Lure of the Land
The Sierra Nevada is a land of superlatives and leaves deep, lasting impressions on its visitors.
John Muir called it the Range of Light. In his book Roughing It, Mark Twain described the mountains reflecting in Lake Tahoe as “surely the fairest picture the whole earth affords.” After camping in Yosemite, Theodore Roosevelt described it as “…like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.” And Jack Kerouac did a fine job of summing up the Sierra’s transformative qualities in The Dharma Bums. In the part that describes his attempt to conquer the East Side’s Matterhorn, the character he based on himself says, “All those sedentary bums sitting around on pillows hearing the cry of the triumphant mountain smasher, they don’t deserve it. But when I looked up and saw you running down that mountain I suddenly understood everything.”
It’s no wonder the Sierra impresses. Here are some of its awe-inspiring boasts:
- It’s massive. Longer in length than the French, Swiss and Italian Alps combined, it also gives off a more formidable appearance than the Rockies. That’s because its 400-mile stretch of range is unbroken. Whereas the Rockies are a series of separate sub-ranges, in the Sierra those sub-ranges all connect and leave limited breaks suitable for passes.
- It’s still growing. According to recent scientific study, the Sierra moves closer to the sky by one-to-two millimeters each year.
- It contains three national parks — Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon (though the latter two are managed as one).
- Though Yellowstone was the first national park, designated in 1872, the idea traces back to Yosemite. 1864’s Yosemite Land Grant marked the first time the government provided protection to wild land (Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove) so that natural beauty would be preserved.
- Ten Sierra peaks are classified as official “fourteeners” — mountains that rise above 14,000 feet AND stand out among their companions with an extra dose of height compared to the neighboring summits. (That last criterion is called prominence and the magic number when classifying fourteeners is at least 300 feet.) The Sierra mountains that meet that rule are Mount Whitney, Middle Palisade, Mount Langley, Mount Muir, Mount Russell, Mount Sill, Mount Tyndall, Mount Williamson, Split Mountain and North Palisade. Many climbers shrug off the prominence rule and add three other Sierra mountains to the fourteener list: Starlight Peak, Polemonium Peak and Thunderbolt Peak.
- Mount Whitney is the highest peak in the contiguous US, rising to 14,505 feet.
- Yosemite Falls is the highest waterfall in North America.
- El Capitan is the largest granite monolith in the world, making it the ultimate massive rock.
- Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America.
- Kings Canyon plunges deeper than the Grand Canyon — by thousands of feet.
- The giant sequoia trees that call the Sierra home are the largest living things on Earth.
- There are roughly 100 glaciers in these mountains, the largest of which is Palisade Glacier west of Big Pine. Right nearby, Middle Palisade Glacier has the distinction of being the southernmost glacier in the western hemisphere.
- It’s a portal to the past. Some of its rocks are millions of years old and vestiges of when this was the western coastline. What’s more, many towns maintain their historic character, especially in Gold Country, where more than a few spots don’t look all that different than they did when California was the western frontier.
- Its water quenches the thirst of California’s two largest cities as well as the communities between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
- Its landscapes span lush forests, alpine meadows, steeply rising mountains, glaciers and desert. Some areas could even be described as lunar in appearance, resembling the moon’s surface.
- It has a saltwater lake (Mono).
- It’s a weather-changer, harnessing what comes from the Pacific and halting its progress further west. The western slopes get the rain, at its highest points, it turns to snow, and the East Side and beyond are left thirsty. The whole phenomenon is starkly apparent there, where in the desert you can see the clouds become trapped above the mountains during storms.
- Its gold — discovered in 1848 — prompted one of the largest population migrations in history.
- It maintains its sense of the wild. Besides its national parks, it includes more than 20 designated wilderness areas, making it the largest span of protected wilderness in the lower 48 states. It’s hermit-friendly, too. Alpine County is the least populated in all of California.
- It’s a hiker’s paradise, with some of the country’s longest-distance trails. Besides the world-famous Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada, the John Muir Trail runs 211 miles between Yosemite Valley and Mount Whitney and the Tahoe Rim Trail offers a 165-mile loop of the mountain ridges surrounding the lake.
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