John Muir National Historic Site Martinez, Calif. Visited: June 19, 2005 NPS Site Visited: 207 of 353 NPS Website; Local Website
WHAT IS IT? Home and fruit ranch, from 1890 to 1914, of John Muir, our country’s greatest conservationist and advocate for the beauty and necessity of wild, public lands.
BEAUTY (4/10) John Muir would probably not recognize his former ranch and abode. His 2,700 acres have dwindled to 8½. His home’s rural California surroundings have morphed into an industrial and population center. The quiet serenity he enjoyed writing in his second floor “scribble den” would now be impossible because an 8-lane freeway now passes within yards of the room’s windows. Had the situation been the same in the 1900’s, John Muir probably would have moved.
The ranch’s grounds provide a welcome respite from the asphalt visuals. Sadly, the roar of automobiles never ceases. The wooden windmill and verdant orchards speak of a different time. There are trees bearing almonds, pears, oranges, apricots, figs and pomegranates. There are true Cedars and Eucalyptuses growing far from their native soil. A proud Sequoia rises just steps from the house. John Muir planted the seeds of the gentle giant in the 1890’s. His hand touched much of the botanical life that remains.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (5/10) John Muir lived in this Victorian house for the last 24 years of his life. Reproductions of Thomas Hill and William Keith paintings of the places he helped preserve decorate every room. Even inside his home, John Muir surrounded himself with reminders of nature.
Much of John Muir’s writing originated from what he called his “scribble den.” Muir’s prose encouraged Americans to acquaint themselves with nature and conserve what American wilderness remained. Early meetings of the Sierra Club, the conservation organization co-founded by Muir, were held in his house. Exhibits in the attic chronicle the conservation movement in the United States.
CROWDS (6/10) We encountered a few other couples as we wandered the house and the orchard. The parking lot was surprisingly sparse for a weekend afternoon.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (5/5) The John Muir House is located near the East Bay town of Martinez, just a stone’s throw from California Route 4 a/k/a the John Muir Parkway. Take Exit 9, go north and take the first left. If you blink, you might miss the Site. The House is within 40 miles of Oakland, San Francisco, Berkeley and the Muir Woods.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5) The Site’s bookstore carries over 70 books, videos and children’s books by and/or about John Muir. It does not carry much else. John Muir’s mission did not die in 1914. He was the father of the American environmental movement. We would have enjoyed a few books about the modern-day John Muirs, the National Park System, and the specific Parks that John Muir helped to create.
COSTS (3/5) Entry is $3 per person, free with the National Parks Pass. Your fee also includes admission (for a week’s span) into the Muir Woods NM located almost 40 miles to southwest near Mill Valley in Marin County.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (3/5) One Ranger in the Visitor Center; one volunteer at the house. There were so few visitors that two staff should have been sufficient. However, the Ranger was occupied with a student conducting an interview and the volunteer was focused on her cross-stitch. Neither were particularly helpful.
TOURS/CLASSES (5/10) We arrived in time for a 2 p.m. tour of the house, but the Ranger never appeared. It seems we weren’t clear enough when we said we’d be interested in the 2 p.m. tour.
No matter. The 14-page booklet, available for a $1 at the VC, provided plenty of information as we gave ourselves a self-guided walk around the Site.
FUN (4/10) Our time at the Site was uneventful but not unpleasant. We strolled through the orchard trying to name the trees and fruit blossoms before our pamphlet told us their true identities. We walked through the house in silent admiration of the man who had done so much for what is now the National Park Service. We rang the bell in the bell tower (the volunteer said we could.) Gab was thrilled to see that the plants in John Muir’s sunroom were the same kinds that used to decorate our old apartment. Michael didn’t have the heart to tell her they were probably placed there post-Muir.
But the freeway is constantly in your line of vision and buzzing in your ears. The home of someone who so loved and promoted the serenity afforded by nature is now in the shadow of concrete and steel. This is both a cruel irony and an effective reminder that the struggle to protect our natural resources and places of beauty is not over. John Muir’s advocacy and the creation of the National Parks was the beginning, not the end.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (4/10) If you are not familiar with the conservation work and the writings of John Muir, little will be gained by visiting this Site. Go instead to Muir Woods NM or the John Muir Wilderness Area and immerse yourself in the natural beauty he helped preserve and protect.
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