John Muir was a naturalist, writer and conservationist perhaps best known as the founder of the Sierra Club. The man called the father of our national park system helped establish Yosemite and Sequoia national parks at a time when we didn’t have the extensive system we enjoy today. He loved nature from his earliest days, and it was a theme that would define his life.
There are so many interesting stories about this famed explorer whose 180th birthday is April 21 — fittingly, right before Earth Day. Here's just a sampling of facts about his fascinating life.
His roots were in Scotland
Muir was born on April 21, 1838, in Dunbar, Scotland and was one of eight children. He was active and adventurous and loved playing outside. Until he was 11, Muir attended the local schools of that small coastal town, according to the Sierra Club. But in 1849, the Muir family emigrated to the U.S., moving to Wisconsin. They first lived in Fountain Lake, and then settled in Hickory Hill Farm near Portage. Where ever he lived as a child, Muir loved to explore farms.
Fountain Lake Farm, where Muir lived as a child, is on the National Register of Historic places. (Photo: Royalbroi/Wikimedia Commons)
His dad was tough
Muir's father was a strict disciplinarian who treated Muir harshly, sometimes physically abusing him, reports the National Park Service. Muir's father was a Presbyterian minister who insisted the boy memorize the Bible, a practice that later influenced his writing.
Muir created this invention to regulate how much time he spent studying any individual book. (Photo: vige/flickr)
He was an inventor
Even though his dad wasn't a fan of his craftiness, Muir honed his mechanical skills and crafted a few small inventions. According to Biography, he created a horse feeder, a table saw, a wooden thermometer and a twist on an alarm clock: a device that pushed him out of bed early in the morning. In his early 20s, Muir took some of his inventions to the state fair in Madison where he won prizes and some local fame for his skills.
The outdoors lured him away from medical school
Muir studied science, philosophy and literature at the University of Wisconsin with plans to eventually go to medical school. But in college, he realized his true love was botany as he was influenced by the works of naturalist philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. After spending a summer hiking in the wilderness with friends, he gave up school to study botany and explore the natural world.
A U.S. postage stamp circa 1998 features Muir. (Photo: Boris15/Shutterstock)
An injury changed his life
Muir took odd jobs to support himself, including working at a carriage parts factory in Indianapolis. There he suffered an injury that left him temporarily blind. When he regained his sight, he was determined to devote the rest of his life to seeing nature. He said of the accident, "God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons."
He had years of wanderlust
After regaining his vision, Muir began traveling the world. At one point he walked 1,000 miles from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico. He sailed to Cuba, planning to eventually head to the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. But Muir became sick and decided he should go somewhere temperate to recover. He traveled to New York City, then traveled by boat to Panama, then took a train and a boat all the way to San Francisco, landing there in March 1868. Smithsonian magazine details this moment beautifully:
Muir would later famously, and perhaps apocryphally, recall that after hopping off the boat in San Francisco on March 28, 1868, he asked a carpenter on the street the quickest way out of the chaotic city. "Where do you want to go?" the carpenter replied, and Muir responded, “Anywhere that is wild.” Muir started walking east.
Though he would continue traveling, California became his home.
The 211-mile John Muir Trail stretches from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous U.S. (Photo: Fabio Achilli/flickr)
He was enthralled with Yosemite
Muir first became captivated with Yosemite while working as a shepherd, taking his flock to the mountains. According to the NPS, "In his excitement, he even climbed a very dangerous ridge by a waterfall and clung onto the rock face just so he could get closer to the water. He later recollected that he believed the experience was completely worth the risk." He hiked for weeks around the area and journaled about every wonderful thing he encountered. While leading geologists believed that earthquakes formed the valley, Muir developed a then-controversial theory that the valley had been carved by glaciers.
He wrote about nature
It wasn't enough for Muir to experience the beauty of nature; he wanted to share his appreciation for such natural wonders with the world. He began writing articles and articles for publications like the New York Tribune, Scribner's and Harper's magazine. His work focused on nature, the environment and conversation, developing a reputation in the scientific community and a popular public following, reports PBS. Later on in life, he eventually published 300 articles and 10 major books recounting all his travels.
He's the 'father of national parks'
President Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir went on a three-day camping trip that was significant in conservation history. (Photo: U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Region/flickr)
In 1890, Yellowstone was the only national park in existence. Muir, however, wanted the area of Yosemite that was a state park at the time to get national park status. Because he wrote so many passionate articles about his beliefs, many people wrote letters and some groups lobbied Congress in favor of establishing a new national park. Despite protests from loggers and some who viewed a park as a waste of resources, an act of Congress created both Yosemite and Sequoia national parks. Muir was later involved in the creation of Mount Rainier, Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon national parks. In 1892, Muir founded the Sierra Club to "do something for wildness and make the mountains glad" as he so eloquently put it.
When Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901, Muir was happy to have a conservationist ally in the Oval Office. In 1903, Muir and Roosevelt went camping above Yosemite Valley, where Muir asked for Roosevelt's help to preserve the beauty of the area. Roosevelt was impressed with Muir's plea. During his administration, Roosevelt set aside 148 million acres of forest reserves and the number of national parks doubled.