John Muir once climbed Riverside’s Mount Rubidoux — by car – San Bernardino Sun

Google’s shorthand description of John Muir (1838-1914) is “mountaineer.” It’s fair to say he didn’t gain that reputation by ascending Riverside’s Mount Rubidoux, a glorified hill that is a mere 780 feet from base to summit. But he did ascend it.

That’s correct. The champion of the Yosemite Valley, the founder of the Sierra Club, the father of our National Park system, John Muir visited Riverside and climbed Mount Rubidoux.

I learned that fact from a talk by Rubidoux expert Glenn Wenzel last October and every time I think of it, I laugh. So many facts are depressing. Facts that make you laugh are to be cherished.

Glenn Wenzel talks about the Huntington Rock during a hike up Mount Rubidoux in Riverside on Feb. 23. Wenzel is the author of two books on Mount Rubidoux’s history, including his latest, “They Climbed the Mountain.” (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

I mentioned Muir’s visit in writing last month about Wenzel and his book, “They Climbed the Mountain,” saying I’d have to come back to the Muir story because it was a hoot.

Intrigued, history buff Sue Payne of San Bernardino emailed: “A cliffhanger — from atop Mount Rubidoux no less! More about Muir?”

My philosophy: Always leave ’em begging for Muir.

Here’s the story. Frank Miller, who owned Mount Rubidoux and the Mission Inn, wrote to Muir in January 1907 as construction of the first roads wrapped up.

“We have lately built in Riverside a mountain road or, more properly, a foothill road,” Miller wrote, tacitly admitting Rubidoux wasn’t a mountain. “In my frequent walks and drives up the new road I always think of you and wish I could take you over it and give you the view of Riverside from the top.”

In April, Miller wrote again, telling the naturalist that a plaque quoting him would be installed on a boulder.

John Muir was photographed by Mount Rubidoux’s Huntington Rock, where a plaque with a quote by Muir urges people to “climb the mountains.” (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings,” goes Muir’s quote. “Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into the trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

(Next time the Santa Anas rage, calm yourself by saying: “The winds are blowing their own freshness into me, and also this sand into my eyes.”)

“We have your verse ‘Climb the Mountain’ lettered up on hammered copper plate,” Miller wrote to Muir, inviting him to the dedication. “Surely you should be here when the tablet is placed upon the boulder where the beautiful words will be a perpetual inspiration to all who pass that way.”

Rather than say “don’t call me Shirley,” Muir was intrigued, but sent his regrets. He said he hoped to get to Riverside in late May.

It was June 6 before Muir could get to Riverside. He was accompanied by his friend A.C. Vroman, a photographer and bookstore owner in Pasadena. They arrived to find that Miller was — oops — in Europe.

So here were Muir and Vroman in Riverside, needing something to do. Castle Park wouldn’t be built for another few decades. So they went up Rubidoux.

Did the two outdoorsmen assemble their provisions and grab their walking sticks?

Nope. They drove.

Yes, John Muir motored up the road to Rubidoux. Why walk when you can drive? Also, to be fair, Muir was 69. His hiking days may have been behind him.

John Muir once posed for a photo by Huntington Rock at Mount Rubidoux in Riverside, where a plaque features a quote by him urging people to “Climb the mountains.” (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

Muir was photographed by Vroman standing by the boulder, and again standing by the cross at the summit, and also gazing down at Riverside. And he gave a quote to the Riverside Enterprise newspaper about the view.

“The people look like ants! Wait, those really are ants.”

Just kidding.

“The view is charming,” Muir actually said. “I had never seen this country before and this was a delightful introduction. The view from the mountain is one of the most characteristic that could be obtained.”

The photos are in the John Muir papers at the University of the Pacific. When Wenzel located them online, the captions said “unidentified location, unknown date.” He let archivists know they were taken on Rubidoux on June 6, 1907, and they are now properly identified.

Muir returned to Riverside in January 1911 and stayed at the Mission Inn. There’s a photograph of him seated in a garden at the hotel conversing with John Burroughs, another naturalist.

It’s unknown to me whether Muir climbed, or drove, up the mountain on his return visit. Perhaps he took the attitude, “been there, drove that.”

Rubidoux today

People no longer drive up Mount Rubidoux, thankfully, but they are out in great numbers walking, jogging, bicycling and pushing strollers. But what are those numbers?

The city of Riverside installed automated counters in mid-2016 to try to get a handle on where, when and how many visitors were entering. The first full year was 2017, when 693,344 were counted. 2018’s count (661,259) was down. So were 2019 and 2020.

Then 2021 saw 720,426, according to parks supervisor Jarin Valencia.

“These numbers are incredible!” wrote Pamela Galera, director of Parks, Recreation, and Community Services, by email.

That would be the most visitors recorded yet. But there’s a wrinkle.

2019’s 276,531 was an incomplete count because the counters weren’t functioning for long stretches.

And in 2020, when people were itching to get out, there is no data for five months at the popular Glenwood entrance near Bonaminio Park and for one month at the Ninth Street entrance. Even at that, the total was 621,708.

What might it have been with a 12-month count? It may well have approached, or topped, 1 million. But we’ll never know.

“We had a significant increase in use in 2020 because of the pandemic. It would be nice to have all of the data so we could make a better comparison,” said Randy McDaniel, deputy parks director. “Nonetheless, there is a clear increase from 2018.”

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