U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and “Father of the National Parks” John Muir in May 1903 on Glacier Point in Yosemite Valley, California (part of the U.S. Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Collection).
A single camping trip changed the course of conservation history: On May 15, 1903, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and Sierra Club founder John Muir set off into the wilderness of Yosemite National Park.
Enchanting anecdotes abound from the trip, including the 40 blankets TR piled atop on the first night in Mariposa Grove and the five inches of fresh snow that greeted them the third morning near Sentinel Dome. But the most seminal story is surely the campfire conversation that ensued between the two men on their second night in the backcountry, spent on the edge of Bridalveil Meadow. By the fire, Muir made an impassioned plea for encompassing more wild terrain, around Yosemite and beyond, under the federal purview of preservation. His case, taken to heart by TR, would become policy in the form of the Yosemite Recession Bill of June 1906, and continue to resonate in Roosevelt’s formation of five national parks, 18 national monuments, 150 national forests and 55 national bird sanctuaries and wildlife refuges.
“With John Muir’s spirit as his guide, Theodore Roosevelt saved more wild land than any president in history,” writes Barb Rosenstock in The Camping Trip That Changed America: Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and Our National Parks (a perfect holiday present for fledgling historians).
In 1915, Roosevelt paid tribute to his camping comrade by publishing, John Muir: An Appreciation, in which he recounted the Yosemite trip:
[John Muir] met me with a couple of pack mules, as well as with riding mules for himself and myself, and a first-class packer and cook, and I spent a delightful three days and two nights with him. The first night we camped in a grove of giant sequoias. It was clear weather, and we lay in the open, the enormous cinnamon-colored trunks rising about us like the columns of a vaster and more beautiful cathedral than was ever conceived by any human architect.
As human architects, we honor the efforts of park architects Muir and Roosevelt who honored the ultimate architect—Nature—through their design of preservation policy and practice.