The Explorers Register Compass


A summit register is the record of people who have reached lofty places, where they can leave their mark by adding their signature to the roster of others who have come before. That’s the idea behind our Explorers Register, our list of the people who have most captured our interest as we learned about the places we’ve explored during our Sierra travels.

They’re a varied group composed of bona fide “mountain men,” intellectuals, naturalists, artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, eccentrics and various combinations of all of the above. They range from gentle souls to hell-raisers, but they all share the distinction of playing a part in the Sierra Nevada’s sense of place.

It’s a list that is by no means exhaustive. If anything, it’s still somewhat bare-bones. But here’s who we have so far – in a nutshell. For most, you can find lots more compelling details throughout the site, so look out for these names as you roam around.

  • Jedediah Smith: fur trapper and first white man to cross the Sierra
  • Joseph Walker: member of the Bonneville Expedition that sought an overland route to the Pacific, likely the first white man to see Yosemite Valley and first to map Walker Pass
  • John C. Fremont: seeker of the mythical Buenaventura River and one of the first to understand the nature of the Great Basin, discoverer of Lake Tahoe, major Mariposa landowner and presidential candidate
  • Kit Carson: Fremont Expedition guide and the Carson for which Carson pass is named
  • John Sutter: one of the first California settlers with his New Helvetia (now Sacramento), who dreamed of an agricultural utopia before John Marshall discovered gold at his mill in Coloma
  • James Beckwourth: freed black slave, Crow Indian chief, flashy dresser, fur-trapper, possible teller of tall tales, blazer of Beckwourth Pass — a safer, lower-elevation path for pioneers taking the Overland route to California
  • Moses Schallenberger: teenage pioneer with the first successful Sierra wagon party who survived a winter all on his own in the same area where two years later, heavy snow surprised the Donner Party and brought several to their doom
  • Lafayette Bunnell: Mariposa Battalion member moved to tears by the beauty of Yosemite Valley and eloquent writer who brought his impressions of its natural wonders to a broader audience
  • James Hutchings: journalist, first to bring tourists to Yosemite Valley, one of its first hotel operators
  • Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau (a.k.a. Pompey): son of Sacagawea, youngest member of Lewis & Clark’s Corps of Discovery expedition and, later on, Gold Rush migrant and Auburn hotel worker
  • Domingo Ghirardelli: failed miner who went on to become California’s most famed chocolatier after first setting shop in the Sierra foothills in Hornitos
  • Augustus Dowd: bear hunter who made the Calaveras Big Trees a worldwide phenomenon
  • Florence Hutchings: James Hutchings’ daughter and the first white child to be born in Yosemite Valley, a spitfire who lived fast until her too-early death at 17
  • Galen Clark: champion of Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, first Yosemite ranger
  • Snowshoe Thompson: trans-Sierra mail carrier who traveled his 90-mile route between Placerville and Genoa, NV, on skis
  • Josiah Whitney: head of California Geological Survey — which mapped the Sierra in an effort to learn more about its gold — and the Whitney for which Mount Whitney is named
  • Mark Twain: Virginia City newspaper man and Tahoe firestarter
  • John Muir: the man most synonymous with the Sierra — glacial theorist, national park advocate, first Sierra Club president
  • George Anderson: Half Dome first ascentionist and planter of its cables, Yosemite trail-builder
  • Norman Clyde: ultimate Sierra climbing icon and first on the summit register for a staggering number of peaks
  • Orland Bartholomew: forefather of backcountry skiing in the Sierra, who made a solo trip from Mount Whitney to Yosemite across the most rugged stretches of crest in the name of snowpack research
  • Stephen Mather: Borax millionaire who treated his depression with time in the Sierra (and pictures of Yosemite Valley when he had to be away), funder of Tioga Road and Sequoia groves in SEKI, first director of National Park Service
  • Gilbert Stanley Underwood: famed architect of grand national park lodges like Yosemite’s Ahwahnee, but also humbler structures like the Sequoia National Park grocery store that now houses a museum
  • Smoke Blanchard: truck driver and one of the first to discover the joys of alpine escape among the boulders in Bishop’s Buttermilks
  • Lon Chaney: movie monster and avid Sierra fishermen at his Big Pine Canyon retreat
  • Ansel Adams: famed black-and-white photographer, but also Sierra Club member, Half Dome cable installer, Ahwahnee pianist and producer of its Bracebridge Dinner, and advocate for Kings Canyon’s national park designation
  • Chiura Obata: classically trained Japanese artist who founded first Japanese-American baseball league, became a Berkeley professor, did time in internment camps during World War II and created some of the most stunning Yosemite imagery with his labor-intensive woodblock prints
  • Nic Fiore: the man who taught California to ski, helming Yosemite’s Badger Pass for more than five decades
  • Gary Snyder: Beat writer and mountain man who guided Jack Kerouac up the Matterhorn and has been a key proponent of the bioregionalism movement in Nevada City
  • Mark A. Smith: Jeepers Jamboree founder who earned an induction into New York’s prestigious Explorers Club for his Jeep-based expeditions and made Georgetown and the Rubicon trail an off-roading mecca
  • Royal Robbins: clean-climbing advocate, first up northwest face of Half Dome, operator of Tahoe climbing school, prominent High Sierra kayaker
  • Warren Harding: first famed El Capitan climber also known for his irreverent style and appreciation of cheap wine
  • Huell Howser: modern-age California explorer who paid visits to a plethora of the Golden State’s many road trip destinations on his PBS series California Gold, taking in the sights, learning about their history and often exclaiming “That’s amazing.”
  • Frank Gehrke: Chief Snow Surveyor for the California Department of Water Resources, who’s been measuring the Sierra snow since 1987 and been at the front lines of recording climate change in the Range of Light
  • Dean Potter: “outdoor artist” who was one of Yosemite’s “stone monkeys” and a record-setter on its big walls before turning his attention to slacklining and BASE-jumping from towering and beautiful vantage points
  • David Imus: award-winning cartographer who crafts maps that give direction, but also tell stories. His massive depiction of the Sierra Nevada is a staple on our expeditions.
  • Alex Honnold: modern face of big wall climbing who often shuns ropes
  • Shawn Forry and Justin Lichter: twosome who completed the first-ever thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail in winter, trekking some of those 2,650 miles on snowshoes and skis and conquering a plethora of off-season hardships

And if you’re interested in better understanding where some of these folks fit in Sierra history era-wise, check out our Timeline to see who was doing what when.