The 1000-Mile Hike That Shaped the National Park Service

christina ung
christina ung / christina ung

John Muir was living the American dream. In 1867, Muir, who had emigrated from Scotland as a boy, parlayed his technical acumen and inventive spirit into an engineering gig at an Indianapolis carriage factory. The job was good, but Muir especially liked that it left him with plenty of time to pursue his true passion: botany. As Muir delved deeper into the subject, he dreamed of trekking through the South to study the region’s plants.

Then, in March, Muir suffered a horrific accident. An awl flew off a machine and into his face and blinded him. Muir’s promising career as an inventor seemed doomed, and he spent six weeks resting in a darkened room. As friends visited and read him accounts of far-flung wildernesses like Yosemite, Muir made a deal with himself. If he ever recovered his sight, he’d give up machinery and spend his days studying plants in the wild.

Miraculously, Muir’s vision returned. And he kept his promise. In September, he set out on history’s most audacious road trip: a 1,000-mile hike from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico. Muir took the scenic route. “My plan was simply to push on in a general southward direction by the wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find,” he wrote in his journal.

Muir traveled light. He carried only a press to preserve plant specimens, a Bible, a change of underwear, and a book of Robert Burns’s poetry. His few belongings meant that he was reliant on the kindness of anyone he passed. As he wrote, “I oftentimes had to sleep out without blankets, and also without supper or breakfast. But usually I had no great difficulty in finding a loaf of bread in the widely scattered clearings of the farmers.”

Although food was scarce, natural beauty was abundant. Muir stopped in Kentucky to inspect Mammoth Cave, noting, “I never before saw Nature’s grandeur in so abrupt contrast with paltry artificial gardens.” He wandered through Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains and south to Georgia, where he spent at least one night sleeping in a cemetery. Along the way he kept detailed records that were eventually published as A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf. Deeply religious, Muir blended science and spirituality deftly. When he noted his discovery of two new species of ferns, he wrote, “Every tree, every flower, every ripple and eddy of this lovely stream seemed solemnly to feel the presence of the great Creator.”

Despite stopping to study and appreciate nature, Muir kept up the grueling pace. He finished his thousand-mile trek in less than two months, and on October 23, Muir ambled into Cedar Key, Fla. He had hoped to hop a ship and continue his hike in South America but abandoned his plans after contracting malaria. When he recovered, he changed course and headed up the coast to New York, where he caught a boat to California. His adventurous spirit intact, Muir continued to travel and spread his gospel of natural beauty from the West Coast.

Muir’s plainspoken, humble writings made him America’s most celebrated naturalist. Luminaries like Ralph Waldo Emerson sought him out when they traveled west. Emerson even offered him a teaching job at Harvard, but Muir had no desire to go back indoors. (“I never for a moment thought of giving up God’s big show for a mere profship!” he wrote.)
In 1892, Muir cofounded the Sierra Club, and in 1903, he and Theodore Roosevelt spent three days camping alone in the Yosemite Valley. Along snow-kissed passes, the two discussed what a national system of parks would look like. Muir preached that such unsullied lands could offer the country “places for rest, inspiration and prayers.” But to a naturalist like Roosevelt, the land made its own case.

By the end of the trip, the president had committed to preserving Yosemite. Over the years, Muir earned the nickname Father of the National Parks, by advocating for and winning federal protection for the Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier, and Glacier Bay among others—each an American treasure he’d witnessed with his own eyes.

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