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The range of light: high desert climbing and velvet ski bowls


Story and photos by Yuko Iwanaga

It might seem strange to drive two whole days from the corridor to ski-tour in Sierra Nevada when the beautiful Coast Mountains tower above us.

But touring the Sierras, also known as the Range of Light, is unique as it offers visitors a chance to explore a deeply contrasting landscape with both high desert mountains and snow-capped ragged peaks. It is amazing to experience dry desert on your left while on your right you could be standing in snow at elevations of 10,000 feet or higher.

This is a place where you get to not only ski and rock climb in the same day, you also get to soak in natural hot springs at the end of your daily adventure.

The northwest end of this wide open, massively ragged range begins near the town of Bridgeport in California and ends at the southern town of Big Pine near Bishop (along highway US395, two hours by car from Bridgeport to Reno, 18 hours driving to Reno from Squamish). The range is home to three national parks, 15 state parks, two national monuments and 20 officially designated wilderness areas.

For ski touring, the best time to explore the area is usually mid-April to mid-June. The Sierras get serious snowstorms in the mid-winter months, making it tricky to enjoy. It's common to get ridge-top winds in the 160km/hr range with several feet of snow at that time of the year making for hazardous avalanche conditions. During the winter most ski approaches are very long so people stick with smaller adventures on skis or ski at a resort such as Mammoth.

But come spring, when the road access opens up, it is fairly easy to reach high altitude peaks ranging between 10,000 and 14,500 feet, where it is easy to enjoy the deep snowpack. Velvet in texture and creamy it is skiable till July. This year has been a particularly big snow year so it is crucial to do weather and avalanche checks before heading out to ski-tour.

The Sierras consist of 11 different regions: Bridgeport Region, Virginia Creek Region, Tioga Pass Region, June Lake Region, Mammoth Lakes Region, Convict Creek Region, McGee Creek Region, Rock Creek Region, Pine Creek Region, Bishop Region and Big Pine Region. All the regions offer numerous campsites for tenting and camp trailers. Both natural and commercial hot springs are close to campsites along US395.

The first two places we explored were Crater Crest (11,394-feet) and Horse Creek near Bridgeport /Twin Lakes area. We found beautiful camping at Buckeye campsite, which thankfully featured muscle-relaxing natural hot springs at an elevation of 7,100-feet. Any type of vehicle can make it to the area.

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