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“Exploration of the Sierra Nevada” (1925)
by Francis P. Farquhar


John Muir

In 1868 there came to the Sierra for the first time the man who, more than any other, has given it world-wide fame. John Muir arrived in California in April of that year and immediately set out for the Yosemite accompanied by a young Englishman named Chilwell. They walked in by way of Coulterville and Crane Flat and, after eight or ten days in the Valley, returned via Wawona and the Mariposa Grove to Snelling where Muir spent the following winter on a sheep ranch. The Yosemite made a profound impression upon Muir who was then about thirty years old and was in a receptive mood for the inspiration that was to bring him into his great life work.

The next year Muir, in his eagerness to visit the Sierra, engaged as an extra hand in taking the flocks of sheep belonging to Pat Delaney into the upper basin of the Tuolumne. The story is beautifully told in the publication of Muir’s journal of the trip under the title of “My First Summer in the Sierra.” They followed the general course of the present Tioga Road to Tuolumne Meadows and Muir had plenty of time to make side trips and become familiar with the natural history of the region. He climbed Mount Hoffmann and spent a glorious day on North Dome overlooking Yosemite. Later he crossed Mono Pass and went down Bloody Canyon to Mono Lake. At the end of September he returned to Delaney’s ranch, his mind made up to revisit Yosemite and study it more intensively. He returned to Yosemite Valley in November and remained there all winter, and for several years thereafter Yosemite was his home.

Muir now began a series of trips through the Sierra and while he never described them systematically in terms of time and geography, he gathered from them the vivid impressions that are reproduced in his interpretations of nature and of geological history. From Muir’s various Publications 69 and from the recently published “Life and Letters of John Muir” by William Frederic Badè, it is possible, however, to trace many of his journeys.

In 1870 Muir accompanied Professor Joseph Le Conte and his party to the Tuolumne Meadows, Mount Dana and Mono Lake. It was in the following year, 1871, that Muir made his discovery of living glaciers in the Sierra in an amphitheatre at the base of Red Mountain and Merced Peak at the headwaters of the Merced River. He also climbed to the top of Mount Lyell and, at the end of the summer, was familiar with every canyon and lake in the upper Tuolumne and Merced regions. He descended the canyon of the Tuolumne, and in November made his first visit to Hetch Hetchy.

During most of the summer of 1872 Muir was pursuing his studies of the glacier system of the Merced and Tuolumne. With Galen Clark, he conducted a series of experiments in measuring the movement of glaciers on Mounts Lyell, Maclure and Hoffmann. He also accompanied William Keith, the artist, on a trip to Tuolumne Meadows and, leaving his friend for a few days, crossed over to Mount Ritter and, after a desperate scramble, succeeded in reaching the summit.

In 1873 Muir widened the field of his explorations and, after mother visit to the upper Yosemite regions, he set out in September, accompanied by Dr. Albert Kellogg, botanist, and William Sims, artist, on a trip to the Kings River region. Galen Clark accompanied them for the first two weeks of the journey, from the Mariposa Grove to the upper San Joaquin; the others continued across the South Fork of the San Joaquin to the divide between that river and the North Fork of the Kings. From this point Muir set out on a solitary journey for a few days and climbed the highest mountain at the head of the San Joaquin, which he supposed was the one named by the Whitney Survey Mount Humphreys. His description, however, clearly indicates that he was on one of the mountains a little farther south, probably Mount Darwin. A neighboring peak he named Mount Emerson in honor of Ralph Waldo Fireman with whom he had spent several days in Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove in May 1871.

Muir rejoined his companions and, continuing to the Kings River, they descended the 7,000 foot wall into the lower canyon below the junction of the South and Middle forks and climbed out on the other side to the Converse Basin. There they observed the destruction of the sequoia and pine forests by axe, saw, and dynamite. From Thomas’ Mill, they turned to the northeast and visited Kings River Canyon where, for the first time, Muir beheld this remarkable counterpart of Yosemite. Again leaving his companions for a few days, Muir climbed to the summit of what he supposed to be Mount Tyndall; but, as his description places it at the head of one of the tributaries of Kings River, he doubtless ascended what is now known as Junction Peak or possibly its neighbor, Mount Keith. Precise points of nomenclature and geological position were never of particular interest to Muir although in describing natural phenomena he was remarkably accurate. He continued his journey to the head-waters of the Kern and climbed some of the peaks between Tyndall and Whitney, very likely including the true Mount Tyndall.

Upon his return to Kings River Canyon, the party resumed their journey up Bubbs Creek and crossed Kearsarge Pass to Independence. Muir, more active than his companions, was eager to reach Mount Whitney. As will be seen later, the location of the true Mount Whitney had been obscured for several Years by mistakes of Hoffmann and King, and the error had been discovered only a few weeks before Muir and his party arrived in Owens Valley. His first journey to the mountain was with horse home by way of Cottonwood Creek. He left Independence on October 14, climbed the false Mount Whitney next day, and spent the following night without fire or food on one of the spires near the true Mount Whitney, dancing about all night to keep warm. Hampered by the care of a horse, he did not reach the summit of the highest peak, but returned to Independence. After two days of resting he set out again, this time on foot. Camping at timberline the second night, he reached the summit the following morning by 8 o’clock. In his original journal the date appears to be October 21. Here he found the records of Clarence King and Carl Rabe, the latter inscribed on a half-dollar as follows: “Notice—Gentlemen—the looky finder of this half a Dollar is wellkome to it. Carl Rabe—Sep 6th, 1873.” Muir says, “Of course, I replaced these records, as well as Carl Rabe’s half a dollar, but did not add my own name. I have never left my name on any mountain, rock, or tree in any wilderness I have explored or passed through, though I have spent ten years in the Sierra alone.” 70

After Muir’s return to Independence from this successful trip the party went north through Owens Valley to the region of Lake Tahoe.

In 1875 Muir took another extended trip through the Sierra. In June he visited the upper Yosemite region with William Keith, J. R. McChesney and John Swett, and then conducted a small party, including George B. Bayley and C. E. Washburn, on a journey south from Yosemite to the Kings River region and Mount Whitney. They followed a low route scarcely above the foothills until reaching Kings River, visited the sequoia forests and Kings River Canyon, and crossed Kearsarge Pass. Thence they ascended Mount Whitney on July 22. On their way back to Yosemite they skirted the eastern flank of the Sierra and returned by Bloody Canyon and Mono Pass.

The remainder of the summer was devoted to the famous journey through the forest belt from Yosemite south to the Sequoia groves of the Kaweah and Tule River regions, described in “Our National Parks.” It was on this trip that Muir met Hale Tharp and camped with him in Tharp’s hollow log near the Giant Forest; and it was probably then that Muir bestowed the name of Giant Forest on the great sequoia grove near the Marble Fork of the Kaweah.

Aroused by the destruction that he had witnessed in the forests by lumbermen and sheepmen, Muir became impressed with the urgent necessity of forest preservation, and on February 5, 1876, an article by him was published in the Sacramento Record Union in which he made an urgent appeal to the people of the State to take action, particularly against the devastations of the sheepmen whose flocks not only mined the watershed but whose lawlessness was causing the destruction of the forests themselves by incendiary fires.

In 1877 Muir was again in the Kings River region of the Sierra. In November, after visiting the big trees in Converse Basin for the purpose of studying their age, he scrambled down into the lower Kings River Canyon, at a point a little above the confluence of Boulder Creek, and made his way up the very bed of the canyon into what he termed the “Kings River Yosemite.” Crossing the divide by Copper Creek and Granite Basin, he descended to the Middle Fork and followed the river through Tehipite Valley to a point below the junction of the Middle and South forks whence he climbed out again to Converse Basin.

This excursion ended the first and greatest period of Muir’s explorations in the Sierra. Shortly thereafter he visited Alaska and from that time on travelled far and wide over the forest and mountain regions of the world. Yet throughout his life, he always turned to the Sierra Nevada as the most glorious region of all, and it was from the forests, canyons, mountains and glaciers of the Sierra that he derived the inspiration for his greatest writings and his most profound insight into the laws of nature. In “The Mountains of California” (page 5), he sings its praises:

Then it seemed to me the Sierra should be called not the Nevada, or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light. And after ten years spent in the head of it, rejoicing and wondering, bathing in its glorious floods of light, seeing the sunbursts of morning among the icy peaks, the noonday radiance on the trees and rocks and snow, the flush of the alpenglow, and a thousand dashing waterfalls with their marvelous abundance of irised spray, it stiff seems to on, above all them the Range of Light, the most divinely beautiful of all the mountain-chains I have ever seen.

————
69 The Mountains of California, 1894; Our National Parks, 1909; My First Summer in the Sierra, 1911; and numerous articles in magazine.

70 Letter from Muir to George W. Stewart, In Mount Whitney Club Journal, May 1903. The dates of Muir’s climbs in this letter are probably from memory, as they do not agree with the original journal.


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