Hiking in Teddy Roosevelt's Footsteps in Yosemite
By Chris Epting

In a turning point for nature preservation and national parks in the USA, President Teddy Roosevelt goes camping with John Muir in the grandeur of the American West.

Yosemite travel

In 1903, two years after becoming the nation's youngest president (age 42) after the assassination of William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt embarked on his first trip of the western USA to not just help shore up votes for the following year's election, but also to explore and get lost in nature.

His April-June 1903 tour of the west remains one of the most important Presidential sojourns in history. The centerpiece of the trip was Roosevelt's first visit to California, where he would spend nearly three weeks.

Squeezed in between the appearances and pageantry was a historic three-day wilderness adventure at Yosemite with naturalist John Muir. That brief camping trip in Yosemite proved to be a game changer for the wide-eyed President who loved the rugged great outdoors and would soon, thanks to Muir, work even harder to protect it.

The President had followed Muir closely and over time Roosevelt became increasingly interested in discussing his own attitudes toward conservation with Muir face to face. Through California Senator Chester Rowell he communicated to Muir an interest in meeting with him in Yosemite and away from the main party of dignitaries.

March 14, 1903, the following letter was sent to then-famed naturalist, from the White House:

My dear Mr. Muir:

Through the courtesy of President Wheeler I have already been in communication with you, but I wish to write you personally to express the hope that you will be able to take me through the Yosemite. I do not want anyone with me but you, and I want to drop politics absolutely for four days and just be out in the open with you. John Burroughs is probably going through the Yellowstone Park with me, and I want to go with you through the Yosemite.

Sincerely yours,

Theodore Roosevelt

Thirteen days later (in the age before fast cars and airplanes), Muir responded "…of course I shall go with you gladly."

Roosevelt with Muir

Setting Off in Search of Legends

I was in the middle of writing a book covering Roosevelt's time in California in the spring of 1903. There was to be a heavy emphasis on the camping trip with Muir and so of course I decided to go up to Yosemite and retrace as much of the trip as I could.

The morning of May 15, the men first met on Roosevelt's train in the small town of Raymond, California.

Along with my intrepid 18-year-old daughter, we began our journey in that small town, a one-time gateway to Yosemite. Little remains from back in 1903. The train station where Roosevelt pulled up is gone as is the hotel where he delivered an impromptu speech. But a small piece of track is preserved on the original right-of-way. Might that have been the very spot where Muir wandered into the president's cabin after an overnight journey on the train from Oakland to pay his first greeting?

Following the original stagecoach route, now a paved but well-worn, bumpy and winding road that leads to Yosemite, it's hard to imagine what the distance must been like being pulled by a team of horses. But that is how Roosevelt arrived at Yosemite.

It took the better part of the day to reach the Wawona Hotel, and no doubt Roosevelt was anxious to get out and mount his own horse.

Grizzly Giant tree

After a lunch stop at the Wawona Hotel, the party proceeded directly to the Mariposa Grove of big trees. Here, following some preliminaries such as picture taking at the Grizzly Giant and Wawona tunnel tree, the president dismissed the troops thanking them for their services. The stage departed with all members of the president's party except Mr. Roosevelt, John Muir, guide Charlie Leidig, Archie Leonard, and an Army packer named Jacher Alder.

This is where were Roosevelt and Muir pitched camp for their first night in the woods. They ate fried chicken and beefsteak over the fire, talking about the woods under the Grizzly Giant tree.

As Roosevelt would later recount: "The first night was clear, and we lay down in the darkening aisles of the great Sequoia grove. The majestic trunks, beautiful in color and in symmetry, rose round us like the pillars of a mightier cathedral than ever was conceived even by the fervor of the Middle Ages. Hermit thrushes sang beautifully in the evening, and again, with a burst of wonderful music, at dawn."

Walking through these woods today along the soft path, it is easy to conjure up what the simple, primitive camp must have looked like, along with the smell of the coffee and the hissing steaks on the fire. A two-mile trail leads past a variety of the famous, cinnamon colored giant trees, including the Grizzly Giant, right by where the group slept. The Wawona tunnel tree, which Roosevelt was driven through, fell to the ground in 1969 but still remains in place.

A snowstorm? "Bully!"

The San Francisco Chronicle reported: The president camped in the Mariposa Big Tree Grove last night. He and Mr. Muir were up at dawn this morning. They came tearing down Lightning Trail, one of the steepest trails in the mountains and passed the hotel at an early hour on a fast gallop. The president looked very buoyant as he rode by, but did not look to the right and left. Only a few people were up early enough to see them go by.

And then it was on to Glacier Point, where the dusty roads all ended. Another dramatic report from the Chronicle documented, Instead of the shelter of the great spreading trees, the warm sunshine and the singing birds, the president now rode through the deep snow, accompanied by John Muir and guides Leonard and Leidig, stopping now and then to allow their fatigued horses to rest before plunging through another snowdrift. Tonight the president and his faithful guides will sleep in the wilderness listening to the sigh of the pine boughs as they swing in the night breezes that blow over the heights of Glacier and Signal peaks, 7000 feet above sea level. Should the storm increase in violence tonight the president and his escort will make their way to the Glacier Point hotel, located some 3 miles away.

They not only survived the snowstorm. They reveled in it. Again, over dinner the men continued to bond and talk about preservation. Muir chided Roosevelt for his habit of sport hunting. It is said this admonishment made the president end that sort of behavior.


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