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Couple retrace famed naturalist's 1868 route into Yosemite Valley

6/15/2007
A couple is chronicling John Muir's route to Yosemite Park's Bridalveil Falls, what the naturalist called the "sanctum sanctorum of the Sierra.'' James Overstreet

SAN FRANCISCO — Millions of people have marveled at the view of
Bridalveil Fall since John Muir first spotted it from a mile away when
he entered Yosemite Valley in the spring of 1868. Not nearly as many
see the "dainty little fall'' quite the way Muir did.

Now, a Santa Cruz, Calif., couple are hoping to restore some
popularity to one of the classic early views of Yosemite, reopening a
19th-century door on what Muir came to regard as a holy vista — the
"sanctum sanctorum of the Sierra.''

Donna and Peter Thomas, a husband-and-wife team of artists who
spend most of their time producing hand-bound fine-press books, have
rewalked a long-forgotten trail from San Francisco to Yosemite that
Muir took, also mostly on foot, for his first Sierra visit in 1868.

The couple spent two days last week on the last — and certainly most
spectacular — segment of the trail into the valley, the culmination
of a guidebook they're writing to help others follow Muir's footsteps.

Eventually, they'd like to see directional signs and even overnight
accommodations along the 300-mile route they are calling "John Muir's
trans-California ramble'' — as reminders of the continuing power of
Muir's legacy and his infectious love of Northern California's
outdoors.

"In 20 years, hundreds of people could be doing at least parts of
this trip, maybe thousands,'' Peter Thomas, 53, said as he and his
wife walked the last portion with a San Francisco Chronicle reporter
and photographer.

Muir, the famed naturalist, was 30 years old and new to California
when he came along a narrow trail clinging to the northern rim of
Yosemite, across the valley from Bridalveil. He was riding horseback
after he and a companion had crossed California from San Francisco.

The trail they took down into Yosemite — which was later widened
into a stage route, the original Big Oak Flat Road — was one of the
most popular routes into the valley until car traffic was redirected
to lower elevations when tunnels were blasted through the granite
hills.

Old Big Oak Flat Road, as it's known these days, is now partly a
hiking trail, partly just a ruin unmarked on official Park Service
tourist maps. Even agile hikers may have some trouble negotiating the
massive rockslides and fallen tree limbs that obscure sections of the
remnant roadbed.

Bridalveil Fall, 620 feet high, is one of the most photographed
natural scenes in the world. But it's not captured very often from the
place where Muir first saw it, from a spot 4,943 feet above sea level,
with purple milkweed and lavender yerba santa blooming in springtime
among sugar pine and cedars.

It was a famous destination for decades — known, among other
names, as "Oh My! Point'' — until the main travel routes were
changed. An old metal guardrail still marks the spot.

From there, it's
understandable why Muir at first glance judged Bridalveil Fall to be
no more than 70 feet high — a mere wisp blowing sideways in the wind,
dwarfed by the great bulk of the Cathedral Rocks and Leaning Tower.
Muir discovered how tall it really is after he got a little closer.

"This is the most beautiful place in the world,'' said Donna
Thomas, 50, endorsing Muir's ranking of Yosemite as "by far the
grandest of all of the special temples of Nature.''

Muir, of course, is best known for his poetic nature writing, his
scientific studies of Sierra plants and geology, his role in the
founding of the Sierra Club and his lost fight against the damming of
Hetch Hetchy Valley.

And in hiking circles, he's linked with the
Sierra high country, namesake of the famed John Muir Trail from
Yosemite to Mount Whitney. But he never actually walked that trail.

It was only when the Thomases set out last year to retrace roughly
the path he did walk — he left few notes — that it began gathering
attention in the lower elevations. Longtime Sierra hikers, they
appeared to be the first to reprise Muir's entire "ramble'' in the
modern era.

Muir had just arrived from New York when he set out for Yosemite in
early April 1868. He could have taken an all-night ship ride up the
San Joaquin River to Stockton and then ridden by stagecoach to
Mariposa. Instead, he and a British traveling companion he had met on
the ship from New York, known to history only as "Chilwell,'' decided
they would just as soon walk.

They arrived about May 22, having rented horses for the final
mountain leg of the journey, plunging along part of the way through
snowdrifts that obscured any sign of a trail.

The Thomases and their publisher, Wilderness Press in Berkeley,
Calif., hope to produce the guidebook next spring.