Summer in the Sierra Nevada


Photo credit: P. Lane

My hiking buddies and I recently completed our annual weeklong backpacking trip into the wilderness. This year we branched out from the beautiful Pacific Northwest and travelled down to the Sierra Nevada. None of us had hiked there before, and we’d heard great things about it. We selected a 60-mile loop that took us onto a section of the John Muir Trail, which stretches 210 miles between the Yosemite Valley and Mt. Whitney. Of course, I took my Kindle along, because after camp is set up, dinner eaten and the day’s ration of bourbon sipped, it’s still only 7 p.m. I wanted to read something tied to the place, and what could be more appropriate than John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra.

Muir, the Scottish-born, Wisconsin-raised naturalist, conservationist, and founding president of the Sierra Club, first arrived in the Sierra Nevada in 1869. As an excuse to wander far and wide, sketching and taking notes on the geology and botany of the mountains, he joined a group of sheep-herders moving their flock to the high-country pastures to graze. Muir annotated this trip in detail but didn’t actually publish the journal until 1911. By that time he was a celebrated man, the friend of the railroad baron Edward H. Harriman (who persuaded Muir to write about his life in the first place) and President Teddy Roosevelt (whom Muir persuaded to preserve the Yosemite Valley as a national park).

Greatly influenced by the transcendental writings of Emerson and Thoreau, Muir’s journal of that first summer is filled with wonder and awe at the pristine wilderness he found in the Sierra. This wonder, however, is tempered by his scientific training (he had studied the natural sciences at the University of Wisconsin in Madison), a curious and observant mind, and a keen ability to describe what he saw. For the armchair traveller, his journal makes a splendid introduction to this spectacular high-country wilderness.


Photo credit: T. Gething

“Here are many fine meadows imbedded in the woods, gay with Lilium parvum and its companions; the elevation, about eight thousand feet, seems to be suited for it–saw specimens that were a foot or two higher than my head.”

—John Muir

Photo credit: T. Gething

Photo credit: T. Gething

“Sunshine over all; no breath of wind to stir the brooding calm. Never before had I seen so glorious a landscape, so boundless an affluence of sublime mountain beauty.”

—John Muir

Photo credit: P. Lane

Photo credit: P. Lane

“The magnitudes of the rocks and trees and streams are so delicately harmonized they are mostly hidden. Sheer precipices three thousand feet high are fringed with tall trees growing close like grass on the brow of a lowland hill…. Waterfalls, five hundred to one or two thousand feet high, are so subordinated to the mighty cliffs over which they pour that they seem like wisps of smoke, gentle as floating clouds, though their voices fill the valley and make the rocks tremble.”

—John Muir

Photo credit: P. Lane

Photo credit: P. Lane

“The air is distinctly fragrant with balsam and resin and mint—every breath of it a gift we may well thank God for. Who could ever guess that so rough a wilderness should yet be so fine, so full of good things.”

—John Muir

Photo credit: P. Lane

Photo credit: P. Lane

“The surface of the ground, so dull and forbidding at first sight, besides being rich in plants, shines and sparkles with crystals: mica, hornblende, feldspar, quartz, tourmaline. The radiance in some places is so great as to be fairly dazzling, keen lance rays of every color flashing, sparkling in glorious abundance, joining the plants in their fine, brave beauty-work…”

—John Muir



Filed under Books, Quotes

14 responses to “Summer in the Sierra Nevada

  1. GORGEOUS! What a wonderful trip this must have been and made all the better in the company of Muir!

    • Thanks, Letizia. It was one of our finest hikes yet, and we have hiked in some beautiful places (like the Olympic Mountains). Reading Muir while trekking through the Sierras made me want to refresh my knowledge of geology.

  2. A treat to read and stunning photographs too, thanks. Your words certainly do make one look deeply into the photos.

    • Thanks, Emma. Trying to keep weight down as a backpacker prohibits carrying a good camera and lens (unless you are Ansel Adams). But my friend always manages to get some nice shots anyway. The words are Muir’s, not mine!

  3. Susan

    Thank you Tom! John Muir is one of my heroes. If you ever get a chance, paddle in Glacier Bay.

    • Hi Susan, thanks for reading along! Yes, I understand he and Harriman discovered and explored the bay on a boat trip together. We’re going kayaking in northern B.C. in a few weeks, but unfortunately not getting that far north. Muir was an amazing guy, the more I read about him. Say hi to the dogs.

  4. Beautiful images of what sounds like an excellent trip. I’ve had Muir on my to read list for so long. Too long. I’ve been reacquainting myself with Thoreau an Emerson since relocating to MA. A trip to the a Sierras sounds perfect to dig into Muir.

  5. It looks amazing there and I will have to add Muir to my ever growing list of books to do with America. He sounds like the perfect travelling companion.

  6. Wow, Tom! I love that you do such an intense wilderness excursion each year. And here I was thinking I was the coolest with my twice weekly hiking now that I live in Portland. : )

    What beautiful photos! Mr. H and I are both hiking enthusiasts, so we’ll need to add this locale to our list.

    • Thanks, Britt. Yes, now that you are in the West you need to get yourselves out there. My friends and I are increasingly reducing pack weight, not quite minimalists (we still pack our bourbon), but literally counting ounces to keep the weight down. It makes the hiking much more pleasurable. Get to the Sierra Nevada if you can!

  7. Breath taking photos and great quotes – really wonderful trip, and post!

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