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Sierra Nevada (US)

The Sierra Nevada is a mountain range that is mostly in eastern California. The range is also known as The Sierra.

The Little Lakes Valley,
above Toms Place, California

Table of contents
1 Geography
2 Geology
3 Biology
4 History
5 Interesting Facts
6 Lists
7 External Links
8 References


The Sierra Nevada stretches 400 miles, from Mount Lassen in the North to the Tehachapi Mountains in the South. The Sierra are bounded on the West by California's Central Valley, and on the East by the Great Basin.

In East-West cross section, the Sierra is shaped like a non-equilateral triangle: the altitude gradually increases as you travel East, until you reach the crest, whereupon the altitude rapidly decreases. Thus, the Sierra crest runs along the eastern edge of the Sierra. Rivers flowing West from the Sierra crest drain into the Pacific Ocean, while rivers draining east flow into the Great Basin and do not reach any ocean.

There are several notable geographical features in the Sierra Nevada:

The height of the mountains in the Sierra Nevada gradually increases from North to South. Thus, the crest near Lake Tahoe is roughly 9000' high, the crest near Yosemite National Park is roughly 13000' high, and the entire range attains its peak at Mount Whitney. South of Mount Whitney, the range quickly dwindles.


See Geology of the Yosemite area for a detailed article about the geology of the central Sierra Nevada.

The geological history of the Sierra Nevada begins in the Jurassic Era, approximately 150 million years ago. At that time, an island arc collided with the West coast of North America and raised a set of mountains, in an event called the Nevadan orogeny. This event produced metamorphic rock. At roughly the same time, a subduction zone started to form at the edge of the continent. This means that an oceanic plate started to dive beneath the North American plate. Magma from the melting oceanic plate rose and created plutons of solid granite, deep below the surface. These plutons formed at various times, from 115 million to 87 million years ago. By 65 million years ago, the proto-Sierra Nevada were worn down to a range of rolling low mountains, a few thousand feet high.

Starting about 25 million years ago, the Sierra Nevada started to rise and tilt to the West. Rivers started cutting deep canyons on both sides of the range. The Earth's climate cooled, and ice ages started about 2.5 million years ago. Glaciers carved out characteristic U-shaped canyons throughout the Sierra. The combination of river and glacier erosion exposed the granitic plutons previously buried, leaving only a remnant of metamorphic rock on top of some of the Sierra peaks.

Uplift of the Sierra continues today, especially along its eastern side. This uplift causes very large earthquakes, such as the Lone Pine earthquake of 1872.


Allan Schoenherr divides the Sierra Nevada into a number of biotic zones:


History of Exploration

The human history of the Sierra Nevada starts with the Paiute tribe on the east side and the Miwok tribe on the west. These tribes traded goods by meeting at and traveling over mountain passes. Even today, passes such as Duck Pass are littered with discarded obsidian arrowheads, which are remnants of the trading.

In the winter of 1844, Lieutenant John C. Frémont, accompanied by Kit Carson, was the first white man to spy Lake Tahoe.

By 1860, even though the California gold rush populated the flanks of the Sierra, most of the Sierra remained unexplored. Therefore, the State Legislature authorized the California Geological Survey, to officially explore the Sierra (and survey the rest of the State). Josiah Whitney was appointed to head the survey.

Men of the survey, including William Brewer, Charles Hoffmann, and Clarence King, explored the backcountry of what would become Yosemite National Park in 1863. In 1864, they explored the area around Kings Canyon. King later recounted his adventures over the Kings-Kern divide in his book Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada. In 1871, King mistakenly thought that Mount Langley was the highest peak in the Sierra and climbed it. However, before he could climb the true highest peak (Mount Whitney), fishermen from Lone Pine, California climbed it and left a note.

The Minarets, first climbed by Norman Clyde

In 1892 through 1897, Theodore Solomons was the first explorer to attempt to map a route along the crest of the Sierra (what would eventually become the John Muir Trail, along a different route). On his 1894 expedition, he took along Leigh Bierce, son of writer Ambrose Bierce.

Other noted early mountaineers included:

Features in the Sierra are named after these men.

History of the Name

Sierra Nevada means "snowy range" in Spanish. In April of 1776 Padre Pedro Font on the second de Anza expedition gave that name to the mountains that could be seen in the distance to the east. Its most common nickname is the Range of Light. This nickname comes from John Muir, who in 1894 wrote in The Mountains of California:

Looking eastward from the summit of Pacheco Pass one shining morning, a landscape was displayed that after all my wanderings still appears as the most beautiful I have ever beheld. At my feet lay the Great Central Valley of California, level and flowery, like a lake of pure sunshine, forty or fifty miles wide, five hundred miles long, one rich furred garden of yellow Compositae. And from the eastern boundary of this vast golden flower-bed rose the mighty Sierra, miles in height, and so gloriously colored and so radiant, it seemed not clothed with light but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city.... Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light. And after ten years of wandering and wondering in the heart of it, rejoicing in its glorious floods of light, the white beams of the morning streaming through the passes, the noonday radiance on the crystal rocks, the flush of the alpenglow, and the irised spray of countless waterfalls, it still seems above all others the Range of Light.

This description is due to the unusually light colored granite exposed by glacial action.

Interesting Facts

A unique peculiarity of the Sierra Nevada is that, under certain wind conditions, a large circular tube of air begins to roll on the south east side. This "rotor" is so perfectly symmetrical that it drives a series of higher counter-rotating rotors. This effect proceeds higher than most aircraft are able to reach. All recent world altitude records set in unpowered aircraft were set in the Sierra Nevada Rotor, most flown from Mojave Airport.

The Sierra Nevada casts the valleys east of the Sierra in a rain shadow, which makes Death Valley and Owens Valley "the land of little rain".


Principal Mountains

List of mountains over 14,000':

Counties in the Sierra

The Carson Range (often considered part of the Sierra) extends into Nevada:

Principal Rivers and Lakes

Other Natural Features

National Parks and Monuments

North to south:
Eastern side of the Sierra:

National Forests

Trails and Routes

External Links