Elliot Ross is a New York City based freelance photographer. Born in Taipei, Taiwan, his interest for the photographic medium, for far flung places, and for observing the effects of isolation on interpersonal relationships developed during his upbringing in rural Northeast Colorado. He holds a BFA from the Savannah College of Art and Design. His work has been widely published, with notable appearances in National Geographic Magazine, The Guardian, Refinery29, Vice and the The Atlantic. His daily updates can be found on his Instagram here.
Below, follow Elliot on an eight day trek through the backcountry brilliance of Yosemite, guided by the words of noted conservationist John Muir.
On this day, we celebrate the centennial of the The National Park System–one of the the great equalizers of our country. Our parks serve as focal points of national pride and mutual admiration for our natural jewels, and as a forum that draws together all walks of life.
“A visit inspires love of country; begets contentment; engenders pride of possession; contains the antidote for national restlessness,” argued visionary and founding director Stephen Mather. Not only do they bring us together and let us forget our differences, they remind us of how small we are. We come out more creative, more at ease and with a renewed sense of respect for the planet that bore us.
These words were written by and lived by our country’s most beloved conservationist, John Muir, who made Yosemite his home. I’ve longed to spend time in its backcountry recesses — what Muir fondly called the “Range of Light” for the unique way sunlight takes to the granite balds and craggily peaks, from the sharp sunrises to midday’s blinding brilliance and the evening’s ephemeral alpenglow. I wanted to see Yosemite, a place I have visited many times before, away from the Valley crowds and through Muir’s eyes.
When Colby Brokvist, a seasoned explorer and old friend of mine who manages the outfit Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides, invited me along on a trek that promised many of the harder to reach secrets of the park, I assuredly signed on. Supported by a team of mules, we navigated a sixty mile route Colby dubbed the “Yosemite Grand Traverse” at a purposely slow meander that took us up and over high alpine tundra, descending below into stands of gnarled whitebark and foxtail pines, past expansive electric green meadows nested at the bottom of valleys wrought over eons by the slow plodding of glaciers.
Wildlife met us, entirely uninterested in our presence. Meanwhile, our eyes trained upward through the towering canopy of subalpine montaine forests — the home of conifers, pines and fragrant stands of juniper. After pushing through the thin air of Isberg Pass, the wild and scenic Merced River served as our guide for much of our way, offering up swimming hole after swimming hole. We didn’t pay too much heed to the ravenous mosquitos, for our eyes in turn feasted on an abundance of wildflowers: scarlet columbines, red mountain heather, the alien looking snow plant, the aptly named pussypaws for it’s kitten furred pedals, seepspring monkeyflower, Sierra penstemon, Applegate’s paintbrush, and great fields of lupine.
Now, having just emerged on the other side of Yosemite with summer well past its zenith, eight days have passed since my last shower. I’m the itchiest I’ve ever been. Buying five packs of white t-shirts has taken the place of doing laundry. I need to punch a new hole in my belt. I’ve fallen asleep whilst staring at the stars every night this week, made lifelong as well as single serving friends on the trail; as well as lonely roads, buses, visitor centers, mountaintops and gas stations, not to mention old friendships rejuvenated with new mischief made.
I look back on this midsummer night and cherish the rich vanilla smell of Jeffrey Pine nestled into the montane chaparral, the cosmos jeweled and glistening, reflected in Cathedral’s fluid glass, the way our howls echo, trailing off into infinitely quieter versions of themselves, deep into the expanses of Yosemite granite and in the company of a small fire, I realize I have received far more than I sought. For all this, I have to thank Wilson, Mather, Muir, the rangers and trail crews, and many more for our shrine, the great secular cathedral–our National Parks.
Hover over Elliot’s photographs below to view his personal journal entries from the trail.
Leaving Tim and the mules to pick their way down Isberg pass on their own, I settle into reading some of Muir’s writing in the lee of a boulder. An hour later, I look down towards the northwest and see a line of ants scratching their way across the surface of the meadow, making for a lake Colby has dubbed “10k” for the precise altitude it sits at.
Meet Ward, our resident John Muir lookalike. Although Ward didn’t join us on the trek north through Yosemite, he’s responsible for coordinating and outfitting the mule teams at Minarets Pack Station.
Pack saddles sit, fresh off the mules, sopping with sweat after our first day.
Left: Colby in the warmth of our small fire below Isberg Pass.
Right: While I crest Isberg Pass, another party tops out on Triple Divide Peak in the far distance.
Tim continues to make things look easier than they are as he leads the mule train up a boulder strewn pass.
Triple Divide Peak hangs above “Lake 10k,” our resting place for the second night.
Colby, who doesn’t leave home much without an instrument, breaks the silence.
Back to lower altitudes, the rod hints at a big catch in the fast flow of the Merced.
Sadly our voracious appetite was not equally met by the brook trout.
The moon throws shafts of light on the shores of the Merced as the clock pushes past midnight.
An early rise and a brisk morning hike brings us to the base of Yosemite’s iconic Half Dome. Some of the first people we have seen in days are barely visible on the Cable Route heading up the beached stripe on the east side of the dome.
As we get closer, the Cable Route comes into (steep) focus.
An elevated view of Lower Cathedral Lake as the sun dips below the glacial basin, illuminating the atmosphere around me in a lustrous cool glow.
“Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.” – John Muir
Well after the sun has set, I’m treated to an ephemeral show of alpenglow at Upper Cathedral Lake.
Dirty and battered hands serve as signs of a fruitful week exploring the Range of Light in the footsteps of John Muir.
If our entire week in the Range of Light served as the matinee, then this is certainly the feature. Raked with moonlight, Cathedral sits monumentally above Upper Cathedral Lake and the rest of Tuolumne on this clear summer evening.