The Sierra Nevada is defined as “limited on the north by the gap south of Lassen Peak, and on the south by Tehachapi Pass.” It is about four hundred miles long and varies in breadth from forty to eighty miles. Save for a small angle of the state of Nevada that penetrates Lake Tahoe, it lies entirely in California. To the geologist the Sierra Nevada “constitutes a magnificent unit, one of the finest examples on the face of the globe of a single range, the type of its class.”
A view of Sierra Nevada
To the geographer it is of equal interest. In more than one sense it constitutes a barrier—a barrier to human migration, and a barrier to the winds and storms that press upon it. As a barrier to weather, the range has a beneficial effect. In winter, the storm clouds deposit their watery burden in successive layers of snow, which in due time give birth to streams that merge into rivers and bring life to the land below.
Glory of Sierra
Water, in all its forms, is indeed the crowning glory of the Sierra. The crystalline snows harden beneath the rocky peaks and crests into perpetual snowfields, disclosing here and there beds of blue ice, reminders of the vaster glaciers that ages ago sculptured the cirques and canyons. The cirques now enfold little lakes, sapphire and emerald in hue; sometimes half-frozen, even in summer. Here, in these granite heights, all is silent—silent and undisturbed. But from below comes the tinkling sound of running water; then a murmuring and a splashing as the newborn streams glide into pools irradiated by beams of sunlight. Now comes the great drama of the Sierra. The streams gather volume and begin a boisterous journey, plunging to the depths of canyons in leaping and twisting cascades. In Yosemite, heart of the Sierra, the forms of water attain their most exciting expression. There the great waterfalls leap from lofty cliffs in magnificent variety. In contrast, there are throughout the range hundreds of quiet lakes, lapped in rock basins, bordered by pines and alders. Whether in motion or at rest, the waters of the Sierra are a constant joy to the beholder. Above all, they are the Sierra’s greatest contribution to human welfare.
This wondrous location is best enjoyed over a couple of days stay. You can go and visit by a coach party if you do not possess a car but I find this is very restricted to what time allocation they give you to see this beautiful place. My personal recommendation would be to either take a hire car or better still if you are going in a group employ the services of a professional minibus company. The obvious added bonus is not having to worry about parking, nominating a sober driver, driving in Spain or cramming your extra luggage into a number of vehicles. Specialized company such as Malaga Airport Transfers utilize trailers to carry extra luggage, skis, bikes or anything that you may want to take that would not fit into a traditional vehicle. I find a group booking saves considerably compared to individual hire car hire.
Geology of Sierra Nevada
The Sierra Nevada is generally considered by geologists to be a portion of the earth’s crust that has been detached and uplifted on its eastern margin so as to be tilted to the west in a long moderate slope, segmented laterally by deep canyons. The eastern profile is more complicated. Along much of its length there is a precipitous escarpment, but toward the north this abruptness disappears and the rise to the main crest is more gradual, though sometimes tortuous. At the midway point the crest is so flattened that an interior range has sometimes been mistaken for the summit until more closely examined. Conversely, farther north, at Lake Tahoe, the main crest is separated from the adjacent valley by a trough that contains the lake, with a subordinate range to the east.
Sierra Nevada in winter
The fundamental basis of this great tilted block is igneous rock—granite in varied forms and textures. This granitic bedrock is exposed in large areas of serrated ridges and peaks, in domes and bosses, in perpendicular cliffs, and the clean-swept flanks of canyons. There are glaciated surfaces polished smooth as glass and there are surfaces roughened by ages of weathering. The granite is found in exfoliated slabs and in massive rectangular blocks, in broken talus, and in the boulders and gravel of streambeds. Yet even the casual observer must notice that all is not granite in the Sierra. There are red mountains and there are black ones, such as Mount Dana and Red Slate Peak, Mount Lyell and Mount Goddard, and the Kaweah Peaks. Geologists tell us that these are the remains of an ancient range of metamorphic rock that stood on top of the granite before the uplift. Most of this was eroded away long ago, but substantial portions remain to give variety to the landscape. Another geologic agency, volcanism, has enhanced the variety. Although there are no huge volcanic cones as in the Cascades, there is ample evidence of enormous eruptions in some early period. The famous Table Mountain and the curious Dardanelles in the Stanislaus region indicate that the land was once flooded with lava. Smaller and more recent volcanic remnants are found in a number of places. The most remarkable is the Devil’s Postpile, rivaling in the perfection of its geometric forms the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland and Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish island of Staffa. In the higher regions of the Sierra metals occur, but only sparsely. A few copper claims have been worked, but no appreciable amount of ore has ever been taken out. Silver has been found, but the hoped-for bonanzas never materialized. The story of gold belongs largely to the western foothills, and with the exception of Gold Lake and Mariposa (to be touched upon later) is purposely excluded from this history lest it obscure all other subjects.
The famous things
On the long western slope is the unique forest belt that distinguishes the Sierra Nevada, unique in its relatively restricted area and in the variety and quality of its trees. The conifers, which are the dominant feature, are among the finest specimens of their kind in the world, towering to heights rarely excelled, beautiful in their proportions and in the texture of their bark and foliage.
Famous above all others is the Big Tree, the Sequoia gigantean, found in its natural state only in the Sierra Nevada of California. More extensive, and quite as much to be admired, arc the two great pines, the Yellow Pine and the Sugar Pine. These are the trees that the lumbermen seek for their massive beams and their broad, clear boards. Of the Sugar Pine John Muir wrote: “This is the noblest pine yet discovered, surpassing all others not merely in size but also in its kingly beauty and majesty. The trunk is a smooth, round, delicately tapered shaft, mostly without limbs, and colored rich purplish-brown, usually enlivened with tufts of yellow lichen. At the top of this magnificent bole, long curving branches sweep gracefully outward and downward. The needles are about three inches long, finely tempered and arranged in rather loose tassels at the end of slender branchlets that close the long, out-sweeping limbs. How well they sing in the wind, and how strikingly harmonious an effect is made by the immense cylindrical cones that depend loosely from the ends of the main branches!”