I recently followed John Muir's footsteps from the Sacramento Valley up to the door of Yosemite National Park, thanks to the newly-designated John Muir Highway out of Coulterville--Highway J132 between Highways 49 and 120. The road generally follows the route thought to have been taken by John Muir, famed conservationist and botanist, on one of his many treks between San Francisco and Yosemite.
Now, thanks to local efforts, including years of work by local Ken Pulvino (a friend of mine), new signage marks the 8-mile route which crosses both Mariposa and Tuolumne counties. Historians say that this route fairly approximates what is known of Muir's second passage to Yosemite in 1869, described in Muir's own book, My First Summer in the Sierra, in which he describes rambling through glorious arrays of wildflowers en route to his beloved Range of Light. Alas, there are no signed hiking trails or public picnic areas along the Historic John Muir Route; much of it passes through private land or national forest land lacking developed public access. But its a pretty little drive and offers a chance to stop in scenic Coulterville and as you head up a little-traveled route towards the national park (the last part of your journey will be via busier Highway 120).
Much has been written about John Muir's travels to Yosemite, but until now, it wasn't that easy to actually follow in Muir's footsteps. The new highway is a way to begin to see the route through Muir's eyes, but for serious Muir fans and hikers who love a challenge, a terrific option is the new book by Peter and Donna Thomas called the Muir Ramble Route (Poetic Matrix Press), $18.50.
I met with the authors recently at the opening of the highway and asked them what they thought of the new highway designation. "Our vision so much parallels the vision of the creators of the John Muir Highway," said Peter Thomas. "Anything that gets people out of their cars and seeing California at this intimate level is a good thing," Thomas notes. "Its still gorgeous, and you can see glimpses of what John Muir saw on his journeys," adds Donna Thomas. "So much of California has lost touch with its history," she adds, "and this highway is a special thing in the way that it shows Coulterville, Mariposa, and Tuolumne has such pride in its history."
These two intrepid backpackers did some amazing original research, combing the Bancroft and other library collections for Muir's unpublished letters and other little-known early accounts. Over time, and using early and contemporary maps, they pieced together the details of Muir's actual route. Then they hiked it—four times, each time departing on the day of the year that Muir began his journey (April 2). In re-discovering John Muir's first journey to Yosemite, the Thomases re-discovered their own love for California—especially the Central Valley and its abundant natural beauty—as they unlocked the secrets of Muir's actual route.
The book breaks the some 300-mile trek into smaller sections, and offers detailed routes readers can follow, suggesting which way to hike, and which routes are better tackled using a bike (both for safety and practicality). Thanks to civilization, some portions of the route skirt private lands or take you along the shoulders of busy roadways and highways. But it's all do-able. "We aren't super athletes," admits Peter Thomas, "and any average physically fit person can do this hike." Unlike Muir, the Thomases had no encounters with grizzlies, rockfalls, or rattlers. And Thomas owns up that he didn't even wear out one pair of hiking boots scouting the trek. While the Thomases book is a paean to the more famous writer, their feat in re-creating the author's rout is an amazing accomplishment in itself, and I'd highly recommend you get the book.
Details: call the Coulterville Visitors Center at 209/ 878-3074 or the Yosemite Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center at 209/962-0429. Muir Ramble Route, Poetic Matrix Press.
PHOTO COURTESY: Al Golub