John Muir in the Eastern Sierra
Jul 14, 2021
2016 marks the 100th birthday of the National Park Service and it’s a landmark occasion for conservation efforts across the country. You can join in the celebration by getting out to enjoy some pristine wilderness on one of the free admission days at parks this fall.
When it comes to the creation of our National Parks, the role of John Muir (1838-1914) — famed naturalist, author, conservationist, and co-founder of the Sierra Club — can’t be understated. That’s one reason why you’ll find his name on forests and wilderness areas throughout California. He played a crucial part in securing protection for Yosemite and was a frequent visitor to the Eastern Sierra. Read on to learn more about his life and work.
“Then 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.” J. Muir, from The Yosemite (1912)
While Muir is most known for his time spent in Yosemite, he traveled extensively throughout the Eastern Sierra climbing, searching, and recording his observations. The area’s endless sea of mountain peaks, glacially-carved valleys, and serene alpine lakes greatly interested Muir and his accounts have encouraged the public to preserve these pristine environments. The John Muir Wilderness, located only minutes from downtown Mammoth Lakes, exists today in national recognition of Muir’s everlasting contributions.
Muir’s Early Life and Travels: The Buildup to Life in California
Born in Scotland in 1838, John Muir’s family emigrated to Wisconsin when he was eleven. Throughout his childhood, Muir was an adept learner and displayed an insatiable curiosity for the natural sciences. A two-year tenure at the University of Wisconsin further developed his childhood love for scientific study and refined his ability as a writer, a skill that proved critical in his later life.
Throughout his twenties, Muir worked several different jobs and traveled extensively throughout eastern North America. After a severe eye injury caused Muir to endure a lengthy rehabilitation period of inactivity and uncertainty, he vowed never to pursue a conventional career again. Muir’s childhood desire for exploration was rejuvenated, leading to an epic journey along the Gulf of Mexico and eventually to California via the Isthmus of Panama.
Muir in the Sierra Nevada
In 1868 Muir wandered into the legendary Sierra Nevada Mountains for the first time, passing through blooming wildflowers and majestic old-growth forests as he climbed up the western flanks. He quickly fell in love with the unforgettable Yosemite Valley and developed a life-long passion for the mountains, exploring vast expanses of the huge range for weeks at a time.
Within a few years of moving to California Muir discovered active glaciers within the Sierra Nevada, supporting his theory on the formation and shaping of the Yosemite Valley. These and many more observations and interpretations were published in 1874 in Muir’s legendary “Studies in the Sierra”. These articles launched Muir’s writing career and by 1890, his writing would persuade representatives to designate Yosemite and Kings Canyon national parks. At the time of his death, Muir had authored 10 books and over 300 articles recounting his travels.
Muir’s longest-lasting and arguably greatest contribution was the co-founding of the Sierra Club in 1882. Together with several eminent academics and writers, Muir formed the organization to preserve the magnificent beauty of the Sierra Nevada Mountains for the public. Today, the Sierra Club has over 2.5 million members promoting the continued preservation of natural lands.
Muir’s inherent love of the high country is apparent throughout his works and he tirelessly advocated for the preservation of the Sierra Nevada region until his passing in 1914. From his first book, The Mountains of California, to his final days as president of the Sierra Club, the Sierra Nevada Mountains continually inspired Muir.
Muir’s Influence on the Eastern Sierra Today
Muir’s battle for Yosemite conservation in the 1880’s was influential in the adoption of the National Forest system of public lands. In 1907 the huge Inyo National Forest district was created, establishing public lands throughout the Eastern Sierra and preserving this vast playground for future generations of explorers, naturalists, and visitors. From the epic slopes of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area to the trout-filled waters of the Lakes Basin, the Inyo National Forests provides endless recreation in and around Mammoth Lakes.
Bordering the Inyo National Forest, the John Muir Wilderness encompasses over 650,000 acres of breathtaking Eastern Sierra landscape. From mountain crest to deep-blue lakes and sweeping riparian meadows, this wilderness preserves many of the lands Muir explored throughout his tenure in the mountains. Designated by Congress in 1964, the John Muir Wilderness protects this incredible environment in the exact state Muir originally viewed it.
Accessing the John Muir Wilderness from Mammoth Lakes
As Muir said, “the mountains are calling” and Mammoth Lakes is the gateway to mountain adventure and the John Muir Wilderness Area. Dissected by the famed John Muir Trail (or JMT for short), this awesome tract of wilderness contains hundreds of miles of hiking trail awaiting recreation and exploration.
The John Muir Wilderness Area is easily accessed from the Mammoth Lakes Basin, which is located only minutes from downtown at the end of the Lake Mary Road. For those that prefer to forego driving, a free trolley runs from the Village at Mammoth to the Lakes Basin on 30 minute increments. You can also find more information regarding the Lakes Basin Trolley.
Other areas to access the John Muir Wilderness include Convict Lake and the local’s favorite, Sherwin Lakes. For more information about these hiking routes, visit the Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center on the way into town to speak with a National Forest representative.