This is an excerpt from an article published by BBC Travel in January, 2015. This won the 2016 Eureka! Award Grand Prize for the best California travel writing. Read the full story on BBC Travel.
Facing the setting sun, a buck with a towering rack of antlers stood silhouetted at the top of a rise. I’d surprised him, and he’d certainly surprised me. Somehow, in Yosemite National Park, one of the most famous places in the world, this glorious buck and I had found a moment of total solitude.
In large part, the fact that this encounter could even take place is thanks to a single, almost accidental trip. In March of 1868, an unknown Scottish-born wanderer and amateur botanist named John Muir arrived in San Francisco with plant-collecting gear and a thirst for the wild. Muir had finished an aimless 1,000-mile walk from Indiana to Florida, and planned to head next to South America to seek the source of the Amazon River and raft its length. However, a bout with malaria in Florida led him to contemplate a less strenuous journey, so he set course instead for California, where he’d read about the beauty of Yosemite Valley. A week-long visit to Yosemite turned into a five-year stint in the Sierra Nevada, and there blossomed a life-long passion for the wilderness that would change the face of global conservation.
One hundred years after Muir’s death, his initial 300-mile cross-California walk from San Francisco to Yosemite is not well known, but his conservation legacy lingers. In the United States, Muir is often called “the father of the national parks” both for his political advocacy through the environmental organisation the Sierra Club, which he cofounded in 1892, and also for his writing, which helped introduce the concept of wilderness conservation to new audiences around the world. Even today, in his home country, the Scottish Campaign for National Parks cites Muir as an inspiration for its continued efforts to turn more Scottish wilderness into national parks, and in April 2014 the new 134-mile trail from the town of Helensburgh to Muir’s birthplace of Dunbar was named in his honour.
By the time Muir arrived in San Francisco, Yosemite’s fame was already on the rise. Four years earlier, Abraham Lincoln had signed the Yosemite Grant Act, establishing Yosemite as a California State Park, the first land to be set aside by the US government for preservation and public use. Many more parks would follow suit, and Muir would be crucial to the process.
Muir knew the fastest route to Yosemite from San Francisco, but he didn’t take it. Instead, he chose the wildest: the one that would get him away from cities quickly and ensure wildflower spotting along the way. I recently followed Muir’s route by car, hoping to find what’s left of Muir’s California.