The Mountains of California is quintessential John Muir, but it’s not necessarily his most engaging writing.
This was John Muir’s first book, published in 1894. Its focus has very little to do with storytelling and human history.
Rather, the book takes an in depth look at the natural features and nuances of the state’s mountains – primarily the Sierra Nevada.
A cursory look at the chapters makes this abundantly clear. With titles like The Glaciers, The Snow, The Passes, and so on, each section holds true to its topic with immaculate care to detail.
A full reading of The Mountains of California requires a measure of patience and persistence. That’s not to say the writing is poor – surely it is not – but one must come to it with a taste for description.
The book is a comprehensive take on the natural features Sierra Nevada Range, with some respect given to California’s peripheral mountains.
What makes the writing special, in my eyes, is its author’s unique perspective.
John Muir was an amazing individual. Shining within these pages is the evocative, poetic love of nature that’s found in his quotations. He describes the wild lands as they existed in the late 1800s. None but the natives knew the mountains better than Muir.
Most arresting is his complete positivity – his parade of unacknowledged hardships. Muir’s vigorous explorations in search of natural insight seem to pass as effortlessly as a bird in flight, or as easily as the comings and goings of his favorite bird, the water ouzel. “Among all the mountain birds, none has cheered me so much in my lonely wanderings, – none so unfailingly.”
A summary of the The Mountains of California follows, broken down by chapters, with notable quotations.
PDF and Print Books
Like most of John Muir’s works, The Mountains of California is a book that falls in the public domain, so it’s freely shared in a multitude of ways. Some of his more popular quotations, however, are culled from later works like John of the Mountains, which are still protected under copyright.
I’m unaware of a copy strictly in PDF form, but a quality text is published free online at the Sierra Club.
More digital versions are found on Project Gutenberg.
My personal favorite version in print is this gorgeous book, published by the Library of America. Something about Muir’s words make them shine best from the pages of a handsome book. The linked collection includes other favorites like My First Summer in the Sierra and The Story of My Boyhood and Youth.
Quotes & Summary
Here’s a summary of the book, organized by its chapters. Quotations are cited by page number, as they appear in the beautiful hardcover volume, Nature Writings.
1) The Sierra Nevada
This first chapter is essentially an overview of the entire book. Its focus is the general geology and characteristics of the Sierra Nevada. A famous quotation where Muir refers to the Sierra as the “Range of Light” is found within this chapter.
Here, in The Mountains of California, is the first time the phrase Range of Light appeared in his published work.
The phrase also appears (in a different context) in the closing pages of My First Summer in the Sierra. This latter work was derived from Muir’s early journals, so an argument can be made that the phrase was first written at that time.
Then it seemed to me the Sierra should be called not the Nevada, or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light. And After ten years spent in the heart of it, rejoicing and wondering, bathing in its glorious floods of light, seeing the sunbursts of morning among the icy peaks, the noonday radiance on the trees and rocks and snow, the flush of the alpenglow, and a thousand dashing waterfalls with their marvelous abundance of irised spray, it still seems to me above all others the Range of Light, the most divinely beautiful of all the mountain-chains I have ever seen. [page 316]
2) The Glaciers
The Sierra were carved and shaped by glacial activity. Muir describes the range’s glaciers and tells about his discovery of the Black Mountain Glacier. At the time, his assertion that the range was largely carved by glaciers had yet to be more widely accepted.
3) The Snow
Most notable in this chapter is Muir’s description of “snow banners,” a phenomenon seen when snow is perpetually blown in a horizontal “banner” from a mountain peak. Here he describes climbing out of Yosemite Valley one day to the spectacle of viewing countless snow-capped peaks, each with their own respective snow banner.
4) A Near View of the High Sierra
In one of the more engaging chapters in the book, Muir describes his first ascent of Mount Ritter in October 1872. Here’s a couple quotes from this wonderful account.
In tone and aspect the scene was one of the most desolate I ever beheld. But the darkest scriptures of the mountains are illumined with bright passages of love that never fail to make themselves felt when one is alone. [page 350]
No evangel of all the mountain plants speaks Nature’s love more plainly than cassiope. Where she dwells, the redemption of the coldest solitude is complete. [page 351]
Some of Muir’s more commonly-shared quotations are from these pages as well:
“How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains!” 
“Going to the mountains is like going home.” 
5) The Passes
This chapter is simply an overview of the characteristics of the main passes that cross the Sierra Range, with a focus on Mono Pass and Bloody Canyon. Here’s a more obscure quotation culled from its pages:
Accidents in he mountains are less common than in the lowlands, and these mountain mansions are decent, delightful, even divine, places to die in, compared with the doleful chambers of civilization. Few places in this world are more dangerous than home. Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain-passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action. Even the sick should try these so-called dangerous passes, because for every unfortunate they kill, they cure a thousand. [page 363-64]
6) The Glacier Lakes
After the typical sort of overview on lakes that should be expected by this point in the book, Muir goes on to detail a few which include Shadow Lake, Orange Lake, and Lake Starr-King.
Most striking to me within the chapter is an anecdote about Shadow Lake. Muir writes “Year after year I walked its shores without discovering any other trace of humanity than the remains of an Indian camp-fire.”
He goes on the lament the recent intrusion of a shepherd and his flock of sheep, or, as he calls them, “hoofed locusts.”
7) The Glacier Meadows
This strikingly eloquent chapter crescendos on page 395:
With inexpressible delight you wade out into the grassy sun-lake, feeling yourself contained in one of Nature’s most sacred chambers, withdrawn from the sterner influences of the mountains, secure from all intrusion, secure from yourself, free in the universal beauty. And notwithstanding the scene is so impressively spiritual, and you seem dissolved in it, yet everything about you is beating with warm, terrestrial, human love and life delightfully substantial and familiar.
8) The Forests
I first began reading The Mountains of California in 2009. I finally finished the book in 2020, as part of a successful reading of the entirety of this volume.
No, it did not take me a consistent decade to read through the book.
Rather, it was this chapter – The Forests – that stopped my initial reading dead in its tracks. Throughout the chapter, Muir goes into great detail on the aspects of virtually every last tree in the Sierra. It is essentially a small encyclopedia on individual trees – their leaves, bark, average height, typical habitat, average size of their pine cones, and so on.
The Mountains of California is the first book I picked up by Muir, and this chapter is the single reason why it ultimately took me ten years to return to his writing.
Now, with a more curious and mature ear for such details in nature, my recent reading of the chapter wasn’t nearly as excruciating as the first.
The chapter holds a redeeming quality in its passage about the botanist David Douglas (behind the name Douglas Fir, Douglas Spruce, etc.) and how he risked his life simply to obtain pine cone specimens.
9) The Douglas Squirrel
After plowing through the previous chapter, this is a delightful and colorful take on one of the most ubiquitous and industrious creatures of the Sierra’s forests.
10) A Wind-Storm in the Forests
Chapter 10 is home to Muir’s famous account of climbing to the top of a Douglas Spruce tree to bask in the violence of a hellacious wind storm. It’s a short chapter, but serves as an oft-cited example of his obsession with the outdoors.
I kept my lofty peak for hours, frequently closing my eyes to enjoy the music by itself, or to feast quietly on the delicious fragrance that was streaming past. [page 471]
11) The River Floods
In some ways similar to the previous chapter, this one describes a day Muir went out in the midst of a rainstorm to view the flooding basins of the Yuba and Feather Rivers. This was in early winter, at a relatively low elevation near an old mining settlement.
When I arrived at the village about sundown, the good people bestirred themselves, pitying my bedraggled condition as if I were some benumbed castaway snatched from the sea, while I, in turn, warm with excitement and reeking like the ground, pitied them for being dry and defrauded of all the glory that Nature had spread round about them that day. [page 482]
12) Sierra Thunder Storms
Perhaps the shortest chapter of the book – Muir describes the summer’s monsoon thunderstorms:
When the glorious pearl and alabaster clouds of these noonday storms are being built I never attention to anything else. No mountain or mountain range, however divinely clothed with light, has a more enduring charm than those fleeing mountains of the sky – [page 484]
13) The Water Ouzel
Fourteen pages are devoted to a small bird he calls the Water Ouzel, nowadays known as the American Dipper. Within this endearing celebration of the bird, Muir unwittingly reflects the quality of his own personal character in the following passage:
However dark and boisterous the weather, snowing, blowing, or cloudy, all the same he sings, and with never a note of sadness… the Ouzel never calls forth a single touch of pity; not because he is strong to endure, but rather because he seems to live a charmed life beyond the reach of every influence that makes endurance necessary. 
14) The Wild Sheep
Muir’s take on the bighorn sheep of the Sierra is simply titled “The Wild Sheep,” as his lens is juxtaposed through the proliferation of domestic sheep that roamed the Sierra far and wide as pasture. He’d be sad to learn that Bighorn are now endangered, with only an estimated 40 left in Yosemite National Park – largely as a result of disease introduced from domestic sheep.
When we consider here how rapidly entire species of noble animals, such as the elk, moose, and buffalo, are being pushed to the very edge of extinction, all lovers of wildness will rejoice with me in the rocky security of Ovis montana, the bravest of all the Sierra mountaineers. 
15) In the Sierra Foothills
Rather than the expected description of the state’s sun-blasted foothills, this chapter is rather a refreshing account of Muir’s visit to the Cave City Cave, now called California Cavern State Historic Landmark.
Fresh beauty opens one’s eyes wherever it is really seen, but the very abundance and completeness of the common beauty that besets our steps prevents its being absorbed and appreciated. It is a good thing, therefore, to make short excursions now and then to the bottom of the sea among pulse and coral, or up among the clouds on mountain-tops, or in balloons, or even to creep like worms into dark holes and caverns underground, not only to learn something of what is going on in those out-of-the-way places, but to see better what the sun sees on our return to common every-day beauty. 
16) The Bee Pastures
The book closes with a sweeping account of California’s lesser ranges and vast Central Valley as they once were, simply referred to as the “bee pastures.” Within its pages is a brief account of how honey bees were brought to California, including, among other modes, via the back of a wagon across the Great Plains.
My last quotation in this review is Muir’s take on the future of the Central Valley:
The time will undoubtedly come when the entire area of this noble valley will be tilled like a garden … giving rise to prosperous towns, wealth, arts, etc. Then, I suppose, there will be few left, even among the botanists, to deplore the vanished primeval flora. 
On its surface, The Mountains of California is often regarded as Muir’s most classic work. The region is central to his writing, and the book provides insight to Muir’s favorite subjects and flavor. As you’ve seen above, plenty of his best words can certainly be plucked from its pages.
However, from a book-reader’s standpoint, this title is disjointed and challenging at times to read from cover to cover. For the most impactful effect, it’s best to slow down and tackle it in pieces.
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