Off the beaten path at Yosemite
Following John Muir's Yosemite path
With snow thick on the peaks, a young John Muir pushed into the Sierra foothills in May of 1868. Accompanied by an Englishman named Chilwell, Muir provisioned in what today is Coulterville, on Maxwell Creek, and climbed higher through the zone of foothill oaks.
"Beautiful trees with blue foliage and white bark... a fine park-like effect," Muir wrote. "Higher, we met the first of the pines... growing gradually more abundant as we ascended."
It was the Scotsman's first approach to what would become his "glorious Yo Semite." The rest is history. We have Muir's words, but today also we have state highways 120, 140 and 41, which flood visitors in from the west. On summer weekends, you can spend an hour in traffic as you crawl through these entrance stations to Yosemite National Park.
How different it must have been in Muir's day, more two decades before Yosemite became a national park in 1890.
But in fact, Muir's route through sleepy Coulterville is still there. It's possible to walk in his footsteps on a hike that will take about a day. In addition to Muir's own writing, there are guides to making the trek today. In 2005, Muir fans Peter and Donna Thomas set out to follow Muir's walking path from San Francisco to Yosemite. The result is a 2010 book, "Muir Ramble Route: Walking from San Francisco to Yosemite in the Footsteps of John Muir." The book includes Muir's account, and the Thomas's detailed instructions for approximating the route today.
Starting out in Coulterville
Janelle Danel of Coulterville Café and General Store will top your mug as you breakfast in the little town—population 201. The Hotel Jeffery offers a lodging experience that hearkens back to the Old West—with authentic touches like no air conditioning. The hotel's "Teddy Suite" lets visitors park their heads where President Theodore Roosevelt slept before meeting Muir in the park in May 1903.
Danel—who's persevered in Coulterville for 23 years—is skeptical that the iffy economy can keep the town afloat. The Hotel Jeffery has been closed as much as it's been open for the last three decades. She wonders how long the current owners will last.
"This town's been shut down so long, people drive by and they just keep going," she complained.
In 2010, locals launched a John Muir Highway promotion to give the Coulterville area a boost on tourists' radar screens.
Sponsored by Mariposa County, the effort has placed "Historic John Muir Route" signs along freshly-paved J132—a county road that meanders from Coulterville to State Highway 120 and into Yosemite National Park.
But today's J132 does not follow the writer's first route into Yosemite. Muir's real route still exists, but you have to look for it.
County road J132 heads north from the intersection with Greeley Hill Road—about 14 miles east of Coulterville. Ignore the "Muir Route" sign urging you to head north from this point. Despite the sign, Muir's path veers away and follows what's now Greeley Hill Road.
A short way past the intersection, a business success brightens the Coulterville area's economic gloom. Tucked into a pleasant clearing, Whitny Braun and dad James Braun have struck gold hosting European tourists at Yosemite Springs Bed & Breakfast.
"May through mid-September, this place is packed," James Braun said. "Every single night is full. There's just a huge demand"
The web has made all the difference for the Braun family. Europeans can book online, then just show up. Most are attracted by the reasonable prices and proximity to the park – just a half hour drive away – instead of any links to the man who's credited with convincing the U.S. government to set Yosemite aside for posterity.
"Most Europeans don't know who John Muir was," Whitny Braun said.
But plenty of American travelers chose the area because of Muir and his writings. During my visit, the inn was hosting three men from the East Bay of San Francisco, who had been dropped off by their wives so they could retrace Muir's route on foot. They were practicing what they called "no-carbon-footprint camping."
Into the forest
From Yosemite Springs Bed & Breakfast, hikers can make their way to the park boundary. The road is suitable for mountain bikes as well.
From the inn, continue east on Greeley Hill Road. After a half mile there's a historical marker on your left that reads, "Old Coulterville Road." A side trail here leads to Bower Cave — mentioned by Muir in his account of the trip.
A short distance on, the trekker enters Stanislaus National Forest. The road continues, but is now known as Forest Service road 2S01. This section of road is passable in a SUV or four-wheel-drive vehicle, but the final stretch into the park is blocked by a gate. A detour lets vehicles enter the park—but includes a rough section at Little Nellie Falls near Foresta that requires a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle.
The dirt road ascends the slopes of Pilot Peak, which today is topped by a fire-lookout tower. The forest here is quiet and unmarred by the nearly four million visitors who crowd each year into nearby Yosemite Valley. On a recent visit, the only other visitor in sight was a paraglider—who had launched from Pilot Peak.
From the mountaintop, the hike continues two and a half miles east to Five Corners — a confusing name for a confusing intersection. Take the second left, which heads uphill, continuing 2S01.
Keep on 2S01. Anyone who attempts the route should bring a copy of the Thomas' book and a Stanislaus National Forest map. (The Thomas' book suggests deviations from S201—but these are incorrect. Stay on the road).
The final stretch to the Yosemite park border passes through a meadow and ranch called Hazel Green. This is private property—and the "No Trespassing" sign is meant to put off visitors. But the public retains a right-of-way through the parcel, however. Stay on the road until you get to the trees on the other side.
Here hikers find a gate — and a sign indicating the Yosemite National Park line. Climb over the metal gate. (If you lift your mountain bike over, be aware that riding a bicycle off-pavement is against park rules.) This zone has been restored by the National Park Service, but the trail of Muir's day likely passed through here.
Here the traveler senses the whoosh of auto traffic through the thick woods. Follow the sound to Big Oak Flat Road inside Yosemite National Park.
Muir continued several miles south from this point. With Chilwell, the pair bunked on fir boughs in a cabin at Crane Flat. Today's traveler can sleep at Crane Flat Campground—or arrange for pickup by a friend in a motor vehicle.
Interestingly, Muir lived to see motorcars in his beloved Yosemite. Writing in 1912, he called them "blunt-nosed mechanical beetles." Today they are an infestation.
Ah progress! Welcome to Yosemite.
Historic Hotel Jeffery, 5001 Main St., Coulterville. Rooms range from single bed, European style (bathroom down hall) to 3-room suite with bath. Summer rates (after March 1 and before Nov. 1): $74 to $260 per night. Slightly lower in winter. More information: www.hoteljeffery.com or 209-878-0461
Yosemite Springs Bed & Breakfast, 6986 Greeley Hill Rd., Greeley Hill CA. Rooms range from 1-bed and 2-bed rooms to whirlpool suite with capacity for 4 people. Open seasonally May through mid-September. Rates: $145-$250 per night night. More information: www.yosemitesprings.com or or 209-878-3835.
The Third Annual John Muir Festival will be held Saturday June 9. The John Muir Geotourism Center will feature an exhibit celebrating 'All Things Muir.' Visitors can start in Coulterville at the junction of Highway 49/132, the beginning of the 14-mile John Muir Route, to Greeley Hill and on to Groveland on Highway 120. The event runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Visitors can take in "Nature Stations" along the route; take a guided tour with the Northern Mariposa County History Center of Muir's travels through Coulterville or bicycle the route. There's also artisans displays, handcrafted items, live music, silent auctions and guest speakers. Food will be on sale. Lee Stetson will portray Muir and answer visitors' queries. For more information, go tojohnmuirhighway.netor call 209-962-4917
John Muir Highway: www.johnmuirhighway.net
Mariposa County Tourism Bureau (lodging and special events info): www.yosemiteexperience.com
Yosemite National Park: www.nps.gov/yose/