Hiking in Teddy Roosevelt's Footsteps in Yosemite — Page 2
By Chris Epting

Roosevelt travel

A hike or a drive to Glacier Point allows one to marvel at the same views the men enjoyed upon awakening after night two of their camping trip, near the area today known as Roosevelt Point, overlooking the Yosemite Valley. I discovered that an image taken of Roosevelt that morning (along with the famous shots of he and Muir posing together) that's always identified as being shot at Glacier Point, was actually taken at Washburn Point, about a mile away.

Standing in the place where Roosevelt and Muir shared the dawn and posed on Hanging Rock, one could almost imagine Roosevelt's cry of "Bully!" as he awoke to the blanket of snow, sleeping in the wild without a tent.

"We were in a snowstorm last night and it was just what I wanted," he said later in the day. "Just think of where I was last night. Up there," pointing toward Glacier Point, "amid the pines and silver firs, in the Sierran solitude in a snowstorm. I passed one of the most pleasant nights of my life. It was so reviving to be so close to nature in this magnificent forest…"

Heading down to the valley where their third night was spent, a sign marks the site of the campground near Bridalveil Fall. It's the only "official" marker that acknowledges where the men camped, which allows a visitor to actually sit and meditate in the precise spot where Roosevelt and Muir continued to bond.

Then there is the Wawona Hotel, where Roosevelt and Muir both began and ended their Yosemite Valley experience. The peaceful establishment, a complex of old structures, dates back to the 1880s and while Roosevelt didn't sleep here, he did eat lunch here (with Muir) and give a speech just before heading back to Raymond to re-board his train and continue his trip.

Wawona Hotel

The Mystery of the Painting

Also on the Wawona Hotel property is the former studio of the famed artist, Thomas Hill, whose paintings of Yosemite Valley and its environs are some of the most cherished from that period.

I was aware that today, Thomas Hill's 1884 studio had been converted into visitor Center the National Park Service. And also that Roosevelt had actually visited Hill at the end of his visit to Yosemite. As one of the rangers explained to me, Roosevelt was a fan of Hills and was asked to meet him. After excitedly greeting the artist, Roosevelt explained with typical enthusiasm what his previous night had been like at Bridalveil Fall. Noticing a large painting on the wall of the site near the meadow where he and Muir and camped, the president became even more effusive about his feelings for the majestic valley. The Ranger then told me that Hill wasted no time in offering the president the painting, much to Roosevelt's delight. She said it was taken down off the wall and given to Roosevelt right there and that aids would have packed it for the stagecoach ride back to the train, adding it to Roosevelt's growing collection of souvenirs from the trip.

She showed me a photo of the painting and it was indeed beautiful, depicting the meadow area around Bridalveil fall with a small man in the foreground, which gave a sense of perspective to the work of art.

A National Park Service brochure at the site confirmed: "During this visit, Roosevelt met Thomas Hill at his studio. Hill gave Roosevelt a painting of Bridalveil Fall that he had admired, and it returned with him to the White House."

Thomas Hill painting

Standing in the visitor Center today I felt a rush of emotion, trying to imagine the looks on these men's faces as this exchange took place. Hill, an artist in residence in the woods being visited by the powerful head of state and gifting him one of his masterworks.

Just after this, the president joined the other members of the official party for the cannonball stage to return to the waiting special train at Raymond. The trip was important in itself because driver Tom Gordon set a record for speed that was never equaled in the 40 years of horse-drawn vehicles. In just 10 hours of actual driving time the party covered the 67 miles from Yosemite Valley to Raymond. The total elapsed time was just short of 12 hours. When he arrived at Raymond, reporters asked him about the Yosemite adventure with Muir. The president told them he had thoroughly enjoyed it. "It was bully," he said. "I had the time of my life!"

Don't Believe Everything the Tour Guides Tell You

When we returned home, I wanted to dig a little bit more to see if there'd been any further communication between Roosevelt and Hill. Indeed, in a letter dated July 6 1903, a couple of months after Roosevelt returned to Washington, he had sent the artist a thank you note.

My dear Mr. Hill:

I thank you very much for your kindness and appreciate you are having sent me the picture. I am glad you have devoted yourself to the assembly work. Surely nowhere is there greater chance for artists who love nature. With renewed thanks, sincerely yours

Theodore Roosevelt


Roosevelt said, "having sent me the picture." Sent? This conflicted with the idea of the president's team taking the picture back with them from their visit.

mirror lake

So I dug deeper into the story and found, buried in the May 19, 1903 edition of the long-gone San Francisco Call newspaper, this single reporter's note: "Mr. Hill proposed to paint the president in the foreground, just where he camped, and then send the canvas to Washington."

I went back and looked at the painting closer. Using a higher-resolution image I obtained from the online White House archive, I enlarged the portion that includes the small figure in the foreground. While not the most faithful image of such an iconic figure as Roosevelt, it certainly appeared to be him. Stunningly, the clue in the letter seemed to be answered. The painting did not leave that day. The painter, paying tribute to the president, made him part of the scenery.

So today, buried someplace in the White House archive, Roosevelt is still soaking up the beauty of Yosemite.

There's just something about traveling to retrace the footsteps of giants.

You are sharing their journey. Feeling their gravity.

And sometimes, illuminating their long-gone path.

Chris Epting is the author of 25 travel/history books including James Dean Died Here, Roadside Baseball, and the upcoming Teddy Roosevelt in California — the Whistle Stop Tour that Changed America being released by The History Press in November 2015.

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Related Features:
Unmarked History in New York City by Chris Epting
From Miners to Movie Stars in Park City, Utah by Tim Leffel
How Ted Turner Helped Me Fall in Love With Nature by Judith Fein
Rolling with the Stones Across America by Chris Epting

See other United States travel stories from the archives

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