WE’RE sitting in the Californian June morning heat, exhausted but pleased with ourselves, at the top of Yosemite Falls, North America’s tallest waterfall and one of the world’s highest, having toiled up the dusty zig-zag trail to the top of the upper falls, 2,425ft above the green valley floor.
At our feet, the water, having flowed amid the pines and granite outcrops of Yosemite Creek, creams its way out into the void, vanishing beyond our giddy sightlines. Further up the astoundingly beautiful Yosemite Valley, its lush meadows and forests cusped in towering granite verticals, the massive eminence of Half Dome presiding over everything like the brow of Moby Dick.
Almost a century and a half before us, John Muir, the Scots-born pioneer conservationist, evangelical nature writer and patriarch of the American national parks system, went rather farther than we did in his near-mystical enthusiasm for immersing himself – literally – in his surroundings. He worked his way behind the fall to view the moon through it, finding himself “in fairyland, between the dark wall and the wild throng of illuminated waters”, but suffered sudden disenchantment when, “like the witch scene in Alloway Kirk, ‘in an instant all was dark’,” and he narrowly escaped being carried off by the torrent.
What a man was Muir, whose family emigrated from his native Dunbar to Wisconsin when he was 12 and he eventually burst out of the straitjacket of a bleak Calvinism enforced by a brutal father. Now widely regarded as the father of the American conservation movement, he first arrived in Yosemite, California, in 1868, herding sheep through its high Alpine meadows. Gazing for the first time across the spectacularly beautiful valley, Muir underwent an epiphany, deciding that the exploration and celebration of Yosemite wild places would be his vocation. He campaigned for the creation of a National Park at Yosemite and eventually took President Theodore Roosevelt, a keen outdoorsman, camping there, convincing him of the need to further extend federal protection for the area.
A visionary who saw “sermons in stones, storms, trees, flowers, and animals brimful of humanity”, Muir would think nothing of riding an avalanche or climbing to the top of a storm-tossed pine just for the experience.
Ours were rather more sedate amblings, although we did climb those falls, and the slightly lower, but arguably even more beautiful, Vernal and Nevada Falls. We felt a semi-proprietorial interest in the place: back home, after all, we had walked the John Muir Way through East Lothian, following it in stages to Muir’s home town of Dunbar. Earlier this year, plans were announced to mark 2014’s centenary of Muir’s death by extending the walk from Dunbar right across Scotland, through the Trossachs to the Clyde, whence the young Muir set sail for America in 1849.
Compared to its East Lothian counterpart, the John Muir Trail winding through Yosemite does rather win out in the scenery stakes. Apart from puffing up waterfall trails, we took the softer option of a coach trip to Glacier Point with its breathtaking views – and where Ansel Adams took his iconic photographs of Yosemite, and we paid obeisance to the mighty sequoias of Mariposa Grove, some of the oldest living things on the planet (among which Muir camped with Roosevelt).
Muir famously declared that, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilised people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity...” What might he have made, however, of the estimated four million, nerve-shaken or otherwise, who converge on the park annually? Scott Gediman, the National Park Service’s assistant superintendent for public affairs at Yosemite, explains the challenges of balancing the demands of conservation and tourism – pointing to measures such as urging visitors to take the park shuttle buses rather than use their vehicles, putting boardwalks over the more environmentally sensitive meadows, issuing permits for wilderness climbing and camping.
“You get environmentalists saying that Muir would roll over in his grave at things like the rafting stand or the ice- cream stall, and that Yosemite valley is too developed – but we have those four million people every year and,” he laughed, “they’re not like John Muir, taking breadcrumbs and tea for weeks in the wilderness.”
Gediman doesn’t relish the prospect of having to limit numbers entering the park, but concedes that it remains a possibility. “It’s not perfect but we do a pretty good job,” he says, pointing to conservation successes such as curtailing conifer encroachment on the meadows: “If John Muir could see them today, the meadows look great, the trails are great. Ecologically, the park is in very good shape.”
The juggling act won’t have been helped by an outbreak of rodent-borne hantavirus, affecting numerous individuals who stayed in Yosemite since my visit, three of whom died. As a result, 91 tent-cabins in the valley’s Curry Village have been closed indefinitely, although the park remains open under medical advice (for updates, see www.yosemiteexperience.com/hantavirus-in-yosemite).
Back in June, we drove out of the valley and up to the high Tuolumne Meadows where in 1869 Muir herded sheep, his surroundings prompting the wandering Scot to record: “All the glacier meadows are beautiful, but few are so perfect as this one.”
If there is such a thing as a “John Muir moment”, I think I experienced it there, rather than amid the headier heights of the valley, sitting by the lapping waters of Dog Lake, breathing that resin-laced air and listening to the sigh of the pine tops in the breeze, snow-mottled Sierra peaks rising in the distance. I kept an eye out for bears, but the only disturbance was a deer munching in the nearby shade. The rangers refer to Yosemite’s population of black bears as the Einsteins of the bear world, so smart are they at detecting and filching human food. They’re expert car breakers – one notice reported eight break-ins by bears into occupied but insufficiently secured premises within the past week.
So far as the 2014 centenary of John Muir’s death is concerned, Gediman is a little equivocal concerning the man whose likeness adorns the California State Quarter he hands me. He points out that 2014 is also the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln signing the act that made over the valley to be “held for public use, resort and recreation”, four years before Muir was first entranced by the area.
“People seem to think Muir was born and died here, yet if you look at his entire life, he didn’t spend a lot of time here. There’s a misunderstanding sometimes of his actual contribution.”
But that contribution, Gediman continues, “can’t be underestimated, both in terms of what he did from a tangible standpoint and also of the way he shifted thinking in this country, so he’s a huge part of Yosemite National Park and of the conservation movement in general.”
THE FACTS: Bon Voyage Travel & Tours is currently offering two nights in San Francisco at the Argonaut Hotel, plus five nights at the Yosemite View Lodge, plus car hire, at £1,495 per person. Bon Voyage also offers a Tauck luxury escorted tour, “John Muir’s California” covering Yosemite and Sequoia national parks, from £3,675. For details, tel: 0800 316 0194 or visit www.bon-voyage.co.uk