Sierra Club

Sierra Magazine

The Sierra Club celebrates a century of wilderness outings.

by Reed McManus

More than 100 years ago, John Muir and his fledgling Sierra Club knew not to keep a good thing to themselves. The best way to expand the Club's army of mountain defenders, Muir believed, was to share the joy he felt each time he set foot in the Sierra.

"It is impossible to overestimate the value of wild mountains and mountain temples as places for people to grow in, recreation grounds for soul and body," Muir enthused in an early Sierra Club Bulletin. On another occasion he wrote, "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." The Club's mission, method, and sense of community would forever be intertwined. In 1901, the Club announced an annual summer outing, which then-secretary Will Colby said "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." Almost 100 people attended that first Club trip, to Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows.

Nearly every summer for more than 50 years, groups averaging 150 participants were taken into the wilderness on what became known as High Trips. They were elaborate affairs, with pack trains, 200-pound stoves, and full-time cook crews. (Colby liked them so much he would lead them for 35 years.) By the 1940s the Club was also running "burro" and "knapsack" trips or people wishing to travel in smaller groups, and "base camps," where participants stayed at one site for two to four weeks. Because of concerns about the impact of so many hooves and heels, the High Trips were discontinued in the 1960s, although a final one was staged in 1972.

For more information, contact Sierra Club Outings, 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105-3441; phone (415) 977-5630; e-mail; or visit the Web at

Today's Sierra Club Outings program is a different animal. While early trips stayed close to home, now more than 300 domestic and international treks span the globe. The Club's first hikes aimed to introduce novitiates to the wilderness, combining "comparative ease and comfort with the opportunity to see some of the grandest scenery." Modern outings run the gamut from strenuous cross-country explorations to the gentler base camps, so no level of wilderness experience is excluded.

Sierra Club outings are no longer unique in a world crisscrossed by adventure travelers, but they still offer something special: a passionate commitment to conservation. Trips are planned and carried out by volunteers, with fees charged just covering costs. Like the earliest High Trips, today's excursions incorporate lessons about natural history and environmental issues. In the 1950s, Club rafting trips down the Yampa and Green Rivers helped ignite public interest in saving Dinosaur National Monument; contemporary Club outings introduce members to the beauty and vulnerability of Utah's canyon country, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and wild areas in virtually every state and many countries.

For adventurers who want to immerse themselves completely in the Club's mission, there are service trips, in which participants build trails, revegetate overused areas, or map archaeological sites in splendid surroundings. They're part of a long tradition: The Club pioneered service trips back in 1958. More recently, the Club instituted activist trips, in which members explore a wild area at risk while learning how to shepherd grassroots conservation campaigns when they return home.

Though he might miss his big stoves, Will Colby would feel at home on a 21st-century Club outing. He might even warm to the modern requirement that campers pitch in with chores and cooking. Whatever the setting, the Sierra Club hopes that trip participants take a little bit of his and Muir's spirit with them-and find that wilderness adventure is, as Club members Terry and Renny Russell wrote in their 1967 book On the Loose, a means "not to escape from but to escape to."

For more information, contact Sierra Club Outings, 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105-3441; phone (415) 977-5630; e-mail; or visit the Web at

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