John Muir, Naturally

John Muir (1838 - 1914) describes the California wilderness and his love of Yosemite Valley

John Muir seated on rock with lake and trees in background.
John Muir seated on rock with lake and trees in background.

Few people have written as evocatively about California’s natural beauty as Scottish-born naturalist and Sierra Club founder John Muir. His letters describing his travels in the state’s wilderness are rich with colorful descriptions, especially his writings about Yosemite Valley. After taking President Theodore Roosevelt on a camping trip to Yosemite in 1903, he convinced Roosevelt to designate Yosemite as a national park.

JULY 26, 1868

Fate and flowers have carried me to California, and I have reveled and luxuriated amid its plants and mountains nearly four months. I am well again, I came to life in the cool winds and crystal waters of the mountains, and, were it not for a thought now and then of loneliness and isolation, the pleasure of my existence would be complete.

NOV. 1, 1868

I think that you will find in California just what you desire in climate and scenery, for both are so varied. … I rode across the seasons in going to the Yosemite last spring. I started from the Joaquin in the last week of May. All the plain flowers, so lately fresh in the power of full beauty, were dead. … After riding for two days in this autumn I found summer again in the higher foothills. Flower petals were spread confidingly open, the grasses waved their branches all bright and gay in the colors of healthy prime, and the winds and streams were cool. Forty or fifty miles further into the mountains, I came to spring. The leaves on the oak were small and drooping, and they still retained their first tintings of crimson and purple, and the wrinkles of their bud folds were distinct as if newly opened. … A few miles farther “onward and upward” I found the edge of winter. Scarce a grass could be seen. The last of the lilies and spring violets were left below; the winter scales were still shut upon the buds of the dwarf oaks and alders; the grand Nevada pines waved solemnly to cold, loud winds among rushing, changing storm-clouds. Soon my horse was plunging in snow ten feet in depth.

DEC. 10, 1872

The day after the “storm” (a most damnable name for the flowering of the clouds) I lay out on the meadow to eat a grand meal of newmade beauty, and about midday I suddenly wanted the outside mountains, and so cast off my coat and ran up towards Glacier Point. I soon was near [the] top, and was very hungry for the view that was so grandly mingled and covered with snow and sky, but the snow was now more than ten feet deep and dusty and light as winter fog. I tried to wallow and swim it, but the slope was so steep that I always fell back and sank out of sight, and I was fully baffled. I had a glorious slide downwards.

SEPT. 9, 1907

I am anxious that the Yosemite National Park may be saved from all sorts of commercialism and marks of man’s work other than the roads, hotels etc. required to make its wonders and blessings available. For as far as I have seen there is not in all the wonderful Sierra, or indeed in the world another so grand and wonderful and useful a block of Nature’s mountain handiwork.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
More From Letters