History of the Club and Outings

Culled by D. Kozarsky from various sources listed at the end

Years before the founding of the Sierra Club, many of its future leaders and supporters were traveling the mountains of California and sharing with others the wonders they found there. John Muir was chief among these early wilderness explorers and visionaries. An immigrant who had been raised on a Wisconsin farm and educated at the University of Wisconsin, Muir had arrived in California in 1868 planning to stay only a few months before setting off to study Amazon botany. Virtually penniless, he hired on as a shepherd's assistant, a job that took him to Yosemite Valley. For much of the next decade Muir made Yosemite Valley the center of his experience, becoming well-known among visitors for his tales of travel in what he called "the range of light." Soon his words reached the larger audience of the New York Tribune and other influential publications, and he was writing that the Sierra should be explored by everyone with "the right manners of the wilderness," and permanently protected as a recreational resource accessible to all.

In 1889 Muir embarked on an excursion in northern Yosemite with Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of the influential Century Magazine. Sitting around a campfire at Soda Springs in Tuolumne Meadows, the two planned a campaign for a Yosemite National Park--a campaign that succeeded the following year when Congress established the park. At the same time, a small group of conservationists worked successfully to establish two other national parks: Sequoia and General Grant. Despite the introduction of U.S. cavalry troops into the parks in 1891 to protect them from flocks of trespassing sheep, the parks themselves (as well as the rest of the High Sierra) remained vulnerable to the devastation caused by sheep. Muir and Johnson soon realized that an organization would be necessary to protect California’s national parks.

At the same time, a group at the University of California was interested in promoting recreation by making the Sierra--and especially the Yosemite region--more accessible and better known. Muir joined these and others in the San Francisco Bay Area who were interested in creating an alpine club. Among the organizers were the artist William Keith, attorney Warren Olney, professors Joseph LeConte, Henry Senger, and Cornelius Beach Bradley, and Stanford University President David Starr Jordan. Olney and Senger drew up articles of incorporation.

On May 28, 1892, in a meeting at Olney's office in San Francisco, the Sierra Club was incorporated "to explore, enjoy, and render accessible the mountain regions of the Pacific Coast; to publish authentic information concerning them," and "to enlist the support and cooperation of the people and government in preserving the forests and other natural features of the Sierra Nevada." These three purposes, recreational, educational, and conservationist, constituted the Club's purposes.

Many of the Sierra Club's 182 charter members were scientists; consequently the scientific exploration of the Sierra was vigorously pursued by the organization in the 1890s. Among the Club's first publications were Joseph LeConte's maps of the range. Bolton Brown scouted the area from Mt. Williamson to Mt. Clarence King in the southern Sierra. Walter Starr, Allen Chickering, and Theodore Solomons mapped and photographed the Sierra crest from the Merced to the Kings rivers.

The Sierra Club Bulletin (first published in 1893 and continuing today as Sierra) included reports of excursions, guides to Sierran geography, and scientific papers on the range's natural history. Stanford Professor William Russel Dudley wrote regular columns on forestry.

Fueled by the interest of its city-based members in the mountains, the Sierra Club was growing, but slowly. Eight years after the inaugural meeting in Olney's office, membership numbered 384. Aware of the significance of numbers in politics, Muir became a booster of tourism. He reasoned that "if people in general could be got into the woods, even for once, to hear the trees speak for themselves, all difficulties in the way of forest preservation would vanish."

By 1901 the Club's Board of Directors had determined that an annual summer outing would be a valuable addition to Club activities. Other organizations, such as the Mazamas in Oregon and the Appalachian Mountain Club, engaged in annual outings, but their aims were purely recreational. Viewed in terms of the goals of the Club, outings would encourage members and other interested people to see firsthand the country the Club sought to preserve.

This was no small task at a time when simply reaching the Sierra from San Francisco, many miles distant, required a major effort. While many of the early explorers of the Sierra were Club members, some members had never visited the range and could have little knowledge of Muir's "right manners of the wilderness."

William Colby was the man who undertook to teach them. A graduate of the University of California's Hastings Law School, Colby became Secretary of the Sierra Club in 1900, retaining that position for 46 years, with the exception of the two years he served as President. Colby probably became closer to Muir than any other Club member, and he was Muir's steadfast comrade in the campaign to preserve Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. For the outings, Colby had Muir's strong support.

"An excursion of this sort," Colby said, "if properly conducted, will do an infinite amount of good toward awakening the proper kind of interest in the forests and other natural features of our mountains, and will also tend to create a spirit of good fellowship among our members." At the same time, Colby recognized the necessity of compromise if outings were to initiate novices into the wilderness. He recommended that the trips "combine comparative ease and comfort with the opportunity to see some of the grandest scenery of the Sierra, not too commonly visited as to lack distinction."

He also knew that it was necessary to keep the cost of the excursions low; the typical Sierra Club member was of the middle class, and early participants on outings were often college students. (In fact, Colby frequently ran deficits on outings, which he made up out of his own pocket.) He chose Tuolumne Meadows for the first Sierra Club outing, camping at Soda Springs, where Muir and Johnson had laid plans for the campaign to establish Yosemite National Park.

The first outing was the model for what came to be called the High Trip. Run nearly every summer for more than 50 years as the Club's chief cultural event, the High Trips were not small excursions: 96 people went to Tuolumne Meadows in 1901, more to Kings Canyon the next summer, and the annual number of participants would grow to 200. In the early days a camp was established in a central location, and meals were prepared at a commissary. Camp equipment was transported first by wagon, later by mule-train, and the participants usually walked alongside.

They also walked up mountains. On the first trip, 49 Club members hiked 20 miles and ascended 4,000 feet to the summit of Mt. Dana in one day. Twenty climbed Mt. Lyell, the highest peak in Yosemite National Park. The next year's Bulletin carried two reports of the summer outing, one by Ella Sexton, subtitled "a woman's view of the outing," and the other the "man's view" -- written by Edward Parsons. Parsons noted of the women who ascended Mt. Dana, most of them "Berkeley or Stanford girls," that "their vigor and endurance were a revelation to all of us."

With their focus on community and recreation, the outings produced a very different atmosphere from the camps of the gold miners or those of the geologic explorers of the nineteenth century. This was in part because women established themselves at once as active participants in the Club's activities.

Colby's idea worked, and he continued to lead annual outings for 29 years. Club members found plenty of mountains to climb. In 1902 Muir led a group of campers from the annual outing to the summit of Mt. Whitney. In 1903 a large Club party ascended Mt. Williamson, and 139 people in two parties climbed Mt. Whitney. In 1905, 56 members of the annual outing, including 15 women, made the ascent of Mt. Rainier, on the first High Trip outside California. Stephen Mather was among the party; he later became the first director of the National Park Service, where he used wilderness outings to promote proposed parks to influential citizens and members of Congress.

Sierra Club outings were never simply hiking trips. Before the first outing, campers were advised to read Muir's The Mountains of California and LeConte's Ramblings Through the High Sierra. Once the trip was underway, William Dudley lectured on forestry, C. Hart Merrian taught biology, Theodore Hittell discussed the history of Yosemite, and Muir spoke on geomorphology.

On the 1904 excursion, Harriet Monroe, the poet from Chicago who began Poetry magazine, recited her satirical poem, "The Ballad of Ritter Mountain." She wrote and produced a play, Idyll of the Forest, for the 1908 outing. Such lighthearted interest in art continued; Ansel Adams wrote and produced The Trudgin' Woman and Exhaustos, performed during the 1931 High Trip. And each year the outings succeeded by recruiting new Sierra Club members to "hear the trees speak for themselves."

For many years the Club benefited from close contacts with both state and national conservation agencies. As early as 1891 Muir had proposed a large forest reserve in the southern Sierra. This proposal led to the creation of the Sierra Forest Reserve in 1893, a vast area of more than four million acres stretching from Yosemite on the north to a point well south of Sequoia National Park. Following High Trips to the Kings River in 1902 and 1906, Colby wrote to President Roosevelt and others in Washington urging that the federal government protect it and make it more accessible for public enjoyment. By 1912 the Club had proposed that the Kings and Kern river country be made a national park, which later did become Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

The value of building Sierra Club membership became clear as development increasingly threatened the wilderness. The Sierra Forest Reserve, initially thought inviolable, had been opened to logging and sheep grazing, and in 1914 the Club conducted its last outing to Hetch Hetchy Valley before it was flooded by a reservoir, despite opposition from the Club and other organizations. Muir, 75 years old and worn out by the struggle to stop the dam, died shortly thereafter. In the same year, automobiles first entered Yosemite Valley, and with them began the modern era of industrial tourism, presaging future conflicts for the Club.

In the meantime, modern means of transportation allowed participants on the High Trips easier access to mountains even farther away. In the 1920s High Trips visited Glacier National Park in Montana. Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, and Jasper and Mt. Robson parks in Canada. But Club members conducted their outings primarily in the Sierra, familiarizing themselves with the region they felt an obligation to know, protect, and preserve as a recreational resource.

As Club members explored the Sierra, opening new routes and leading outings, they advocated a system of trails to improve access to the backcountry of the range. After Muir's death, the Club promoted creation of a trail in his name along the Sierra crest, connecting Yosemite with Mt. Whitney. The Club obtained appropriations from the California Legislature and did much of the exploration and planning; even before the trail was completed in 1938, the Club published Walter Starr's Guide to the John Muir Trail, and it has keep the book in print ever since.

By the early 1930s the Club could look back and see that much of its work in rendering the Sierra accessible had been accomplished. Travelers throughout the range referred to Club-produced maps and guides, and they hiked trails built by Club labor. The organization had introduced a significant number of people to the wilderness, in the process establishing an outings program that solidified the traditions necessary to a communal spirit.

The outings had such symbols as the Sierra Club cup and the bandanna, used, according to the first Sierra Club Handbook, "as towel, sunsuit, lunch bag, neckerchief, wash cloth, creel, headdress, apron, scarf, pot holder, terminal protection in case of torn pants, first aid bandage." Outings had produced songs, jokes, poems, plays, and a common sense of purpose.

Meanwhile, climbers from the High Trips were attempting and achieving more difficult ascents in the Sierra. The level of technical achievement moved forward as major peaks were climbed and new routes explored by such men as Duncan McDuffie, Francis Farquhar, Walter Starr, and Walter Huber. A pattern became established in which respected outings leaders became Directors and officers of the Club. The annual High Trip served as a training ground for emerging leaders of the organization.

In 1930 William Colby led his last High Trip. To Marion Randall Parsons, the end of the Colby-led outings seemed like the end of an era. "Our problem is no longer how to make the mountains better traveled and better known," she wrote that year. She wondered whether the Club needed to restate its aims for a modern age.

In fact, the Club was already changing. The Angeles Chapter had been chartered in 1911, the San Francisco Bay Chapter in 1924, the Riverside Chapter in 1932, with many more to come. The first chapter outside of California--the Atlantic, organized by Tom Jukes to serve members on the East Coast--would be chartered in 1950. Each chapter began to provide its own educational and outings programs.

On the 1931 High Trip to northern Yosemite, Francis Farquhar, with Robert L. M. Underhill of the Appalachian Mountain Club, introduced the proper use of the climbing rope to Club mountaineers. Although Club members did not introduce the use of the rope to American climbers, they perfected its use, promoted safety in the sport, and raised the standards for technical climbing. By the mid-1930s they were pioneering routes up spires, walls, mountains, and towers previously thought unclimbable.

World War II forced a temporary halt to the Club's outings program, but actually served to further Club members' progress in developing mountaineering equipment and technique. During the war, many Club leaders saw combat with the U.S. Mountain Troops, while others perfected equipment and trained troops. Indeed, the Manual of Ski Mountaineering, a collection of articles on winter camping and safe mountaineering written by Club members and edited by David Brower, was compiled to aid in training mountain troops. And much of the Army manual, Mountain Operations, was drawn from Sierra Club mountaineering experience.

By the late 1930s the High Trip had grown so large that many members desired smaller, more intimate groups, and they responded enthusiastically to the idea of new types of outings. Under the auspices of Richard Leonard, who became chair of the Outing Committee in 1936, outings were diversified.

Knapsack Trips were begun by David Brower in 1938. [Brower later became the first executive director of the Club, a position he held for 17 years, and is considered by many to be the greatest environmentalist of the 20th century.] On Knapsack trips, participants carried their own food and equipment, were most independent, and were easier on the mountain environment. In the same year, Burro Trips were started. These permitted a more leisurely experience for families with small children, and allowed participants more complete self-reliance.

Two years later Oliver Kehrlein organized Base Camps; participants traveled to one place, where they stayed for two weeks and were cared for by a professional staff, in the High Trip tradition. Yet the High Trip remained the central Club occasion. It was, as Brower remembers, "the best source of the conservation warrior."

Service Trips started in 1958, with a trip to Kearsarge Pass and Bullfrog Lake. The early Service Trips had many stories of steaming piles of refuse collected to be packed or helicoptered out. International Trips started in 1964 with a trip to Chile. The San Francisco Bay Chapter was the first to establish an Inner City Outings group in 1971.

There were also environmental reasons for the Club to begin its transition away from the large High Trips toward smaller, more diversified outings. During the era of the Colby High Trips it was the general view that nobody else was in the wilderness. As that became less true in the 1930s and after World War II, the Club became concerned that its large groups were disturbing the other visitors to the mountains.

Before the war, the National Park Service began to study deterioration of Sierra mountain meadows as a result of the use of pack stock. And in 1947 Richard Leonard coauthored the article "Protecting Mountain Meadows" with Lowell Sumner, an influential Park Service biologist. Although this article pointed out that the Club had been careful with pack stock, and was not "loving the mountains to death," the writing was on the wall. Large parties using many pack animals would increasingly become a problem, even in the spacious backcountry of the Sierra.

As wilderness recreation expanded in the postwar years, so did the potential for development to mar wildlands to an extent little imagined a few years earlier. One result of this was that many members became concerned that Club purposes had not kept up with changes in the Sierra. To these members, the phrase in the Club's statement of purpose that read "to . . . render accessible the mountain regions" seemed fitting to the horse-and-buggy era in which the High Trips had been started, but inappropriate to a time when engineers were planning roads throughout the mountains and hikers could be encountered in every wildland.

Even if only by trail, increased access implied not only crowding in the mountains and deterioration of the wilderness experience, as the Bulletin noted in an article called "Yosemite's Fatal Beauty," but also the potential deterioration of the environment itself. It was at this point that the so-called "Young Turks," such people as David Brower, Richard Leonard, Ansel Adams, and others began to challenge the philosophy of William Colby, who believed that the more visitors to the Sierra, the better. Colby argued that the Club had faithfully followed Muir's ideas both when it advocated new trails and when it participated in the planning of new or improved roads. For example, the Club had proposed roads across Kearsarge Pass and many other Sierra passes.

Now, the Young Turks argued, the emphasis of the Club needed to shift; it was no longer so difficult to reach the backcountry, and technology had eased the burden of wilderness travel. This argument was first raised in opposition to proposed new roads into Kings Canyon National Park and the "improvement" of the Tioga Road in Yosemite National Park. Ansel Adams and David Brower desperately wanted the Club to stop the new Tioga Road, but the Club was slow to respond, and the road was built.

In 1951 the Board of Directors recommended that the Club's statement of purpose be revised from "explore, enjoy and render accessible . . ." to "explore, enjoy and preserve the Sierra Nevada and other scenic resources of the United States." Soon after, this change was approved by the membership.

Because conservation, education, and recreation were linked, this change in Club purpose was reflected in the nature of the Club's outings over the next decades. Outings weren't curtailed, but they were controlled. The High Trip continued, yet increased attention was paid to "minimum impact" camping. Going Light--With Backpack or Burro, edited by Brower, was published by the Club in 1951.

Individual Club outings grew smaller, more self-reliant, and more varied during the 1950s and 1960s, while the total number of people participating in the outings increased dramatically. As the Club's conservation interests extended beyond California, outings were scheduled to wilderness areas of national importance, such as the North Cascades in Washington, the Sawtooths in Idaho, and the Wind River Range in Wyoming.

In a particularly important development, when Dinosaur National Monument was threatened by federal plans to build a dam at Echo Park in the early 1950s, David Brower (who had become the Club’s first executive director in 1952) urged the Outing Committee to plan river trips to Dinosaur's spectacular canyons. These river trips took influential people to this endangered wildland, allowing them to see the monument in a way that was not otherwise available, and might never again be possible if Echo Park Dam were built. Brower also led the Club’s campaign to block construction of the dam, and appeared before congressional committees to expose faulty data provided by the Bureau of Reclamation regarding evaporation rates. In the end, Congress dropped the dam proposal, and for the first time in American history, conservationists had halted a major governmental development project.

Unfortunately, as a concession, the Club agreed to not oppose dam sites outside the national parks, which led to the approval of the Glen Canyon dam, a decision that Brower came to deeply regret once he visited Glen Canyon (prior to its being flooded).

More outings would be organized for the Grand Canyon in the 1960s to build opposition to dam that was planned there. A river-touring section began in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the coming decades saw increased national interest in enjoying and preserving rivers all across the continent.

Even in a changing environment, where quotas frequently must be used to limit recreational impacts, and in a Sierra Club with priorities that have come to include protecting clean air, soil, and water as well as wilderness, the original philosophy of outings continues.




1. The History of the Sierra Club: 1892-1970, by Michael P. Cohen, published by Sierra Club Books in 1988, http://www.sierraclub.org/history/origins/ .

2. The Sierra Club: A History, Origins and Outings, by Douglas H. Strong, from the Nov./Dec. 1997 issue of Sierra Magazine, reprinted in the fall and winter 2004 issues of Inside Outings.

3. Slideshow on Outings History, downloaded from the extranet at http://mitchell.sierraclub.org/outings/Common/about_us/ .

4. The film documentary Monumental: David Brower’s Flight for Wild America, 2005.