Roosevelt and Muir Visit Yosemite Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir camped together in Yosemite, an event that contributed to the future preservation of Yosemite and the High Sierra.

Summary of Event

In May, 1903, two of the most notable citizens of the United States took a walk in the woods and mountains of one of the nation’s natural monuments, California’s Yosemite National Park. John Muir, a self-educated, Scottish-born naturalist who had been reared in rural Wisconsin, and Theodore Roosevelt, a Harvard University-educated aristocrat from New York who had become president of the United States, spent a weekend together, communing not only with nature but also with each other. In spite of their vastly different backgrounds, the two had much in common. They were both famous naturalists, essentially self-taught. Both loved the wilderness, with its beauty and challenges, and both were committed to preserving as much of that wilderness as they could. Yosemite National Park Wilderness preservation Conservation;wilderness [kw]Roosevelt and Muir Visit Yosemite (May, 1903) [kw]Muir Visit Yosemite, Roosevelt and (May, 1903) [kw]Yosemite, Roosevelt and Muir Visit (May, 1903) Yosemite National Park Wilderness preservation Conservation;wilderness [g]United States;May, 1903: Roosevelt and Muir Visit Yosemite[00710] [c]Environmental issues;May, 1903: Roosevelt and Muir Visit Yosemite[00710] [c]Government and politics;May, 1903: Roosevelt and Muir Visit Yosemite[00710] Roosevelt, Theodore [p]Roosevelt, Theodore;conservation Muir, John Burroughs, John Rowell, Chester H. Wheeler, Benjamin Ide Pardee, George Johnson, Robert Underwood

They found walking and talking among the glories of nature rewarding. Muir had spent most of the previous several decades hiking and climbing in his beloved Sierra and elsewhere. Roosevelt had camped in the north woods of Maine while still in college and had lived for months at a time in the Badlands of the Dakotas when he was a rancher. He had become a renowned big-game hunter, and, prior to his weekend with Muir, he had spent several days with another famous naturalist, John Burroughs, at another scenic wonder and national park, Yellowstone. For Muir and for Roosevelt, the wilderness had its own rewards.

Both men had broadly political concerns. Roosevelt’s presidency coincided with a national reform movement called Progressivism. Progressive movement The conservation of natural resources was one of the Progressives’ major campaign themes, and Roosevelt, as the nation’s first Progressive president, had come to exemplify the conservationist cause, both as an activist and as a symbol. He had assumed the presidency in September, 1901, when William McKinley was assassinated, and in the following eighteen months he had little opportunity to escape from his official duties. He had hunted in the South in 1902, but his only reward had been the emergence of the Teddy Bear motif when he refused to shoot a small bear brought to him while he was in camp. A trip into the wilderness of the West would give him a needed break from presidential routine.

Roosevelt’s reputation as a big-game hunter had led critics to refer to him as a butcher. Roosevelt vehemently disagreed—a hunter, he argued, is not a butcher. When Roosevelt first considered a trip West in the spring of 1903, however, he had written to the superintendent of Yellowstone Park, asking about the possibility of hunting mountain lions if they were not legally protected. Roosevelt’s request became known, and the result was much unfavorable publicity. Always the politician, Roosevelt abandoned his hunting plans and asked John Burroughs, Burroughs, John an old friend, to accompany him to Yellowstone, where they spent two glorious weeks.

Shortly before he left Washington, Roosevelt wrote to John Muir, indicating that he would like to spend a few days with him at Yosemite—just the two of them, with no politics involved. It is likely, however, that Roosevelt’s trip to Yosemite and his weekend with Muir combined personal rewards as well as political considerations: Burroughs and Muir, with their national reputations as naturalists, would soften the accusations against Roosevelt’s hunting proclivities, and Roosevelt would get an opportunity to escape the White House for the wilderness.

Theodore Roosevelt (left) with John Muir at Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley.

(Library of Congress)

Muir was scheduled to take a trip to Europe and Asia in the spring of 1903. Chester H. Rowell, a California state senator who, like Roosevelt, was a Progressive Republican, wrote to Muir in March and indicated that the president was going to be in California and wished to spend a few days with Muir in the High Sierra. Muir at first thought he could not cancel his overseas journey, but after an appeal from Benjamin Ide Wheeler, president of the University of California at Berkeley, and after receiving a personal letter from Roosevelt, Muir yielded. By spending a few days with the president, he commented, “I might be able to do some forest good in freely talking around the camp-fire.” The president and the preservationist both loved the wild country for its own sake, but each was also motivated by political and policy considerations.

On Friday, May 15, 1903, Muir and Roosevelt, along with a cook and two packers, left the other members of the presidential contingent, which included California governor George Pardee. The first night, they camped under the giant sequoias, the famous Big Trees in the Mariposa Grove in Yosemite Valley, sleeping on evergreen boughs. After a day’s rugged ride, they spent the following night at Glacier Point, high above the valley floor. The next morning, Sunday, they awoke covered with four inches of snow. Camp that night was at Bridalveil Meadow, at the base of El Capitan, one of the most recognizable of the massive rock formations that surround Yosemite Valley. Unfortunately, neither Roosevelt nor Muir left an extensive record of their three days together. Roosevelt’s expertise was in birds and animals; Muir’s primary interests were botany and geology. Muir was impressed by Roosevelt’s command of natural history, and he later commented to his wife, “I never before had so interesting, hearty, and manly a companion.” To an acquaintance he wrote, “Camping with the President was a remarkable experience. I fairly fell in love with him.”

Roosevelt was equally impressed, both with Muir and with Yosemite, supposedly exclaiming at one point, “This is bully! Hurrah for Yosemite!” To Burroughs he later wrote, “Both the Yosemite and the big trees were all that any human could desire. John Muir is a delightful man . . . the pleasantest possible companion on a trip of this kind.” Roosevelt noted Muir’s love of the trees and the mountains as well as his personal commitment to the preservation of the wilderness. It was a rewarding weekend, with good company in the most dramatic surroundings.


Although little is known of the specifics of the conversations Muir and Roosevelt had over those several days, conservation in general and the future of Yosemite and the High Sierra in particular were undoubtedly major topics. According to one source, Roosevelt realized that action to preserve the region must be taken as soon as possible to prevent its destruction by lumber interests and other users of the wilderness areas. One day after leaving Muir and Yosemite, Roosevelt ordered his secretary of the interior to extend the federal forest reserves of the Sierras north to Mount Shasta, near the Oregon border.

Unlike Muir, Roosevelt was not a pure preservationist. For Muir, the wilderness was a way of life, the best way for humankind to achieve transcendent happiness. Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the leaders of the Transcendentalist movement, had come to Yosemite in 1871 and met Muir, but Muir’s spiritual feelings about nature predated his acquaintance with Emerson. For Muir, the unspoiled wilderness was more spiritual than a tamer landscape; Yosemite and the Sierras, Muir believed, reflected God’s truth more clearly than Henry David Thoreau’s near-suburban Walden Pond. Roosevelt, too, was attracted to what he called “the hidden spirit of the wilderness . . . its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm.” Yet Roosevelt, a historian who wrote the six-volume The Winning of the West (1889-1896), also believed physical confrontation with the wilderness could help humanity to resist the corrupting and debilitating influences of civilization.

The United States began to establish national parks and forest preserves in the late nineteenth century; Yellowstone Park, where Roosevelt had camped with Burroughs before meeting Muir at Yosemite, was the first in 1872. As president, Roosevelt became noted for his conservation accomplishments in establishing numerous national parks and monuments, forest reserves, and wildlife sanctuaries. Immediately after leaving Muir, Roosevelt commented that lying under the sequoia trees was like lying in “a temple grander than any human architect could by any possibility build.” He added, however, that other forests should be preserved not for reasons of beauty but for the economic use of future generations. That was never Muir’s concern.

Muir, along with Robert Underwood Johnson of Century Magazine, had been largely responsible for Yosemite’s becoming a national park in 1890. The story of Yosemite is a complicated saga. Yosemite Valley had been turned over to the state of California in 1864, during the administration of Abraham Lincoln. The valley was subsequently administered by state commissioners who were not always conservationists—at least not in the opinion of Muir and others like him. Yosemite National Park was created in 1890, establishing a federal reservation surrounding the state-controlled Yosemite Valley. To protect the region, Muir and others founded the Sierra Club Sierra Club in 1892, electing Muir its first president. In 1893, President Grover Cleveland proclaimed a larger Sierra Forest Reserve Sierra Forest Reserve enveloping both the state-owned valley and the national park ring above the valley floor.

Muir was concerned about two crucial issues. First, many private parties were less interested in preserving the wilderness than in making use of it. Second, Muir believed that California’s state commissioners were not sufficiently protective of Yosemite Valley. For Muir and others, the solution was to have California return Yosemite Valley to the federal government and incorporate it into Yosemite National Park. Muir had been actively urging Yosemite Valley’s recession—that is, its return to the federal government by the state—ever since the establishment of Yosemite National Park in 1890. While camping with Roosevelt in May, 1903, Muir pressed the president to agree to recession.

Roosevelt had urged federal control of Yosemite long before becoming president, and he reaffirmed his commitment to Muir when they camped together. Yosemite Valley was in California’s possession, however, and the state thus had to initiate the return of the valley to the federal government. Many Californians refused to admit that the state could not administer Yosemite Valley as well as the federal government could. Moreover, federal supervision would mean that the park’s commissioners would lose their positions, and certain commercial interests would find their hopes thwarted. Others argued, however, that the financial burden of the state’s administration of the valley was too great. Some hoped to benefit from the tourism that would result from federal control, and still others, including Muir and his associates, believed that efficient administration and preservation of the valley would best be secured under the federal government. The recession campaign was spearheaded by the Sierra Club, with the support of such disparate interests as the State Board of Trade, the Native Sons of the Golden West, and the Southern Pacific Railroad. The support of the railroad company was crucial, as it had long dominated California politics.

In February, 1905, the California legislature agreed to restore Yosemite Valley to federal control; Governor Pardee signed the law on March 3, 1905. The federal government did not take possession for another year and a half, however. The delay was partially the result of competing railroad proposals to access the park for visitors; before the competition was resolved, the park boundaries had been reduced by several thousand acres. Roosevelt signed the necessary federal legislation on June 11, 1906, and Yosemite Valley became the new heart of the national park.

The story of Yosemite did not end there. In part because of the disastrous earthquake of 1906, the city of San Francisco requested that a reservoir be constructed in Hetch Hetchy Valley, Dams;O’Shaughnessy (Hetch Hetchy Valley)[Oshaughnessy] Hetch Hetchy Valley which was within the boundaries of Yosemite National Park, in order to provide water for the city’s future needs. Muir adamantly opposed the proposal. Roosevelt was torn between Muir’s opinion and that of his leading conservation adviser, Gifford Pinchot, who believed that “conservation” means efficient use, not simply preservation. Pinchot urged the president to allow Hetch Hetchy Valley to be dammed. The final decision was not made until December, 1913, long after Roosevelt had left the White House in 1909. The preservationists lost. It was a bitter defeat for the aged Muir, who died the following year. Throughout the controversy, however, Muir and Roosevelt remained friends. After Muir’s death in December, 1914, Roosevelt praised him as “a dauntless soul . . . one brimming over with friendliness and kindness.” Together, the Scottish immigrant and the New York patrician had preserved for future generations the beauty of Yosemite Valley. Yosemite National Park Wilderness preservation Conservation;wilderness

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bade, William Frederic. The Life and Letters of John Muir. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1924. A comprehensive and sympathetic study by Muir’s authorized biographer. Bade personally talked to Roosevelt about his and Muir’s Yosemite weekend.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cutright, Paul Russell. Theodore Roosevelt: The Making of a Conservationist. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985. The author is the leading authority on Roosevelt as naturalist and conservationist. This work emphasizes the latter and includes a discussion of Muir’s relationship with Roosevelt.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fox, Stephen. John Muir and His Legacy: The American Conservation Movement. Boston: Little, Brown, 1981. An excellent and wide-ranging analysis of Muir and the American conservation movement. A chapter about Muir and Roosevelt appeared originally in the Theodore Roosevelt Association Journal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harbaugh, William H. Power and Responsibility: The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt. 1961. Reprint. Newtown, Conn.: American Political Biography Press, 1997. One of the best single-volume biographies of Roosevelt, covering all aspects of his career, including his interest in nature and conservation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hays, Samuel P. Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency. 1959. Reprint. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999. Seminal study of the early history of conservation in the United States. The author argues that most early conservationists were dedicated to efficient use of natural resources rather than to preservation as an end in itself.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, Holway R. John Muir and the Sierra Club: The Battle for Yosemite. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1965. This exhaustive work covers the history of Yosemite from the days of Abraham Lincoln to the conclusion of the Hetch Hetchy controversy. Includes many illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nash, Roderick Frazier. Wilderness and the American Mind. 4th ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. Brilliant intellectual history of Americans’ relationship with the wilderness begins with the earliest days of European contact.

Theodore Roosevelt Becomes U.S. President

First U.S. National Wildlife Refuge Is Established

Roosevelt Withdraws the Grand Canyon from Mining Claims

U.S. Congress Approves a Dam in Hetch Hetchy Valley

National Park Service Is Created

Mount McKinley National Park Is Created

Indiana Dunes Are Preserved as a State Park

Adams Lobbies Congress to Preserve Kings Canyon

Categories: History Content