from My First Summer in the Sierra

We owe our understanding of the role of glaciers in the formation of Yosemite to John Muir. He first presented evidence of glacial erosion in the creation of the valley in 1874.1 But we owe him much more. John Muir is considered by many to be the most important figure in the history of the environmental movement in the United States. He first explored the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California and Yosemite in 1869. He was thirty years old at the time and had been a student of botany and geology at the University of Wisconsin. He began his way west in 1867 with a solo hike through the southern United States to the Gulf of Mexico, by boat to Cuba and Panama, across the isthmus to the Pacific, and then north by steamer to California. The excerpts that follow are based on the journal Muir kept in the summer of 1869, his first full summer in the Sierra. It was edited for publication in 1911 just three years before his death. Muir's summer began in early June along the Tuolumne River northwest of Yosemite in the foothills of the Sierras.


June 3, 1869. —This morning provisions, camp-kettles, blankets, plant-press, etc., were packed on two horses, the flock headed for the tawny foothills, and away we sauntered in a cloud of dust: Mr. Delaney, bony and tall, with sharply hacked profile like Don Quixote, leading the pack-horses, Billy, the proud shepherd, a Chinaman and a Digger Indian to assist in driving for the first few days in the brushy foothills, and myself with notebook tied to my belt.2
By July 10 the group was camped above Crane Flat in Yosemite in an open expanse of lightly forested meadow suitable for pasture (upper left corner of Yosemite Valley and Yosemite Valley Topographic maps):
July 10. —...On through the forest ever higher we go, a cloud of dust dimming the way, thousands of feet, trampling leaves and flowers, but in this mighty wilderness they seem but a feeble band, and a thousand gardens will escape their blighting touch. They cannot hurt the trees, though some of the seedlings suffer, and should the woolly locusts be greatly multiplied, as on account of dollar value they are likely to be, then the forests, too, may in time be destroyed. Only the sky will then be safe, though hid from view by dust and smoke, incense of a bad sacrifice. Poor, helpless, hungry sheep, in great part misbegotten, without good right to be, semi-manufactured, made less by God than man, born out of time and place, yet their voices are strangely human and call out one’s pity.2

On July 15 Muir had his first view of Yosemite Valley. His approach was different than most. Leaving his companions he hiked down the west side of Indian Canyon (see Yosemite Valley Topographic Map, 1911) to the north rim of the valley:

July 15. — After luncheon I made haste to high ground, and from the top of the ridge on the west side of Indian Cañon gained the noblest view of the summit peaks I have ever yet enjoyed. Nearly all the upper basin of the Merced [River] was displayed, with its sublime domes and cañons, dark upsweeping forests, and glorious array of white peaks deep in the sky, every feature glowing, radiating beauty that pours into our flesh and bones like heat rays from fire. Sunshine over all; no breath of wind to stir the brooding calm. Never before had I seen so glorious a landscape, so boundless an affluence of sublime mountain beauty....""Following the ridge which made a gradual descent to the south, I came at length to the brow of that massive cliff that stands between Indian Cañon and Yosemite Falls, and here the far-famed valley came suddenly into view throughout almost its whole extent. The noble walls—sculptured into endless variety of domes and gables, spires and battlements and plain mural precipices—all a-tremble with the thunder tones of the falling water. The level bottom seemed to be dressed like a garden, —sunny meadows here and there, and groves of pine and oak; the river of Mercy sweeping in majesty through the midst of them and flashing back the sunbeams. The great Tissiack, or Half-Dome, rising at the upper end of the valley to a height of nearly a mile, is nobly proportioned and life-like, the most impressive of all the rocks, holding the eye in devout admiration, calling it back again and again from falls or meadows, or even the mountains beyond, —marvelous cliffs, marvelous in sheer dizzy depth and sculpture, types of endurance. Thousands of years have they stood in the sky exposed to rain, snow, frost, earthquake and avalanche, yet they still wear the bloom of youth.2

Muir's thoughts in his private journal were just the beginning. Publically over the next forty years he was to become a tireless advocate for Yosemite, its preservation, and conservation in general.

To Start You Thinking -

1) Reread Muir's entries for June 3 and July 10. Why had he come into the mountains? What were the "woolly locusts" he described and why did he describe them this way?

2) Muir uses the word sublime repeatedly. The word is rarely used today and when it is its meaning is not entirely the same as it was in the 19th century. The meaning you have been given is what Muir and other writers of his time intended. Look up the word in a modern dictionary. Describe how its meaning today differs from the way Muir used it over 100 years ago.

3) Muir's description of Yosemite is in many cases in royal, even religious, terms. List words from the July 15 entry in his journal that suggest majestic or religious reverence.

John Muir, Studies in the Sierras (1874), (San Francisco: The Sierra Club, 1950)

2excepts from John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra, Chapters 4, 5, and 8, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911).

image from Library of Congress, American Memory Collection, ID cph 3b00011

Last modified in February, 2011 by Rick Thomas