WHF
Source: National Park Service

West Hills Farm — A Place Special to John Muir

The protection and addition of historic West Hills Farm to the John Muir National Historic Site creates the opportunity to expand both the Mount Wanda open space and an extensive trail system for recreation. Visitors enjoy stunning views of Briones Regional Park and the Alhambra Hills from the property’s hilltops --- similar to what John Muir and his family experienced in their lifetimes.

These 44 acres at the south end of Mount Wanda are part of the property that was known as John Swett’s Hill Girt Farm. Swett, one of John Muir’s closest friends, began his term as California’s fourth state superintendent of public instruction in 1863. He founded the California Educational Society. That organization became the California Teacher’s Association in 1875. Swett and his wife lived on his farm after retirement, specializing in grape and wine production.

John Strentzel, John Muir’s father-in-law, purchased property in the valley of Rancho Cañada del Hombre, originally a Mexican land grant, in April 1853. He left the gold fields to become a farmer. He described his first glance of the adapted property as a vivid picture of beauty and opportunity for the future.

"Here was a lovely fertile valley, protected by high hills, from the cold winds and foggs [sic] of San Francisco, a stream of living water flowing through it, the hills and valleys partially covered with magnificent laurel, live-oak and white-oak trees…I knew at once that the valley was well adapted to fruit growing and thought, ‘here I can realize my long cherished dream of a home surrounded by orange groves, and all kinds of fruits and flowers…I immediately purchased 20 acres of the richest valley land, two and half miles from town, paying $50 per acre, and at once removed my family to the new home, they arriving on the 4th of April, 1853." 1

Mrs. Strentzel preferred the name “Alhambra” and from then on the area was known as the Alhambra Valley. Strentzel managed the ranch until 1881 when John Muir married his daughter Louise. For many years afterward Muir blended his responsibilities at the ranch and to his family with writing and activist activities. When Muir returned home after weeks of travel, he enjoyed climbing the hills of the ranch with his two daughters, Wanda and Helen. Muir’s journal entries describe his delight for the tremendous scenic views from West Hills Farm.

"Went to walk with Helen up to the West Hill. She is a wonderful climber and vividly sees and enjoys the mossy rocks, ferns, etc. The view of the bay was charming, mirror calm shaded slightly with gentle breeze in streaks. The colors of the hills far and near, fresh and beautiful. Had fine view of the Sierra. Solid white from summit to [within] 2000 ft of the plain." Thursday, January 24, 1895

Muir walked the farm’s trails with his daughters to admire the coast live oak, blue oak, valley oak, and bay trees that grow there, as well as the native shrubs, perennials, grasses and annual wildflowers that punctuate its grassy hillsides. He writes and shares his enthusiasm for the coming of spring and the bursts of buds from the trees.

"In the evening Helen & I took a walk in the west hills. Some of the live oaks just opening buds. Others with shoots about six inches long. So also the blue oaks. & white oaks The different tones of brown & purple & yellow green swelling in rounded broad masses on the hills very fine." Saturday March 8, 1896

In another journey entry, Muir marvels at trees in bloom and writes of his respect for a lizard making its home on West Hills Farm.

"Fine cool windy day. Took long walks over the west hills & far [area] with Helen. The two white oaks not yet in full leaf. Some just opening buds, but most are well clad with soft downy newborn leaves. Some of their young shoots 5 inches long and fertile flowers open. The young buds for next yrs [years] leaves a fine rose color. I saw and caught small gray lizard that was shedding its skin - the old skin gray - the new nearly black, first sheds about eyes, giving curious look." Friday, March 27, 1896.

Your generous support helped complete this strategic ridgeline acquisition so future generations can enjoy the beauty of this area, with similar views as John Muir and his daughters experienced. Thank you!

1 Cultural Landscape Report for the John Muir National Historic Site, Killion and Davison 2005, p. 30.