Explore John Muir’s Yosemite: OFFICIAL LAUNCH!

I am so excited to share with you the final version of this project, which has been in the works for about a year and half!

Multimedia installation for web and iPad app Explore John Muir’s Yosemite, illustrates the writings of naturalist and conservationist John Muir through interactive photography and music, offering an engaging new interpretation of Muir’s vision of nature.

The 2014 launch of Explore John Muir’s Yosemite commemorates the centennial of John Muir’s death, the 150th anniversary of the Yosemite Grant, and the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.


Back in June ’13, I traveled with my partner John Resig to Yosemite and nearby Sequoia National Park to capture about 1,000 videos, photographs, and audio recordings of sites that were important to John Muir. You might have seen my travel diary on this blog from this special trip.

Visiting the site of John Muir’s cabin at Yosemite Falls.

Over the following several months, I designed and constructed an interactive media experience integrating selections from Muir’s essays with my photography and a non-linear score I composed and produced specially for this project. John then coded the Javascript engine that drives the animations and interactivity in the installation.

I was honored to exhibit the beta version of Explore John Muir’s Yosemite for renowned Muir scholars last March at the 2014 international John Muir Symposium at The University of Pacific in Stockton, CA, with support from NYU’s Student Senators Council Academic Conference Fund Grant.

Since then, John and I have been refining things under the hood and converting the browser experience into a visually immersive iPad app, which I’m excited to report is now available as a free download in the App Store.

If you like the iPad app, please consider leaving a review in the App Store.

Enjoy the finished product! I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Production of Explore John Muir’s Yosemite was supported in part by a Challenge Grant from New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

Day 1: The Giant Forest

“Between the heavy pine and silver fir zones towers the Big Tree (Sequoia gigantea), the king of all the conifers in the world, ‘the noblest of the noble race.'” —John Muir (Read Chapter 7 of The Yosemite  for more from  Muir on the sequoias in the Giant Forest and nearby locales.)

On June 10, 2013, I arrived with my partner John at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park (south of Yosemite National Park) with the intention of photographing, filming, and experiencing majestic ancient sequoia trees for my project Illuminating John Muir’s Yosemite (which could more accurately be called Illuminating John Muir’s Yosemite and Surrounding Relevant Areas!).

McKinley Tree
Can you spot tiny me in front of the giant McKinley Tree?

The Giant Forest (name coined by John Muir) is an exceptional stand of giant sequoias and other conifer trees. We entered the Forest in the late afternoon after a 4 or 5-hour drive from the Bay Area, where we had ended a several-day cross-country train trip from New York on Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited and California Zephyr.

Driving southeast through the dry San Joaquin Valley—where we saw endless, rolling fields of golden-brown dried grass, irrigated almond farms, ranches, and small highway-side farm towns—we  climbed winding Route 180 up and up into the pine-covered mountains, entering into Kings Canyon National Park. Heading further south into Sequoia National Park, we stopped at the Lodgepole Visitor Center to acquire trail maps and refill our water bottles, then made our way to our eventual destination at an elevation of roughly 6,400 feet.

We meandered down from the moderately busy parking lot to the General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest living tree by volume, then walked a fairly short loop on the paved Congress Trail, where the number of fellow tourists rapidly decreased.

The giant sequoia’s broad trunks were more massive and ancient (they can live over 3,000 years, third oldest in the world) than I could comprehend. Snapping photos and attempting vainly to capture the sheer size of the trees in my viewfinder, I spotted a number of deer, squirrels, butterflies and ants (all of which John Muir loved) and enjoyed the fern-dotted slopes of exposed soil coated in beds of dried pine needles. Peeking through branches, pine-covered rolling hills hovered in the distance, hazy and blue.

The light was a bit difficult for shooting this evening: slightly overcast and flat, with brief, beautiful moments of golden light breaking through. Once the sun was too low to continue, we drove back to our room at Stony Creek Lodge for a modest dinner of vacuum-sealed grocery store sandwiches (the only readily available food at that hour!) and rested up for our first full day in the Sierra Nevada.

Read the next post in the series (Day 2)

Return to the On the Road to Capture John Muir’s Yosemite to view the other entries in this series.

Day 2: Moro Rock and Crescent Meadow

On our first morning in Sequoia National Park (having explored some of the Giant Forest the previous evening), John and I drove through the Giant Forest to the Moro Rock trailhead. There we climbed up to the summit of a granite dome that is notable for having a readily accessible concrete stairway built into it (complete with railings… at least for part of the way!) for  non-climbers such as myself. Trivia of note: the unlikely stairway itself, an engineering and construction feat, is in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

Alongside panting tourists and some more well-prepared hikers, I carefully walked up the 1/4 mile (300+ feet elevation gain) of stairs, treated to incredible pine and chaparral-blanketed mountain vistas all along the way.

After this little adventure, we continued following the footsteps of John Muir by visiting Crescent Meadow—which he  nicknamed the “Gem of the Sierras.” Muir writes about it in an essay on pioneer Hale Tharp:

“Resting awhile … it seemed impossible that any other forest picture in the world could rival it. There lay the grassy, flowery lawn, three fourths of a mile long, smoothly outspread, basking in mellow autumn light, colored brown and yellow and purple, streaked with lines of green along the streams, and ruffled here and there with patches of ledum and scarlet vaccinium. Around the margin there is first a fringe of azalea and willow bushes, colored orange yellow, enlivened with vivid dashes of red cornel, as if painted.

Then up spring the mighty walls of verdure three hundred feet high, the brown fluted pillars so thick and tall and strong they seem fit to uphold the sky; the dense foliage, swelling forward in rounded bosses on the upper half, variously shaded and tinted, that of the young trees dark green, of the old yellowish. An aged lightning-smitten patriarch standing a little forward beyond the general line with knotty arms outspread was covered with gray and yellow lichens and surrounded by a group of saplings whose slender spires seemed to lack not a single leaf or spray in their wondrous perfection.

Such was the Kaweah meadow picture that golden afternoon, and as I gazed every color seemed to deepen and glow as if the progress of the fresh sun-work were visible from hour to hour, while every tree seemed religious and conscious of the presence of God.” —John Muir

Crescent Meadow is a gloriously lush, marsh-like, medium-sized meadow ringed by sequoias and other conifers, quaking aspen trees, and fern-carpeted slopes, adjoined by the equally beautifully (and less tourist-y) Log Meadow. The fragile meadows themselves are protected from the trampling of visitors, so we took a leisurely hike in the forested areas looping around the two meadows, stopping to snack on trail mix while watching deer snack on leaves. The atmosphere was idyllic as we took in the delicate music of a small creek (a common feature of the forests and meadows in the area) and the colors of diminutive, elegant wildflowers, which were plentiful in this moderate late-spring weather.

Hoping to reach our room at the historic Wawona Hotel before dark, we made the 2 1/2 hour drive up through the southern gate of Yosemite National Park and into Wawona, where we enjoyed yet more beautiful meadow and forest scenery on a sunset hike on a loop trail around the (mosquito-infested yet lovely) meadow adjoining the golf course across Highway 41 from the hotel. Tucking into dinner in the super-quaint old fashioned dining room then settling into our room, we prepared ourselves for the following day and our first glimpse of the great Yosemite Valley.

Read the next post in the series (Day 3)

Return to the On the Road to Capture John Muir’s Yosemite to view the other entries in this series.

Day 3: Yosemite Valley and Glacier Point

Having visited the Giant Forest, Moro Rock and Crescent Meadow in Sequoia National Park, the third day of my John Muir-inspired pilgrimage into the Sierra Nevada brought me, finally, to Yosemite Valley.

My partner John and I were welcomed by the “Tunnel View” as we drove out of the tunnel that leads between Wawona and the Yosemite Valley. The famed granite domes of El Capitan, Half Dome, Cathedral Range and the Bridalveil Fall—gushing with delicate yet powerful streams of springtime snowmelt—greeted us in unreal majesty.

We continued into the valley and visited Yosemite’s Greatest Hits during the morning and afternoon. Numerous roadside pull-overs offered clear meadowed views of the aforementioned sights, and we followed short trails to Bridalveil Falls, Lower Yosemite Falls—the foot of which was home to John Muir’s cabin for two years–and Mirror Lake, where we were treated to a classic tree-framed view of Half Dome and Mount Watkins.

John Muir spent weeks on end exploring and contemplating this landscape in relative solitude. I  saw some of what Muir saw and got a glimpse into his world, but I haven’t experienced it in the remarkable way that he was able to. Even in the middle of a weekday and early in the season, tourists crowded the roads, the viewpoints, and the free park shuttles that brought visitors between trailheads, campgrounds, and the Village (home to gifts shops and eateries). At about a mile wide, the valley floor itself is fairly intimate and traffic, buildings, and paved paths often felt omnipresent. A deeper communion with the landscape and the wildlife would necessitate moving away from the roads and tourists and getting up into the trails—and on this particular visit, I had neither the time nor the physical skill to take on many of the hikes leaving from the valley (such as the trails up to Upper Yosemite Falls or Glacier Point).

On our way out of the valley we took the moderately nerve-wracking drive to Glacier Point to view an astonishing panorama of the valley from above the height of Half Dome. Every landmark, small and large, was visible in the distance like miniatures on a movie set, including the camps and buildings on the Valley floor. The waterfalls moved slowly in the distance as we shivered in the cool high-altitude air and, wishing we could stay to watch the sunset but eager to make the long twisting drive to Wawona before nightfall, continued onward.

Read the next post in the series (Day 4)

Return to the On the Road to Capture John Muir’s Yosemite to view the other entries in this series.

Day 4: Tioga Road to May Lake, Tenaya Lake, and Tuolomne Meadows

“With your heart aglow, spangling Lake Tenaya and Lake May will beckon you away for walks on their ice-burnished shores.” —John Muir (Read  Muir’s descriptions of his favorite excursions to these spots in The Yosemite, Chapter 12.)

On my second full day in Yosemite National Park (and the fourth day of my John Muir pilgrimage), my partner John and I visited a region of the park much beloved by Muir. After a long winding drive from our base at the Wawona Hotel (about 2 1/2 hours to Tuolomne Meadows) taking the Tioga Road northeast of the Big Oak Flat entrance to the park, we followed a short, rugged road to the May Lake trailhead.

There we hiked up through the stark, rocky terrain leading to a gorgeous, medium-sized lake beneath the peak of Mt. Hoffman. The cold, fresh mountain air and white sunlight were restorative. I could almost imagine myself in the midst of one of Muir’s two or three-week journeys of climbing and botanizing. Passing long chains of sturdy horses carrying supplies up to the High Sierra Camp at May Lake (and and a few very comical yellow-bellied marmots munching on the horses’ droppings), we reached an elevation of 9270 ft. Unaccustomed to the thin air, we were winded but inspired: this trail rewarded us with some of the most incredible vistas of our trip.

After walking back to the trailhead and dreaming about someday returning to spend a few nights at the High Sierra Camp, we drove onward to enjoy the view from Olmsted Point, then Tenaya Lake. I was particularly taken with the lake, the largest in the park and a stunning pool of bright blue sky-reflections beneath spare granite peaks.

We continued onward to Muir’s beloved Tuolomne Meadows, one of the locations I’ve been most looking forward to visiting. There the Tuolomne River travels gently through a broad carpet of lush, emerald green ringed by pines and bounded by stunning, craggy granite peaks (featuring the distinctive Cathedral Range and Lembert Dome). It felt as though we had crossed through some barrier and entered a mountain paradise. In his turn-of-the-century language, Muir described it as:

“…the widest, smoothest, most serenely spacious, and in every way the most delightful summer pleasure-park in all the High Sierra.”

This was not a solitary paradise, of course: we ate burgers in the parking lot of Tuolomne Meadows Grill alongside groups of long-term backpackers following the John Muir Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail through the vast swaths of the northern Yosemite Wilderness, a conservation area inaccessible by vehicle.

After visiting Soda Springs, a natural spring from which Muir and others acquired naturally carbonated water (although beautiful, it didn’t look too tasty to us) and walking on looping paths through the meadows, we tore ourselves away to make the long drive back to Wawona before dark—agreeing that if we could have an extra few days in Yosemite, we would have likely spent it at these and other sights off of the Tioga Road.

Read the next post in the series (Day 5)

Return to the On the Road to Capture John Muir’s Yosemite to view the other entries in this series.

Day 5: Hetch Hetchy and a Return to Yosemite Valley

“Hetch Hetchy Valley, far from being a plain, common, rock-bound meadow, as many who have not seen it seem to suppose, is a grand landscape garden, one of Nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples…

Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.” —John Muir (Read more of Muir’s essay against the damming of Hetch Hetchy.)

Hetch Hetchy was the subject of a controversial conservation struggle within Congress in 1908-13, in which this valley north of the Yosemite Valley—to which it bears great resemblance—was ultimately dammed and turned into a reservoir providing water to the San Francisco Bay Area, to the great distress of John Muir. (More recently, the organization Restore Hetch Hetchy has been fighting to have the reservoir removed and the valley restored.)

In my journey to experience and record sites important to Muir, I had to visit Hetch Hetchy to contemplate what the place is today, what it was like before the valley floor was flooded, and to try to wrap my head around the fact that I have lived much of my life off of the pure Tuolomne River water channeled from this former valley (among other reservoirs) and into the taps of San Francisco.

The place was beautiful, placid, quiet, and a bit haunted. The parallels that Muir describes in his essay are visible: Hetch Hetchy’s granite domes are like the cousins of Yosemite’s, with identifiable equivalents to El Capitan and Half Dome. Due to the flooding of the valley floor, there is really only one way to explore Hetch Hetchy: a wildflower-starred trail that leads around one side of the valley to its two stunning waterfalls, and continues along the rim. We trekked through the hot weather to the Wapama Falls (its companion, Tueeulala Falls, was dried up when we visited) and basked in the cool spray flying off of its powerful, roaring flow.

Later that afternoon we returned to the Yosemite Valley to get a last look at Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Fall, the peaceful Merced River, and the granite domes. Golden light bathed the landscape as we watched from Tunnel View, taking my final photographs alongside the throngs of tourists and trying to contemplate how this Yosemite trip seemed to have both sped by and occupied a huge amount of time, since we have been so headily immersed.

Read the next post in the series (Day 6)

Return to the On the Road to Capture John Muir’s Yosemite to view the other entries in this series.

Day 6: Mariposa Grove

The morning on our way traveling out of the Yosemite National Park and back to San Francisco, we took a quick visit to the famed Mariposa Grove: the largest grove of giant sequoias in Yosemite Park (although the Giant Forest we visited in Sequoia National Park was similarly impressive). There we saw the Grizzly Giant, the Faithful Couple, and other monumental ancient sequoias, including the California Tunnel Tree: carved out in the 19th century to create a “drive-through” tunnel in order to attract tourists, it is still alive and healing the massive wound to its trunk.

We were also treated to an up-close show of a Douglas squirrel, aka chickaree—one of Muir’s most beloved creatures, to which he dedicates a vivid chapter of The Mountains of California:

“Though only a few inches long, so intense is his fiery vigor and restlessness, he stirs every grove with wild life, and makes himself more important than even the huge bears that shuffle through the tangled underbrush beneath him. Every wind is fretted by his voice, almost every bole and branch feels the sting of his sharp feet. How much the growth of the trees is stimulated by this means it is not easy to learn, but his action in manipulating their seeds is more appreciable. Nature has made him master forester and committed most of her coniferous crops to his paws.” —John Muir

Check out the gallery below for photos of Mariposa Grove and a video clip of the Douglas squirrel chirping and collecting sequoia bark for its nest:

Over the next several months I will be crafting the photographs and videos I’ve captured into an immersive multimedia installation for the web bringing together these visuals with John Muir’s writings and my musical interpretations. (See this post for more information.) Stay tuned!

Return to the On the Road to Capture John Muir’s Yosemite to view the other entries in this series.

On the Road to Capture John Muir’s Yosemite

Travel Journal

July 1, 2013 — This series of posts recounts my June 2013 pilgrimage into the Sierra Nevada and includes slideshows with 160 of the best photos and videos from the trip.

Mirror Lake, Yosemite National Park
Mirror Lake, Yosemite National Park

About the Trip

June 4, 2013 — Tomorrow I begin a cross-country train trip from New York to California, where I’ll be photographing and filming in Yosemite National Park and nearby areas for multimedia project Illuminating John Muir’s Yosemite (more information about the project here). I feel privileged and thrilled to undertake this exciting journey into the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The visuals and field recordings I collect in Yosemite will be developed into a browser-based multimedia immersive environment accompanied by new music and selections from the writings of naturalist/conservationist/genius John Muir.

Travel and art are an inspiring combination. I find the process of exploring new places becomes even more poignant and memorable with a creative project as my mission. Music and video piece The Faraway Nearby involved tracking down painter Georgia O’Keeffe’s favorite landscapes in New Mexico (read my travel log about that adventure). My mini-documentaries for Beyond the Notes: Music Inspired by Art led me to explore the homes and environments that inspired painters Thomas Cole and Charles Burchfield (see posts A Thomas Cole Pilgrimage and A Charles Burchfield Pilgrimage).

Once again, I’ll be posting about this project’s development. You’re invited to follow my journey’s progress on this blog and on Twitter.

Nell Awarded Grant from NYU Steinhardt for Multimedia Project

John MuirMy forthcoming multimedia project Illuminating John Muir’s Yosemite through Music, Video and New Media was recently selected to receive the Undergraduate and Master’s Students Research/Creative Project Award through the Challenge Grant program at the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

Illuminating John Muir’s Yosemite will be an online installation and live performance weaving together a song cycle for soprano and piano with original video, photographs, and literary selections exploring naturalist John Muir’s experiences in Yosemite National Park at the turn of the 20th century. The audience will be invited to inhabit, re-imagine, re-invigorate, and share in John Muir’s vision of nature as a source of spiritual and creative inspiration.

This summer I will be traveling to Yosemite National Park to collect footage and photographs for this project. Stay tuned for updates!