John Muir has his fair share of things named after him (including what must be the world’s most-visited grove of trees), but I bet the commemorations he’d appreciate most are the two long-distance trails that bear his name: The 210-mile John Muir Trail through the Sierra Nevada range and the 134-mile John Muir Way, which winds from coast to coast in his native Scotland. The former was named for Muir shortly after his death in 1914, just before construction started, while the latter was dedicated in 2014. You’ll notice I don’t call these routes “hiking” trails, because Muir hated that word. He preferred “saunter.”
But whether you choose to hike, run, ride, or saunter, you need a trail to find your way into nature. That’s why celebrating National Trails Day on the first Saturday of every June is a great idea. Trails are more than paths — they’re the gateways to our parks, open spaces, and public lands.
It took a handful of dedicated Sierra Club explorers several years simply to map out the mountainous route that became the John Muir Trail. Thanks in part to the Great Depression, actually getting the trail completed took even longer –- 46 years. But for the 1,500 or so hardy folks who trek the full route each year, it was definitely worth it. The trail lets them experience the Sierra’s mountains, forests, and lakes in a way that would otherwise be impossible.
The completion of the John Muir Trail didn’t mean the end of the Sierra Club’s trail involvement, though. We have volunteers who love getting outdoors and working on trails every year, whether through service trips with our national Outings program or through their local chapters. And these days, our most fulfilling trail work is not about making the highest peaks accessible to the boldest adventurers, but about making nearby nature accessible to entire communities.
For an example, check out this blog post by John Monsen from the Sierra Club’s Angeles Chapter about a project in the new San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. The goal is to improve access, upgrade facilities, and add some new trails. At least a decade of organizing went into obtaining this national monument. Now our job is to make sure that the millions of people who live nearby can safely and sustainably enjoy it.
Through the Sierra Club Foundation, we’re currently supporting major trail projects across the country — in Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Arizona, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. That last one is another case of building upon a long, hard-fought conservation victory. Establishing Puerto Rico’s Northeast Ecological Corridor Nature Reserve — an important nesting ground for the endangered leatherback sea turtle — was a fantastic accomplishment for our Puerto Rico Chapter and for Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera (who just won a Goldman Prize for his leadership). Now that they’ve saved this jewel from being developed into golf courses, hotels, and condominiums, though, the next step is to establish a formal network of nature trails and public access points that will foster permanent support for protection.
In the end, trails are all about connecting — whether it’s the act of getting from one place to another or the connection between people and nature. The former is useful, but the latter is essential to the future of conservation. Every trail into nature ultimately leads us home, and everyone deserves the chance to find that path.
Has it been awhile since you’ve had an inspiring saunter? The National Park Service is celebrating its centennial this year. Why not #FindYourPark and your trail?