In the Beginning...
Lower Smokey Fork Creek that runs the length of the valley
Liz Weber (in white) and friend, Carol Yates explore for the first time the many walls in the Weber's new purchase.
Meeting a Critical Need
Many people have asked how this all came about. How did Muir Valley become one of the busiest privately-owned climbing preserve in North America and the most popular climbing destination in the Red River Gorge?
Those who remember the rock climbing climate in the Red River Gorge in 2003 will tell you that, at that time, the future of climbing here looked pretty dismal. The magnificent Pocket Wall area had just been purchased by Kentucky State Parks and slammed shut on climbers. Then, after a growing concern about misbehaving climbers, there was serious talk coming from the Forest Service of closing the Daniel Boone National Forest to rock climbing. And if that weren’t enough, private land owners, such as oil companies, were coming down hard on climbers whose vehicles and actions were interfering with their operations.
At the same time, climbing had become the fastest growing outdoor sport in North America. Consequently, the crags were becoming crowded, and it was clear that the demand for climbing routes would soon far exceed the availability.
Things were looking pretty bleak indeed.
Rick Weber: "In the fall of 2003, Liz and I were climbing at Torrent Falls and took a break to go next door to Mark Meyer’s Barbeque at the Via Ferrata next door to Torrent. Mark mentioned a piece of property that he was interested in and wondered if we would like to take a look at it. He said it was adjacent to a valley with some interesting rock features. We said “sure”, and Mark called the current property owner, Bob Sparks, and asked him if he could meet us there and show us some of the valley. Bob agreed, and when he showed up, we were driven down to the valley floor.
"What we experienced was akin to entering Jurassic Park – an unexpected and breathtaking world of vertical rock walls encapsulating a valley of natural beauty. We visited one wall after another – what we all know now as Washboard, Solarium, Bruise Brothers, and Stadium. Although, there seemed to be an unlimited amount of Corbin Sandstone cliffs, in reality that day, we only saw a small fraction of the rock faces that were included in this valley.
"Mr. Sparks said that he had several interested potential buyers for parcels of land both in the valley itself and up on top along the rim. Out of the blue, Liz asked him if he would be interested in selling everything, rather than break it up into parcels. He thought about it for a few minutes and told her he would, on the condition that it would be a cash sale and at a price he quoted. As Liz and Bob stood on a rock creek crossing, they negotiated for a few minutes and shook hands on a deal. And, Muir Valley was born.
"Our opening a new climbing area with free public access infused a ray of hope. Even we, at that time, never dreamed that Muir Valley would grow to support in excess of 40,000 visits by climbers each year."
What's in a name?
Liz Weber: "Why did we pick the name “Muir Valley”? Even at that early point in time, Rick and I envisioned our property lasting beyond our lifetimes as a resource for the climbing community and nature enthusiasts, and we did not want to name it after ourselves. We have long admired John Muir’s achievements, not only as the father of our National Park system and a tireless environmentalist, but also for his prowess on the rock. Old John was the premier rock climber of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. His efforts led to what Yosemite National Park is today—a place for enjoyment of natural beauty coexisting with a world-class rock climbing venue. On a much more modest scale, that is exactly the model we wanted for Muir Valley."
John Muir — the Valley's namesake
Tectonic Wall located in the Tantroft Hollow
Getting the Word Out
Rick Weber: "After agreeing on the purchase of the land that was to become the south half of Muir Valley, Liz and I returned to our home in Indianapolis, eager to return to this enchanted valley and do a more a thorough inspection of the rock walls when the weather turned warmer. In the meantime, we met with some of the young folks in Indianapolis with whom we climbed with at a local climbing gym and showed them photos of our newly-acquired valley. We invited them down and were pleasantly surprised to learn that five or six of them had actual experience setting up rock climbing routes in the Red River Gorge.
"How we got started creating Muir Valley's rock climbing routes is a fascinating story in itself, and this website has a large section dedicated to just that under the menu "Creating Climbing Routes." Or, just click HERE.
Purchasing the North Half of Muir Valley
While exploring the cliffs in the original purchase of land along with some of the rock route developers, the Webers and developers saw impressive rock walls located to the north on the land adjacent to our initial purchase. The owners of this land – about a 160 acres – were identified and negotiations were entered into to purchase this property with its impressive walls, which included what is now known as the Solarium, Great Wall, Midnight Surf, Boneyard, Arsenal, Coyote Cliff, Great Arch, Great Wall, Hideout, Indy Wall, Midnight Surf, Bone Yard, Animal Crackers, Bibliothek, and Persepolis. This purchase brought the total land owned by the Webers and now identified as Muir Valley, to about 360 acres with close to 7 miles of cliff line.
The "Solarium" – a popular area that was part of the second purchased parcel that, together with first purchase, comprised the total land that became known as Muir Valley.
Balancing Preservation with Access
Yosemite National Park and Muir Valley share a similar challenge, although, of course, Muir’s is certainly on a much smaller scale. Large numbers of people experiencing a natural environment can negatively impact it. The trick is to balance preservation and access so that they can co-exist in harmony. On one side of the scale is the environmentally responsible desire to set aside and preserve places of natural beauty, or unusual ecological characteristics, to remain pristine and untouched by human influence. And, on the other side is the position to allow people to view and experience this natural beauty. Rock climbing is enjoyed both in Yosemite and Muir Valley, but only in areas where negative human impact can be minimized or mitigated. Of Muir’s seven miles of cliff line in all, only about one-half mile is developed for rock climbing, while the remainder remains pristine and natural. It is our hope that this policy continues into the future.
Photo of Horseshoe Falls taken by Marcia Lucas Snook. The Webers' goal was to preserve the natural beauty of the Valley while designating limited areas where climbing routes could be established.
Conservation and Leave-No-Trace Ethics
From day one, guidelines and rules were established to help ensure that Muir would not be developed in a haphazard manner. Ecologically sensitive areas were put off limits to developing. Trails were designed and built, not just for the convenience of access to the rock, but also to preserve the natural beauty and ecology of the area. The areas chosen for creating rock climbing routes comprised less than 5 percent of Muir Valley's total acreage.
Enjoying a place like Muir without leaving an impact on the natural environment is, of course, impossible. But, the infrastructure can be designed and built in such a way to minimize human impact while allowing people to experience the area for education and recreation. This was Liz's and Rick's greatest challenge.
We couldn’t consider ourselves good stewards of this beautiful land if we just allowed the thousands of annual visitors to leave their waste wherever the urge hit. One of the surest ways to destroy a pleasant environment and fragile ecosystem is to allow visitors to fill the areas around the climbing walls with human waste. It would have been irresponsible for us to believe that thousands of climbers would—or even could—adequately bury their waste in the rocky terrain that makes up these climbing areas. Early in the development of Muir, two public restrooms were built. And, as the numbers of visitors grew, three more National Park-type vault toilets were added at convenient locations in the Valley.
One of the three Vault Toilets built on the floor of the Valley. An outstanding volunteer, Roger VanDamme, designed the structures and managed their construction.