Written by Jason Epperson, Storytelling by Abigail Trabue

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt ditched his secret service detail to go camping in the woods of Yosemite with celebrated naturalist John Muir. Through his writings, Muir taught the importance of experiencing and protecting our natural world. That camping trip changed the face of conservation in the United States. Together, sleeping on the forest floor below the sequoias, they laid the foundation for the next century of federal land preservation.

The Land He Loved the Most

“Of all the mountain ranges I have climbed, I like the Sierra Nevada the best. Though extremely rugged, with its main features on the grandest scale in height and depth, it is nevertheless easy of access and hospitable; and its marvelous beauty, displayed in striking and alluring forms, woes the admiring wanderer on and on, higher and higher, charmed and enchanted. Benevolent, solemn, fateful, pervaded with divine light, every landscape glows like a countenance hallowed in eternal repose; and every one of its living creatures, clad in flesh and leaves, and every crystal of its rocks, whether on the surface shining in the sun or buries miles deep in what we call darkness, is throbbing and pulsing with the heartbeats of God. All the world lies warm in one heart, yet the Sierra seems to get more light than other mountains. The weather is mostly sunshine embellished with magnificent storms, and nearly everything shines from base to summit,—the rocks, streams, lakes, glaciers, irised falls, and the forests of silver fir and silver pine. And how bright is the shining after summer showers and dewy nights, and after frosty nights in spring and autumn, when the morning sunbeams are pouring through the crystals on the bushes and grass, and in winter through the snow-laden trees!

John Muir

Of this glorious range the Yosemite National Park is a central section, thirty-six miles in length and forty-eight miles in breadth. The famous Yosemite Valley lies in the heart of it, and it includes the head waters of two of the most songful streams in the world; innumerable lakes and waterfalls and smooth silky lawns; the noblest forests, the loftiest granite domes, the deepest ice-sculptured canyons, the brightest crystalline pavements, and snowy mountains soaring into the sky twelve and thirteen thousand feet, arrayed in open ranks and spiry pinnacled groups partially separated by tremendous cañyons and amphitheatres; gardens on their sunny brows avalanches thundering down their long white slopes, cataracts roaring gray and foaming in the crooked rugged gorges. and glaciers in their shadowy recesses working in silence, slowly completing their sculpture; new-born lakes at their feet, blue and green, free or encumbered with drifting icebergs like miniature Arctic Oceans, shining, sparkling, calm as stars.

Nowhere will you see the majestic operations of nature more clearly revealed beside the frailest, most gentle and peaceful things. Nearly all the park is a profound solitude. Yet it is full of charming company, full of God’s thoughts, a place of peace and safety amid the most exalted grandeur and eager enthusiastic action, a new song, a place of beginnings abounding in first lessons on life, mountain-building, eternal, invincible, unbreakable order; with sermons in stones, storms, trees, flowers, and animals brimful of humanity. During the last glacial period, just past, the former features of the range were rubbed off as a chalk sketch from a blackboard, and a new beginning was made. Hence the wonderful clearness and freshness of the rocky pages.”

Writing the West

In 1868, Muir walked through the waist-high wildflowers of the San Joaquin Valley into the high country for the first time. He wrote: “It seemed to me the Sierra should be called not the Nevada, or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light…the most divinely beautiful of all the mountain chains I have ever seen.”

He made his home there, and explored. He found living glaciers and conceived his theory that the Yosemite Valley was carved by them. In 1874, a series of articles entitled “Studies in the Sierra” launched his career as a writer. He eventually re-joined civilization and began traveling our great landscapes – from Alaska to Australia, South America, Africa, Europe, China, and Japan.

President Roosevelt was touring the country, and some of our prized wilderness including Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, when he wrote to Muir asking him to accompany him in Yosemite. The Yosemite Valley at the time had been returned from federal management to state management, and it was a wild west of ramshackle hotels and tours. Ranchers and developers were destroying the land for their own interest. The natural resources were virtually a free-for-all with no money or will to enforce laws in place to protect the area.

Roosevelt noted in the letter, “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.” Muir, however, knew it was all politics, and this was the chance for him to gain for Yosemite the support of the most powerful person in the country. It wasn’t hard.

There’s really only one account of the famous camping trip Roosevelt and Muir took, by Charlie Leidig, one of the few civilian rangers to accompany Roosevelt during his 1903 visit. Here is Leidig’s recorded account:

“They broke camp at Mariposa Grove and were on horses by 6:30 a.m. The president directed Leidig to “outskirt and keep away from civilization.” Leidig led the party down the Lightning Trail. They crossed the South Fork at Greeley’s and hit the Empire Meadows Trail. They especially avoided approaching the Wawona Hotel for fear the President would be brought in contact with members of his own official party which had remained for the night at Wawona. They had a cold lunch on the ridge east of Empire Meadows. There was lots of snow as they crossed towards Sentinel Dome; they took turns breaking trail through deep snow. In the Bridalveil Meadows the party plowed through 5 ft. of snow. The President mired down and Charley had to get a log to get him out. It was snowing hard and the wind was blowing.

On May 4, the party went down to Glacier Point for pictures that had been prearranged. As they left Glacier Point, the President rode in front dressed in civilian attire. The rangers wore blue overalls, chaps and spurs. They went into Little Yosemite Valley for lunch. Here they encountered a considerable crowd of valley visitors, since it had been widely advertised in the papers that the President was visiting the park.

There was considerable disagreement in the matter of plans for the Presidential visit. The President wanted a roughing trip and through Muir such a trip had been worked out. On the other hand, Mr. John Stevens, Guardian of the Valley under State administration, and certain of the commissioners, especially Jack Wilson from San Francisco, had made plans for a large celebration. The Chris Jorgensen studio home had been set aside for the President’s official use. A cook had been engaged from one of the best hotels in San Francisco to serve a banquet. The commissioner had arranged a considerable display of fireworks, which John Degnan claims amounted to some $1800 worth.

So there was considerable party awaiting the President at the top of Nevada Falls and Little Yosemite. The President requested that all the people be kept at a distance in order that he could carry out his desire for a “roughing trip,” so everybody was kept at a respectful distance.

When the party reached Camp Curry at 2 P.M., they found a big crowd of women in front of the camp. They had formed a line across the road in an attempt to stop the President. They all wanted to shake hands with him. Charlie Leidig states he was riding second in line with a Winchester rifle and six-shooter. His horse was a high spirited animal. The President said, “I am very much annoyed, couldn’t you do something?” Leidig replied, “follow me.” He gave spurs to his horse and as he reared, women fell apart and the President’s party went through the gap. The President waved his hat to the group in the road.

Accompanied by five or six members of his party, the President walked back across the Sentinel Bridge to his horse. Muir had accompanied the President to the Jorgensen studio. The original party of five mounted their horses and started down the valley to pick a campsite near Bridalveil Falls where Muir had suggested they spend the last night in camp. They went down the south side of the river followed by a big string of people on horseback, in buggies, surries, and others on foot. Leidig stated there must have been between 300 or 500, or possibly 1000 of them in the crowd, filling the meadows. As they reached their camping places on a grassy slope just south of the present road through Bridalveil Meadows, the President said to Leidig, “These people annoy me. Can you get rid of them?” Charlie said he walked out and told the crowd that the president was very tired and asked them to leave. They went — some of them even on tiptoe, so as not to annoy their President.

When Charlie returned to the campsite the President said, “Charlie I am hungry as Hell. Cook any damn thing you wish. How long will it take?”

Charlie told him it would take about 30 minutes, so the President lay on his bed of blankets and went to sleep and snored so loud that Leidig could hear him even above the crackling of the campfire.

After dinner, Muir and the President went out into the meadow until way after dark. When they returned they sat around the campfire where the President told them of his lion hunting trips.

People came again in the morning. Crowds could be seen all through the brush. Leidig kept them away. The stage came down containing the President’s official party. After breakfast, the President and Muir got into the stage and as they left the President called Leidig and Leonard to him and said, “Boys, I am leaving you. Good-bye, and God Bless you.”

Roosevelt Recounts

“Our greatest nature lover and nature writer, the man who has done most in securing for the American people the incalculable benefit of appreciation of wild nature in his own land, is John Burroughs. Second only to John Burroughs, and in some respects ahead even of John Burroughs, was John Muir. Ordinarily, the man who loves the woods and mountains, the trees, the flowers, and the wild things, has in him some indefinable quality of charm, which appeals even to those sons of civilization who care for little outside of paved streets and brick walls. John Muir was a fine illustration of this rule. He was by birth a Scotchman – a tall and spare man, with the poise and ease natural to him who has lived much alone under conditions of labor and hazard. He was a dauntless soul, and also one brimming over with friendliness and kindliness.

He was emphatically a good citizen. Not only are his books delightful, not only is he the author to whom all men turn when they think of the Sierras and northern glaciers, and the giant trees of the California slope, but he was also – what few nature lovers are – a man able to influence contemporary thought and action on the subjects to which he had devoted his life. He was a great factor in influencing the thought of California and the thought of the entire country so as to secure the preservation of those great natural phenomena – wonderful canyons, giant trees, slopes of flower-spangled hillsides – which make California a veritable Garden of the Lord.

It was my good fortune to know John Muir. He had written me, even before I met him personally, expressing his regret that when Emerson came to see the Yosemite, his (Emerson’s) friends would not allow him to accept John Muir’s invitation to spend two or three days camping with him, so as to see the giant grandeur of the place under surroundings more congenial than those of a hotel piazza or a seat on a coach. I had answered him that if ever I got in his neighborhood I should claim from him the treatment that he had wished to accord Emerson. Later, when as President I visited the Yosemite, John Muir fulfilled the promise he had at that time made to me. He met me with a couple of pack mules, as well as with riding mules for himself and myself, and a first-class packer and cook, and I spent a delightful three days and two nights with him.

The first night we camped in a grove of giant sequoias. It was clear weather, and we lay in the open, the enormous cinnamon-colored trunks rising about us like the columns of a vaster and more beautiful cathedral than was ever conceived by any human architect. One incident surprised me not a little. Some thrushes – I think they were Western hermit-thrushes – were singing beautifully in the solemn evening stillness. I asked some question concerning them of John Muir, and to my surprise found that he had not been listening to them and knew nothing about them. Once or twice I had been off with John Burroughs, and had found that, although he was so much older than I was, his ear and his eye were infinitely better as regards the sights and sounds of wildlife, or at least of the smaller wildlife, and I was accustomed unhesitatingly to refer to him regarding any bird note that puzzled me. But John Muir, I found, was not interested in the small things of nature unless they were unusually conspicuous. Mountains, cliffs, trees, appealed to him tremendously, but birds did not unless they possessed some very peculiar and interesting. In the same way, he knew nothing of the wood mice; but the more conspicuous beasts, such as bear and deer, for example, he could tell much about.

All next day we traveled through the forest. Then a snow-storm came on, and at night we camped on the edge of the Yosemite, under the branches of a magnificent silver fir, and very warm and comfortable we were, and a very good dinner we had before we rolled up in our tarpaulins and blankets for the night. The following day we went down into the Yosemite and through the valley, camping in the bottom among the timber.

There was a delightful innocence and good will about the man, and an utter inability to imagine that anyone could either take or give offense. Of this I had an amusing illustration just before we parted. We were saying goodbye when his expression suddenly changed, and he remarked that he had totally forgotten something. He was intending to go to the Old World with a great tree lover and tree expert from the Eastern States who possessed a somewhat crotchety temper. He informed me that his friend had written him, asking him to get from me personal letters to the Russian Czar and the Chinese Emperor; and when I explained to him that I could not give personal letters to foreign potentates, he said: “Oh, well, read the letter yourself, and that will explain just what I want.” Accordingly, he thrust the letter on me. It contained not only the request which he had mentioned, but also a delicious preface, which, with the request, ran somewhat as follows:

“I hear Roosevelt is coming out to see you. He takes a sloppy, unintelligent interest in forests, although he is altogether too much under the influence of that creature Pinchot, and you had better get from him letters to the Czar of Russia and the Emperor of China, so that we may have better opportunity to examine the forests and trees of the Old World.”

Of course I laughed heartily as I read the letter, and said, “John, do you remember exactly the words in which this letter was couched?” Whereupon a look of startled surprise came over his face, and he said: “Good gracious! there was something unpleasant about you in it; wasn’t there? I had forgotten. Give me the letter back.”

So I gave him back the letter, telling him that I appreciated it far more than if it had not contained the phrases he had forgotten, and that while I could not give him and his companion letters to the two rulers in question, I would give him letters to our Ambassadors, which would bring about the same result.

John Muir talked even better than he wrote. HIs greatest influence was always upon those who were brought into personal contact with him. But he wrote well, and while his books have not the peculiar charm that a very, very few other writers on similar subjects have had, they will nevertheless last long. Our generation owes much to John Muir.”

Yosemite National Park

Roosevelt returned to Washington enthusiastic about conserving America’s wild lands. While other’s thought the resources of the West could never be depleted, he now knew better. He pushed Congress to pass laws to protect wilderness. He transferred the management of the forest reserves to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, establishing the U.S. Forest Service. He created national monuments, parks, and wildlife sanctuaries — saving approximately 230 million acres of public land.

The Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias has been closed to the public since July 2015 for a major renovation, which is nearly finished. Located near Yosemite National Park’s southern entrance, the area receives more than 1 million visitors a year and includes roughly 550 giant sequoia trees, some of which are among the largest trees in the world, reaching 285 feet tall and 2,000 years old.

During the rehabilitation phase, crews have torn up asphalt surrounding trees, replaced pit toilets with modern flush toilets, and removed the gift shop and tram rides, which featured a chugging diesel truck pulling wagons full of tourists through the area. The project includes improvements to natural hydrology, a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk, an improved welcome plaza and a new energy efficient tram.

The nearly $40 million project, which was scheduled to conclude in late 2016 but was delayed due to heavy winter conditions, is set to re-open June 15th at 9 AM.

Along with the ancient giant sequoias, Southern California’s Yosemite National Park is known for its waterfalls, deep valleys, grand meadows, and much more within its 1,200 square miles of mountainous scenery.

The park is open year-round, but millions of tourists visit in the summer, so if you’re not staying in the park, it’s best to get there early. In the park, you can stay at The Majestic Yosemite Hotel or one of the private lodgings nearby.

Yosemite has 13 campgrounds; some are reservable while others operate on a first-come, first-served basis. From April through October, reservations can be difficult to come by, and the first-come, first-served campgrounds often fill up early each day. 95% of Yosemite National Park is designated as wilderness, making backcountry camping a very popular activity. A permit is required.

Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Yosemite National Park – National Park Service Website

Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias Set to Re-Open June 15 – RV Miles Article

Digital John Muir Exhibit – The Sierra Club

Roosevelt, Muir, and the Camping Trip – Library of Congress

America’s National Parks, Ken Burns – PBS John Muir Page

Roosevelt and Muir – Undiscovered Yosemite

Hiking in Teddy Roosevelt’s Footsteps in Yosemite – Perceptive Travel

John Muir Biography – The Sierra Club