Photography: © CORBIS
Photography: © CORBIS

The cofounder of the Sierra Club had a profound influence on the creation of the National Park Service.

His name is synonymous with conservation in the American West, but John Muir was a Scotsman. Born in 1838 in Dunbar, East Lothian, the third of eight children, Muir came with his family to the United States in 1849. The immigrants settled in Wisconsin, where Muir became a farm boy and lover of the natural world. It was through near tragedy in his late 20s that his enjoyment of nature became a life’s devotion. Working in a carriage parts shop in Indianapolis in 1867, Muir suffered an eye injury that left him blind for a month. When his sight returned, he was determined to gaze on fields and woods.

In nature, he would throw off his strict religious upbringing and find his own brand of salvation. Muir began wandering the world, walking from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico, then sailing to Cuba and Panama and up the West Coast. Arriving in San Francisco in March 1868, Muir quickly left for the wilderness, finding his heart’s home in California’s Sierra Nevada (“the most divinely beautiful of all the mountain chains I have ever seen”) and Yosemite, where he herded sheep his first summer.

His time in the wild set him on a path to becoming a world-renowned naturalist, conservationist, explorer, author, and Sierra Club cofounder and first president (as well as the figure California picked to put on its quarter with his beloved Yosemite in the background) — in sum, the single most symbolic figure of America’s devotion to its treasure trove of superlative landscapes.

As he wrote about his conservation ideals, Muir’s fame grew — and so did the number of famous visitors (including Ralph Waldo Emerson) showing up at his humble pine cabin. Muir’s dedication to the national park idea, and to the wild lands of the Sierra Nevada in particular, culminated in the creation of Yosemite and Sequoia national parks in 1890 (he was also a prime mover in the creation of Mount Rainier, Petrified Forest, and Grand Canyon national parks). In 1901, he published Our National Parks, which spurred the imagination of President Theodore Roosevelt, who visited Muir in Yosemite in 1903 for a now-famous camping trip during which the like-minded men laid the groundwork for some of the most important conservation legislation in the country’s history, including the establishment of the U.S. Forest Service.

For more than four decades and until his death in 1914, Muir would serve as a figurehead for the national park ideal and man’s essential connection to nature. He wrote reams of ecstatic prose on the subject, eloquently imparting his message throughout the West and living by example — to the point of climbing a 100-foot spruce tree in a raging Sierra windstorm just to feel closer to it all.

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread,” Muir noted. “Places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike. This natural beauty hunger is made manifest ... in our magnificent National Parks — Nature’s sublime wonderlands, the admiration and joy of the world.”

From the Best of the West feature in the May/June 2012 issue.