The Range of Light: Hiking Yosemite’s Grand Traverse

Wed, 21 December 2016
yosemite national park sunset

Words by Colby Brokvist, a guide with Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides, photos by Elliot Ross

“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in” – John Muir

The legendary Scottish-American conservationist John Muir dubbed California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains the “Range of Light”. It is an elegant name, alluding to the soft purples and glowing oranges that bathe the alpine peaks and sparkle in the cascading creeks during the Sierra’s twilight hours. Today, though, on the exposed monolith of rock upon which I am perched, that light is almost too much of a good thing. I feel sunbaked and slightly dehydrated, while the scarf that I am wearing in an effort to shade my face and neck is too hot. Still, the heat is not what holds my attention as I balance hundreds of feet up in the air on Yosemite National Park’s famous Half Dome cable route.

Looking down the steep rock slab, I make eye contact with my fellow mountain guide, who gives me a reassuring nod. Ten adventurers stand between us, each experiencing the exposed climb differently – some greeting the challenge with excitement and others with fright. All are making their way towards the 8,845ft-high summit.

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We are, and have been for some time, rooted very firmly in the moment, just as John Muir must have been in the late 1800s when he spent his first-ever summer in the Sierra. Muir was born and grew up in East Lothian, Scotland, where he developed a fascination with the surrounding countryside and the nearby coastline. He continued his keen pursuit of backcountry experiences when his family moved to the United States in 1849, and he spent the rest of his life championing the many virtues of the wilderness; those special natural places that dare us to let go of our city-dwelling selves. Muir’s reference to the Sierra Nevada as the Range of Light was rooted in a nuanced perspective that arose from living and exploring in the area – a place where you have time to think, ask questions and notice the intricacies of the highland environment. I am thankful that Muir’s ideas have endured, and I am equally grateful that I am able to introduce other intrepid travellers to the far-flung reaches of Yosemite’s protected wilderness.

Our group has already noted the special character of the light in the high country. Enchantingly colourful at its purest and blindingly white at its wickedest, we have seen how the changing tones animate the moods of the windswept peaks and showcase the depth and complexity of our surroundings. The wilderness has a story to tell, and the alpenglow that colours the mountaintops serves to illuminate that manuscript. Muir transcribed what he could of this tale in his time, and there are still many more stories left for us to discover on our own.

Gaining Half Dome’s summit, we are finally able to relax together and take in the views of this vast wilderness. First, of course, we all peer over the edge of the cleaved northwest face, a 4,800ft sheer drop into Yosemite Valley below. Catching our breath again, our eyes begin to wander, and I point out for the group the full route that we are hiking, dubbed by my company – Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides – the “Yosemite Grand Traverse”. I begin by directing their attention to Isberg Pass far away in the distance. On its far southeastern slope, outside of the boundary of Yosemite, is where we began our journey six days ago. At 10,500ft in elevation, it is actually the high point of the route, offering passage between the mighty San Joaquin and Merced River Canyons. It was along that steep switchbacking trail that we pushed our physical limits for the first time, entering Yosemite together through one of the most remote regions of the Sierra Nevada.

Moving our gaze from the pass to the canyon below, I point out the rest of our 60-mile route. Barely out of sight is the unnamed lakeside camp at 10,000ft, where a strong wind blew all night through the twisted whitebark pines. Next, I show them the headwaters of the Merced, highlighting the hidden creekside camp that we inhabited several nights ago. That’s the one with the gorgeous turquoise swimming holes where, on day four, the group washed away any lingering worries about work or life back home. Then there is Half Dome, where we now stand, having come together to support each other all the way to the summit. From our vantage point we can also see what lies ahead on the nal few days of our trip – the magnificent Cathedral Range, a chain of peaks with a profile like no other, enthusiastically sculpted by bygone glaciers.

In two days’ time, we will be camped by the side of a lake among these peaks, enjoying dramatically starry skies on the final evening of our weeklong adventure together. We’ll pitch our tents below Cathedral Peak itself, which watches over the entire Tuolumne region like an ancient imperial guard. Muir was the first person to summit its elegantly carved peak in 1869, and after that daring ascent wrote: “This I may say is the first time that I have been at church in California, led here at last, every door graciously opened for the poor lonely worshipper.” Thanks to Muir, who spent much of his life championing American parks, those doors are open for us too, and we will continue to eagerly step through them until we have to turn back towards civilisation.

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