Sweeping ariel view of the Grand Canyon

John Muir on the Grand Canyon

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Perhaps the most well-known naturalist and conservationist, John Muir both inspired and lamented the steadily growing mass of tourists to the American West, who, with the construction of railways and roads in the early 1900s could more easily access the region’s natural wonders.

Born in Scotland, Muir emigrated to the U.S. with his parents in 1949, around age 11. Spending the remainder of his childhood in the woodlands of Wisconsin, he came to love nature and exploring the outdoors. As an adult, Muir eventually made his way to California in the 1860s — the state he would call home the rest of his life — spending most of his time in the Sierra Nevada and the area that would eventually become Yosemite National Park.

In awe of the natural beauty around him, Muir wrote articles and books about nature’s wonders and his own travels, inspiring others to both visit and pass laws to protect such places. He is known as the “Father of the National Parks” in large part because of the role he played in the establishment of several National Parks, including Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Mt. Rainier and Sequoia.

The following excerpt from his 1918 book Steep Trails, from the chapter titled “The Grand Canyon of Colorado,” leaves little wonder as to what Muir would think of the West today and how it has been transformed — in both good ways and bad — by tourism. 


“[People] may now go almost everywhere in smooth comfort, cross oceans and deserts scarce accessible to fishes and birds …”

Happy nowadays is the tourist, with earth’s wonders, new and old, spread invitingly open before him, and a host of able workers as his slaves making everything easy, padding plush about him, grading roads for him, boring tunnels, moving hills out of his way, eager, like the Devil, to show him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory and foolishness, spiritualizing travel for him with lightning and steam, abolishing space and time and almost everything else. Little children and tender, pulpy people, as well as storm-seasoned explorers, may now go almost everywhere in smooth comfort, cross oceans and deserts scarce accessible to fishes and birds, and, dragged by steel horses, go up high mountains, riding gloriously beneath starry showers of sparks, ascending like Elijah in a whirlwind and chariot of fire.

First of the wonders of the great West to be brought within reach of the tourist were the Yosemite and the Big Trees, on the completion of the first transcontinental railway; next came the Yellowstone and icy Alaska, by the northern roads; and last the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, which, naturally the hardest to reach, has now become, by a branch of the Santa Fe, the most accessible of all.



Of course, with this wonderful extension of steel ways through our wildness there is loss as well as gain. Nearly all railroads are bordered by belts of desolation. The finest wilderness perishes as if stricken with pestilence. Bird and beast people, if not the dryads, are frightened from the groves. Too often the groves also vanish, leaving nothing but ashes. Fortunately, nature has a few big places beyond man’s power to spoil—the ocean, the two icy ends of the globe, and the Grand Canyon.

“Fortunately, nature has a few big places beyond man’s power to spoil—the ocean, the two icy ends of the globe, and the Grand Canyon.”

When I first heard of the Santa Fe trains running to the edge of the Grand Canyon of Arizona, I was troubled with thoughts of the disenchantment likely to follow. But last winter, when I saw those trains crawling along through the pines of the Coconino Forest and close up to the brink of the chasm at Bright Angel, I was glad to discover that in the presence of such stupendous scenery they are nothing. The locomotives and trains are mere beetles and caterpillars, and the noise they make is as little disturbing as the hooting of an owl in the lonely woods.

In a dry, hot, monotonous forested plateau, seemingly boundless, you come suddenly and without warning upon the abrupt edge of a gigantic sunken landscape of the wildest, most multitudinous features, and those features, sharp and angular, are made out of flat beds of limestone and sandstone forming a spiry, jagged, gloriously colored mountain range countersunk in a level gray plain. It is a hard job to sketch it even in scrawniest outline; and, try as I may, not in the least sparing myself, I cannot tell the hundredth part of the wonders of its features—the side canyons, gorges, alcoves, cloisters, and amphitheaters of vast sweep and depth, carved in its magnificent walls; the throng of great architectural rocks it contains resembling castles, cathedrals, temples, and palaces, towered and spired and painted, some of them nearly a mile high, yet beneath one’s feet. All this, however, is less difficult than to give any idea of the impression of wild, primeval beauty and power one receives in merely gazing from its brink. The view down the gulf of color and over the rim of its wonderful wall, more than any other view I know, leads us to think of our earth as a star with stars swimming in light, every radiant spire pointing the way to the heavens.

“The locomotives and trains are mere beetles and caterpillars, and the noise they make is as little disturbing as the hooting of an owl in the lonely woods.”

But it is impossible to conceive what the canyon is, or what impression it makes, from descriptions or pictures, however good. Naturally it is untellable even to those who have seen something perhaps a little like it on a small scale in this same plateau region. One’s most extravagant expectations are indefinitely surpassed, though one expects much from what is said of it as “the biggest chasm on earth”—”so big is it that all other big things—Yosemite, the Yellowstone, the Pyramids, Chicago—all would be lost if tumbled into it.” Naturally enough, illustrations as to size are sought for among other canyons like or unlike it, with the common result of worse confounding confusion. The prudent keep silence. It was once said that the “Grand Canyon could put a dozen Yosemites in its vest pocket.”

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Alexandra Vollman
Alexandra Vollman is an experienced writer and editor with a passion for the outdoors — especially hiking. As the co-founder and editor of Modern Conservationist, she oversees editorial management for the site. She has a bachelor’s degree in media communications and a master’s degree in writing and publishing. Alexandra enjoys using her knack for reporting and storytelling to instill in others a better understanding of and appreciation for nature.

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