How the Sierra Club Works

Sierra Club History
California chose John Muir to grace its state quarter in 2005.
California chose John Muir to grace its state quarter in 2005.
U.S. Mint via Getty Images

The Sierra Club acts as an environmental advocate but also promotes adventure and shared wilderness experiences. The combination of advocacy and fun distinguishes the organization from environmental groups that focus solely on legislation or protest.

The Sierra Club's Scottish-born founder, John Muir, embodied the organization's dual principles of conservation and exploration. After losing an eye in a mechanical accident in Canada in the 1860s, Muir decided to explore the natural world. But when his plans to travel to South America went awry, Muir found himself in San Francisco at the doorstep of the Grand Central Valley of the Sierra. Shocked by the expanse and beauty of the Sierra, Muir took on odd jobs to maintain his rudimentary existence of solitary hikes and rambles.

Muir's scientific inclinations soon had him wondering how the deep valleys of the Sierra were formed. He suspected that the slow movement of glaciers carved away the mountains. After carefully measuring the movement of glaciers, Muir formed the theory of glaciation and sacrificed his near-hermetic existence to publish a scientific essay on his findings. The essay made Muir famous, and he pursued a successful career in naturalistic writing before withdrawing to farm fruit and raise a family.

The photographer Ansel Adams was a member of the Sierra Club. The Club used some of his work to promote conservation.
Ansel Adams/National Archive/Newsmakers/Getty Images

But in 1889, Robert Underwood Johnson, an editor, persuaded Muir to reenter the literary world and write about the threats of mining, logging and over-grazing in Yosemite Valley. The pair's two-pronged tactic of publishing articles and lobbying legislators and the U.S. president ended successfully. In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison designated the Valley as a National Park. But Muir and Johnson knew that livestock, logging and mining interests would soon pressure the government to cut back the park's boundaries. The men resolved to form the Sierra Club, an organization of 182 activist citizens, in 1892.

The club's early members believed that people were more willing to fight for something they had actually seen. To establish a presence in Yosemite and encourage tourism, Sierra Club member Will Colby proposed the High Trip, an annual summer expedition to the High Sierra. The High Trips, and the published accounts of camp adventures, helped spread the fame of Yosemite and the Sierra Club.

By mid-century, the Sierra Club's Californian and Western focus had spread east. The club opened an office in Washington, D.C., in 1963. In the next section, we'll learn how the Sierra Club entered the modern environmental movement and find out about the club's conservation initiatives.