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The park service's dual mission of conserving the parks and opening them up for the public to enjoy have been at odds for over a century, and the issues in Yosemite and Sequoia & Kings Canyon are in many ways exemplary of the issues that affect the system as a whole. Many fear these special places in the Sierra Nevada are being literally "loved to death" as millions of visitors amass here each summer. But this is a lucky phenomenon for the traveler willing to wander on foot: The crowds stick to the roads, and there is always a trail less taken. Wherever you might go, this section will at least give you some background on those issues facing the parks, their history, and how to enjoy them responsibly.

The Life & Times of John Muir

Over the course of his illustrious 75 years, John Muir earned a nickname: "Father of Our National Parks." In the late 19th century, he pushed for conservation of the pristine wilderness and helped establish Yosemite and Sequoia & Kings Canyon as national parks.

Born in Scotland in 1838, Muir emigrated with his family to Wisconsin at the age of 11. After an accident nearly blinded him about a decade later, he dropped everything to pursue his fascination with the natural world and decided to go to the Amazon -- on foot. He didn't make it, but traveling became a way of life for Muir, and his journeys eventually took him west. He discovered the Sierra Nevada area in 1868 and worked as a shepherd in the Yosemite area. He later ran a sawmill nearby.

Muir began writing about the Sierra Nevada the moment he arrived, and his passionate words started finding an audience in the late 1800s. He wrote a number of books, contributed to numerous periodicals, and became a leading voice in the budding environmentalist movement. In 1892, Muir helped found the Sierra Club. In 1903, he took Teddy Roosevelt camping in the Yosemite backcountry and catalyzed Roosevelt's vision of an entire system of national parks.

Muir is a legend not only for his words and his deeds, but also because he was something of an eccentric. He never shaved, making way for an impressive beard. He experienced nature to its fullest -- he climbed a tree during an incredible storm, sledded down Yosemite Valley's steep walls on his rump to avoid an avalanche, and chased a bear so he could study the animal's stride. (Not surprisingly, these actions have since been banned by the National Park Service.)

From the first moment a politician pondered Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, Muir fought it. Damming and drowning a place whose beauty rivaled that of Yosemite Valley was sacrilege to him. But San Francisco needed water to drink, and Congress passed legislation approving Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in 1913. John Muir died the very next year -- some say of a broken heart.

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