Remembering John Muir's Legacy on his Birthday

Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir riding horses

Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grass and gentians of glacier meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of Nature's darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.”

--John Muir, commenting on Yellowstone National Park

John Muir’s Legacy

This week is National Park Week and today is the birthday of renowned Naturalist and Preservationist, John Muir. Born in Scotland, raised in Wisconsin, and formed by California’s Sierra Nevada, John Muir was rooted not by place, but by a spirit of wild passion for the world’s greatest landscapes. This great conservationist of the late 19th century wrote books, articles, and painted, inspiring others to appreciate the wilderness. Muir is renowned for being the leader of the Western preservationist movement that led to Yosemite in California becoming a national park, along with a monument in Arizona that became the Petrified Forest National Park.


John Muir was living in Dunbar, Scotland, when his family decided to relocate to the United States when he was 11-years-old. Fountain Lake Farm in Wisconsin was his family’s homestead, a place where Muir first experienced a connection with nature. Later, he left to attend University of Wisconsin to study science, philosophy and literature.

After his studies, Muir traveled extensively, from Mississippi to Canada and throughout the Midwest. In Indiana, he worked in a factory that left him temporarily blind. Consequently, this reinforced his love of the outdoors. He planned a trip to see Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. But due to sickness, he cancelled his plans, regrouped and instead went to California. As soon as he arrived, Muir was enthralled with Yosemite and the Nevada mountains. He spent his time climbing and exploring the region, working at a ranch and then a sawmill just to stay in the area.

In 1871, Muir wrote his first article for publication, “Yosemite Glaciers,” published in the New York Tribune. John Muir’s work going forward was met with acclaim by both the scientific and artistic communities.Muir focused his efforts towards his ultimate vision of preservation and the establishment of National Parks. In the 1880’s, Muir advocated for greater federal preservation as well as a halt on the destruction of natural resources, especially in the Yosemite region. It was his mission to get the government to establish more national parks and he fought for the conversion of Yosemite from state park to national park, only to be met with fierce opposition. Nevertheless, in 1890, both Sequoia National Park and Yosemite National Park were established and later in 1896, Muir was appointed advisor to the National Forestry Commission under President Cleveland.

In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt was inaugurated, giving hope to Muir in his quest for federal preservation. In a 1903 letter, Roosevelt personally asked Muir to take him on a trip through Yosemite. Muir accepted. During the four days spent together, Muir detailed the vast and beautiful natural history of California and the importance of its protection. Roosevelt was enchanted by this trip, taken with the grand sequoias, native wildlife, and horseback ride to Glacier Point, where he woke up covered in snow. During the rest of Roosevelt’s time in office, he set aside 148,000,000 acres of forest reserves and doubled the number of national parks.

In 1906, Muir convinced Roosevelt to establish the Petrified Forest National Monument to protect the fossilized trees of Arizona. Later in life,  John Muir fought efforts to build a dam and reservoir in one of the valleys of Yosemite National Park, called Hetch Hetchy. For years the petitioning by Muir worked, until 1913 when newly elected president, Woodrow Wilson, signed the act to build the dam. Just over a year after this loss at Hetch Hetchy, Muir passed away from pneumonia.


A mere two years after his death, in 1916 the National Park Service was established to regulate the parks for which Muir so vehemently advocated. The work of John Muir endures in Yellowstone and several other National Parks, as well as through his many books and articles. Muir’s legacy continues to inspire people to respect the land, and explore America’s wilderness.