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About William O. Douglas

William O. Douglas, raised in Yakima, Washington, in the early 1900’s, was a well-known jurist who served on the United States Supreme Court for 36 years. Douglas became a prolific writer and adventurer. In addition to his judicial opinions he wrote 32 books, and 200 articles in magazines, law reviews, and outdoor journals. He was also an inveterate hiker and walker. He began hiking early in his life into the foothills surrounding Yakima. The mountains he observed from his home extended an invitation to him to walk their trails, climb their lofty peaks, fish their high lakes, and explore their lush meadows. He started walking the areas closest to Yakima. Then he hiked further into the lower Cascade foothills. Beginning at age 11, and for ten years of his adolescent life thereafter, he made annual trips of a week or more into the Cascade Mountains. Ultimately, he hiked most of the areas between Yakima, Mount Rainier and Mount Adams.

Throughout his adult life his hikes grew outward as a pebble-in-a-pond forms ever expanding circles. His excursions extended from Washington State south to the Sierras in California and north to the Brooks Range in Alaska; to the east he trekked through the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming and the Maroon Bells of Colorado. "It is only by foot that one can really come to know the nation," he wrote in his autobiography. He hiked the Long Trail in Vermont through the Berkshires of Massachusetts. He walked from hut to hut in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and climbed Mount Washington. He canoed the Allagash, scaled Mount Katahdin, and hiked across Baxter State Park in Maine. Douglas walked through the Smokies, along the Appalachian Trail, all the way from Massachusetts to Georgia, and explored the Everglades of Florida. Because of William O. Douglas's childhood frailty and early introduction to the Cascades, walking and hiking became a regular part of his lifestyle.

Hiking is not the only way to relax, he wrote, in Life Magazine on November 30, 1959. Painting, gardening, tennis, fiddling, these are all means to the same end. But for me hiking is the best of all. It puts the cells back into harmony and sets up a body rhythm important to one doing substantial mental work. Hiking is good exercise in the conventional sense as well. One who hikes regularly can keep track of the life of the woods, including the great migration of birds. These are my reasons for hiking and for believing that we should get in at least 20 miles on foot every weekend—rain, shine, or snow.

In a 1972 letter to Mr. Edgar Tompkins, a librarian from Albany, New York, Douglas reaffirmed his opinion about the importance of hiking:

A stroll can be very tiring. A hike, in contrast, is exhilarating. One who hikes a distance comes back with a different perspective. His worries and concerns have faded away and he is once more in tune with the world. His subconscious may have solved knotty problems for him as he hiked. Beyond all that is the function that hiking performs in forcing man to relate himself once more to the earth from which he came and to which he soon returns. The pileated woodpecker, the bared owl, the red fox, and muskrat reintroduce themselves, reminding man that they and he are only one community that prospers together or that perishes together. 

On many occasions in his life Douglas followed his own advice and got directly involved in political action by organizing hikes to increase awareness about a particular place and to preserve areas from development or ruin. He lead protests to preserve wild places on the Olympic Peninsula and Glacier Peak in Washington State; the Buffalo River in Arkansas, Lake Erie, and the Allagash River in Maine; the Guadalupe Mountains, in New Mexico, Allerton Park, in Illinois, and the Chesapeake and Ohio (C & O) Canal, that parallels the Potomac River near Washington, D.C.


Tom Hulst
September 2006


Books Authored by William O. Douglas That Chronicle His Pacific Northwest Adventures

Of Men and Mountains.  New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950

My Wilderness: The Pacific West. Garden City: Doubleday, 1960

A Wilderness Bill of Rights. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown, 1965

Go East, Young Man: The Early Years.  New York: Random House, 1974


Other Books About William O. Douglas

Hulst, Tom R. The Footpaths of Justice William O. Douglas: A Legacy of Place. New York, Lincoln, and Shanghai: iUniverse, Inc., 2004

O’Fallon, James M. ed. Nature’s Justice: Writings of William O. Douglas. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2000