Hiking Pioneers: John Muir and His Life Dedicated to Nature

Curated expert Hannah K. explores the life and legacy of John Muir, the naturalist famous for his key role in the creation of Yosemite National Park in California.

A black and white photo of John Muir sitting by a lake lined with trees

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

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America’s most influential naturalist, John Muir – also known as “John of the Mountains” and “Father of National Parks” – is most famous for his pivotal role in the creation of Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park in California. He was born in Scotland where he first found his love of nature while on walks with his grandfather. Later, he moved to America where he went to university and escaped the draft by moving to Ontario, where he reclaimed his love for the outdoors.

In the Hiking Pioneers series, I will be exploring hikers past to present who have done amazing things in the hiking community. From pioneers who achieved key milestones and helped establish change to present hikers breaking down barriers and setting goals, I’ll be deep diving into the life, achievements, and legacy of these truly inspiring outdoorsmen and women.

Growing up in California, the John Muir Trail was always in the back of my mind. It passes through my favorite National Parks and is close enough to drive to. John Muir and his love of Northern California inspired me to add him to the “Hiking Pioneer” list. His love for nature and determination to be one with it is inspiring to say the least.

A copy of John Muir's Wilderness Essays laying on a wooden table

Photo by Andrew Ridley

Early Life

Muir was born in Dunbar, Scotland on April 21, 1838. He was the third of eight children in his family and, as a young boy, often took walks with his grandfather. His love affair with nature started from a young age while on these excursions. Unfortunately, his father believed that anything that took away time from Bible studies was pointless and often gave his son lashings as a punishment. But Muir did not let his father stop him from falling in love with the great outdoors.

In 1849, the family moved to Wisconsin and started the Fountain Lake Farm, which is now deemed a historical landmark. When he was 22, Muir enrolled in the University of Wisconsin-Madison but left in 1864 to follow his brother to Ontario, Canada to avoid the draft. While in Canada he spent much of his time walking along the Niagara Escarpment and much of what today is Bruce Trail.

In 1866, Muir returned to the U.S. and settled in Indianapolis where he worked in a wagon wheel factory. An accident in the factory almost blinded him and changed his perspective - he knew what he wanted to do. In 1867, shortly after his accident, he walked 1,000 miles from Kentucky to Florida.

Hiking Achievements

After his 1,000-mile trek to Florida, he boarded a ship to Cuba and spent time in Havana studying shells and flowers. Eventually, he ended up in California. He spent a lot of time in Yosemite, a place he had once only read about.

In 1868, he hiked through San Joaquin Valley for the first time. By 1871, he found living glaciers that inspired him to later start writing, specifically a series called “Studies in the Sierras,” where he outlined his life in Yosemite, the beautiful experiences he had, and some geological features he found along the way. This launched his writing career.

After moving to Oakland and writing for a few years, he felt the need to travel more. From Oakland, he hiked throughout California, the Pacific Northwest, and Alaska - studying geological practices along the way.

“Going to the mountains is going home.” - John Muir

John Muir reminds me of a young Emeron or Thoreau- two leading transcendentalists. Here are some thoughts on transcendentalism today and the healing power of the mountains.

A mountain range at sunrise

Photo by Aaron Lee

Legacy

Today he is known as one of the greatest hiking pioneers, environmental activists, philosophers, writers, and much more. He wrote over 300 works, such as A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf and Letters to a Friend, co-founded the Sierra Club, and helped establish multiple national parks, including Mount Rainier National Park and the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona.

He changed the way much of the American public perceives its mountains, lakes, rivers, and deserts. His work earned him many dedications - from trails to highways to parks and more. His activism helped preserve Yosemite National Park - a mecca for climbers, hikers, and nature enthusiasts.

The John Muir Trail in Northern California passes through Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon - a beautiful trail dedicated to a man who helped establish the love for nature in this country. His environmental activism and literature is still referenced today and used to protect our natural lands.

If you’d like to connect with me about John Muir or need help finding the right gear for your next adventure into Yosemite, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me here on Curated.

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Although I've been hiking for most of my life, I didn't start backpacking and camping until college when I joined the University Outdoors Club at my school. My first backpacking trip was ambitious, the Batona Trail in the Pinelands in New Jersey done in two days. To do that, we had to walk a maratho...

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