as “The Camping Trip that Changed America,” it was probably inevitable these two would connect, and that a national program to protect our most precious natural wilderness areas would take hold. 

From an early age, Muir showed signs of his lifelong obsession with wild places. Born in Scotland, Muir immigrated to America with his family when he was just eleven. They settled on Fountain Lake Farm north of Madison, Wisconsin. Although he would abandon traditional religion later in life, he was raised in a strict religious family. He learned to recite all of the New Testament and most of the Old by heart. At age 22 he enrolled in the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he learned enough geology and botany to distinguish himself, even though he never graduated. 

When his brother Daniel moved to Southern Ontario in 1863 to avoid being drafted into the American Civil War, John followed. He spent considerable time exploring the woods and swamps of the area collecting and cataloging the native plants. In 1866 he returned to the United States and went to work in a wagon wheel factory in Indianapolis. There a tool he was working with slipped and injured his right eye. Fearing potential permanent blindness he spent six weeks recovering in a dark room. When he discovered his eyesight had returned he rejoiced. Determined to be true to himself from then on, he dedicated the rest of his life to exploration and the study of plants.

Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was born into a wealthy New York City family in 1858. As a youngster Roosevelt was hampered by poor health and asthma. Determined to regain his health, Roosevelt adopted a very active “cowboy” lifestyle shaped by pronounced masculinity. His lifelong interest in animals began when he observed a dead seal at a local market. Roosevelt ended up bringing the seal’s head home with him where he and a cousin formed the “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History.” The boys augmented their home-grown museum with other animals they either caught or killed. At age nine Roosevelt authored a paper titled “The Natural History of insects.”

With an unintended nod to Forrest Gump, one day in 1867 Muir decided to hike a thousand miles from Kentucky to Florida. He cataloged the experience in his book “A thousand-mile Walk to the Gulf.” After that he spent time in Havana, Cuba studying shells and plants. He then sailed to New York City where he booked passage on another ship bound for California.

Roosevelt’s childhood was almost the exact polar opposite of Muir’s. Coming from wealth and high society, he toured Europe, Egypt and the Alps on family vacations. After taking a beating by two older boys at camp, Roosevelt found a boxing coach and dedicated himself to fitness and learning to defend himself.

After settling in San Francisco, Muir left almost immediately for a week-long visit to Yosemite, a place he had only read about. After seeing it for the first time, Muir wrote that “He was overwhelmed by the landscape, scrambling down steep cliff faces to get a closer look at the waterfalls, whooping and howling at the vistas, jumping tirelessly from flower to flower.” Needless to say, he was impressed.

Meanwhile, Theodore Roosevelt was busy working up to being elected President of the United States. Along the way he miraculously still found time to pursue his other obsessions, soldering, hunting, self defense, conservation, nature, history and writing. By 1901 Roosevelt had made it to the White House.

Muir returned to Yosemite numerous times, even working one season as a shepherd there. He built a small cabin along Yosemite Creek where he lived for two years. He often explored Yosemite’s back country alone, bringing “only a tin cup, a handful of tea, a loaf of bread, and a copy of Emerson.” The fact that naturalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson greatly inspired Muir goes without saying. Emerson himself showed up in Yosemite in 1871 with a number of academics. The admiration between Muir and Emerson was mutual, so much so that Emerson offered Muir a teaching position at Harvard University, which Muir declined. “I never for a moment thought of giving up God’s big show,” he later wrote, “for a mere profship!”

In 1892 Muir received an invitation to join an “alpine club” for people who love the mountains. Muir was elected its first president, a job he held for the rest of his life. At that time Yosemite was under control of the State of California and there was a movement afoot to reduce its size by one-half. The Sierra Club passionately opposed this plan.

Muir became acquainted with Gifford Pichot, a national figure in the conservation movement and the first head of the U.S. Forest Service. The two men had opposing views on how to handle wilderness. Pinchot’s vision was to preserve forests for “long-term commercial use” (i.e. logging). Muir took a much more idealistic view, claiming wilderness were “places for rest, inspiration, and prayers.” The friendship between the two men ended when Pinchot advocated sheep grazing in forest reserves. Muir then promptly told him, “I don’t want anything more to do with you.”

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant in 1864 which put Yosemite under the authority of the federal government. Muir took it one step further when he successfully led the movement to establish Yosemite as a Nation Park, yet there was no national organization to protect and manage these special places.

In 1901 Muir published his book “Our National Parks,” which was read by none other than President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt wrote a letter to Muir requesting him to be his guide when visiting 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.” In 1903 they made the invitation a reality.

The men camped out under the sequoias, even waking up one morning covered with a thin layer of snow. What was discussed between the two ardent nature lovers is personal, and went to their graves with them. But from then on the helm of our great country was pointed toward establishing a national system to manage our finest, most spectacular wilderness areas.

In 1906 Roosevelt signed a federal law adding Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove to Yosemite National Park after a 17-year campaign led by Muir and the Sierra Club. John Muir died in 1914, only two years before Congress created the National Park Service.

The mission of the National Park Service is to “preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” When this finally was achieved, I like to think Roosevelt may have toasted his friend and old Yosemite guide.

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.


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