Paradise Found

Two Famous Men, a Camping Trip and a Victory Dance: How Yosemite Became a National Park

Conservationist John Muir's camping trip to Yosemite Valley with President Theodore Roosevelt in May 1903 led to Yosemite being designated as a National Park.
Conservationist John Muir’s camping trip to Yosemite Valley with President Theodore Roosevelt in May 1903 led to Yosemite being designated as a National Park.

They might have been a comedy team performing an eccentric dance in one of the many vaudeville houses that dotted the American landscape in 1903. The tall, impossibly thin, ridiculously bearded one was doing a joyful Scottish jig. His beefy partner in merriment was hopping around, shouting, “Hurrah! Hurrah!”

But this odd-couple spectacle wasn’t being played out on a wooden stage in front of painted scenery under the glare of spotlights. It was taking place high atop a dome in Yosemite State Park, in front of a blazing fire and under a Northern California night sky. And this was a victory dance of sorts. One of the pair — the tall, lanky fellow — was “the patron saint of the environmental movement,” John Muir. The other was the president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt.

Were they celebrating their mutual love of the outdoors and their shared appreciation of nature’s wonders, large and small? Yes, unquestionably so. Yet, symbolically, this victory dance was in anticipation of what was about to be accomplished for all Americans. When Muir introduced Roosevelt, another great naturalist, to his beloved Yosemite in May 1903, these combined forces of nature propelled the conservation movement into an imperative and the National Park Service into existence 13 years later.

We all have reason to join in their dance this year. Spring 2018 marks the 115th anniversary of the daffy duet but, more importantly, it marks the 150th anniversary of the first time John Muir set eyes on Yosemite. That was the first step leading to what has been rightly called the most important camping trip in American history, uniting Muir and Roosevelt.

Muir first wandered into the Yosemite Valley in 1868. The 30-year-old Scottish immigrant beheld what he considered nothing less than an American Eden. But unlike the garden described in the book of Genesis, this earthly paradise would not be lost — not if John Muir had anything to say about it. And he had quite a lot to say, often employing lofty religious terms and the passion of a true believer to preach what would become his gospel of nature, conservation and preservation.

With his scarecrow build, scruffy attire and long scraggly beard, the charismatic and deeply spiritual Muir somewhat resembled an Old Testament prophet in the wilderness. He arrived in California after years of roaming, searching for a direction, a cause, a purpose. He found all of that and much more in his beloved Yosemite. “I was tormented with soul hunger,” he wrote of his youthful travels. “I was on the world. But was I in it?”

In May 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt (center), camped with conservationist John Muir on Glacier Point in Yosemite Valley, leading to Yosemite's designation as a National Park.
In May 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt (center), camped with conservationist John Muir on Glacier Point in Yosemite Valley, leading to Yosemite’s designation as a National Park.

The naturalist, author, engineer, botanist, geologist, glaciologist and environmental philosopher founded the Sierra Club in 1892 and became “the father of the National Parks.” In 1903, he was joined by Roosevelt in California. TR had sent Muir a letter, arguing that there was no one else who could properly show him Yosemite. Roosevelt wrote that he wanted “to drop politics absolutely for four days and just be out in the open with you.” He got his wish. So did Muir, who realized, “I might be able to do some forest good in talking freely around the campfire.”

Roosevelt arrived in Yosemite on May 15. They began with a buggy ride out to the “big tree” area of the Mariposa Grove. Reporters and local officials hoped to snag the president for social gatherings, but TR was having none of it. Instead, he took off with Muir for the sequoias near Sunset Tree. They talked over a campfire, Muir making his bid for “forest good.”

The next day, they rode to Glacier Point, where an iconic photograph of them was taken. This was literally the great summit meeting of the conservation movement. They had just agreed that protection of Yosemite National Park should be transferred from the state of California to the federal government. They hiked in a snowstorm to Sentinel Dome, setting the stage for that jubilant dance.

Making a torch from a branch in that campfire, Muir said to Roosevelt, “Watch this.” He then touched the bottom limbs of a dead pine tree on a nearby ledge, and the flames raced upward. Muir broke into his jig. Even more “dee-lighted,” Roosevelt jumped around the blaze, bellowing, “That’s a candle it took 500 years to make. Hurrah for Yosemite, Mr. Muir!”

How much TR learned from and was influenced by Muir can be found in a 1915 column paying tribute to the patron saint of the environmental movement and, indeed, it contains a Biblical reference. Muir, Roosevelt said, “was a great factor” in reserving the great natural wonders that “make California a veritable Garden of the Lord.”

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