High Sierra: Pristine mountain adventure in any season

By John Flinn


John Muir liked to call it "The Range of Light," but that wasn't the naturalist's only pet name for the Sierra Nevada: He also called it "God's mountain mansion"; "The wall of some celestial city"; "The grandest special temple of nature I was ever permitted to enter." You get the idea he was rather fond of the place. It's not just the radiant light that drew Muir—and continues to draw people—to the Sierra again and again. It's the pristine lakes and rivers, the dramatic hiking and biking trails, the contrast between the green meadows and granite battlements.

The Sierra Nevada (Spanish for "snowy mountains") may be one of the highest and most majestic mountain ranges in North America, but it's also one of the most accessible and user-friendly. Stretching 400 miles from north to south, and about 70 from east to west, it's crossed by seven highways—four of them open all year—and encompasses everything from Lake Tahoe—where you might find yourself crowding shoulder-to-shoulder around a boisterous craps table—to remote canyons in Yosemite or Kings Canyon national parks where you can spend a silent and solitary afternoon watching Muir's favorite bird, the water ouzel, plunge into waterfalls and cascades.

In a state with no shortage of superlatives, the region has more than its share: It can boast the world's oldest tree, the world's most massive tree, the Old West's largest ghost town, the nation's highest waterfall and—until Alaska came along and rewrote the record books—the nation's highest peak.

The range is home to three national parks, 15 state parks, two national monuments and 20 officially designated wilderness areas. Hikers get itchy feet at the mere mention of its celebrated walking paths: the John Muir Trail; the Tahoe Rim Trail; the Pacific Crest Trail; the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail. At the drop of winter's first snowflake, skiers begin making plans for the three premier ski resorts on America's West Coast: Squaw Valley (site of the 1960 Winter Olympics), Heavenly and Mammoth Mountain. Streams rushing down the range's sheer east slope into the Owens Valley are renowned for their fly fishing.

Geologically speaking, the mountain range is pretty much one big chunk of granite tilted like a badly placed brick in a cobblestone street: It's gently sloped on the west side and quite steep on the east, lower in the north and higher in the south. Keep that in mind when choosing a hiking trail: for an easier amble, look to the north and west; for a challenging ascent, head south and east.

City & Town

Now connected by gondola to the Heavenly ski resort, the bustling town of South Lake Tahoe, located on the lakeshore and the Nevada border, has seen an injection of energy and interest in recent years, with new restaurants, shops and galleries. With a large inventory of hotel rooms and a cluster of hotel-casinos just a few steps over the border, it's a good bet for inexpensive lodging. In Truckee, a handsome old railroad and lumber town between Donner Pass and Squaw Valley, a collection of Old West historic buildings along Commercial Row now houses busy restaurants and bars, some adorned with portraits of gunslingers and desperadoes. Farther south, sprawling Bishop sports the Owens Valley's most extensive collection of lodging, dining and resupply outlets.

The Great Outdoors

Just a few hours' drive from San Francisco or Los Angeles, the Sierra Nevada has been California's outdoor playground almost since the original 49ers arrived. In Yosemite Valley, spectators with telescopes watch the progress of climbers inching their way up the impossibly sheer granite walls. Tempted to try it? Sign up for an introductory class at the Yosemite Mountaineering School—or at least treat yourself to a "Go Climb a Rock" T-shirt. With some of the most reliably sunny summer weather of any major mountain range, the High Sierra is a hiker's paradise, from easy day walks in the Desolation Wilderness to challenging, multi-week journeys through Kings Canyon and Sequoia national parks. Skiers have their choice of world-class venues, from beginner-friendly Granlibakken to the double-diamond chutes of Squaw Valley and Heavenly. In summer, many of the resorts—particularly Northstar and Mammoth—convert their lifts and gondolas to carry mountain bikes.

Heritage & Culture

Native Americans, pioneer emigrants and gold miners all left their marks on the High Sierra—often literally. At Grinding Rock State Historic Park near the town of Twain Harte, Miwok Indians once ground acorns on an outcrop of marbleized limestone. The 1,185 mortar holes they left behind constitute the largest such collection in North America. In the Hope Valley, just south of Lake Tahoe, you can still see ruts in the rocks left by the covered wagons of settlers on the Emigrant Trail. The shafts of thousands of abandoned mines pockmark the High Sierra. One of the best places to see one is the Great Sierra Mine, a short but steep hike from Tioga Pass in Yosemite. You'll find the remains of old miners' cabins, but exercise care around the shafts, several of which remain open and unfenced.

Family Fun

If the kids aren't yet ready for full-on camping, Lake Tahoe has two old-timey resorts with knotty-pine cabins scattered in the trees near the lakeshore, bike and paddle-boat rentals and ice cream parlors. Camp Richardson is on the west shore, near Tahoe City; Zephyr Cove is on the south shore, just over the border in Nevada. The latter is also the dock for the MS Dixie II and the Tahoe Queen, a pair of paddlewheelers that cross the southern portion of the lake and take a spin around Emerald Bay.

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