After wandering the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains, conservationist and Sierra Club founder John Muir used to come home to Martinez, 30 miles east of San Francisco and near Walnut Creek. The intrepid explorer, geologist, botanist, and mountaineer sauntered across the Sierra and much of the West with only a knapsack containing his notebook and a packet of tea—a stark contrast to his elegant upper-class mansion complete with a bell tower and tidy orchards.
At the John Muir National Historic Site, you can tour the three-story, 17-room Victorian where Muir resided with his wife and two daughters from 1890 until his death in 1914. The grand Italianate-style house was built by Muir’s father-in-law John Strentzel, a well-regarded horticulturalist and fruit rancher. The ornate structure reflects Strentzel’s taste—and that of his daughter, Muir’s wife Louisa—much more than Muir’s.
At the site, watch the 20-minute film A Glorious Journey, which details Muir’s life and accomplishments, then take the stairs to the upper floor to see his belongings and artifacts in the study, including the writing desk where Muir drafted some of his most important works. Then do as Muir would have done—head outside to explore. Beyond the fruit orchards lies the 1849 Martinez Adobe, a Spanish Colonial structure that was part of this original Mexican land grant. Check out the exhibit in the first-floor rooms that tells the fascinating story of the Spanish Anza Expedition—240 men, women, and children who traveled up the California coast in 1775.
One of Muir’s most famous exploits was his walk from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico in 1867, immortalized in his posthumously published 1916 book A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf. To celebrate that impressive feat, follow a much shorter trail that Muir walked often: a one-mile tromp to the summit of two peaks, Mount Wanda and Mount Helen, named for Muir’s daughters. The ascent provides an inspiring panorama that includes 3,848-foot Mount Diablo and the rolling hills of Contra Costa County, a view that Muir often shared with his girls. From May to October, park rangers lead guided evening hikes to watch the full moon rise from Mount Wanda’s summit.