Sierra Nevada (U.S.): Wikis


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Sierra Nevada
Aerial photograph of the eastern Sierra Nevada.
Country United States
States California, Nevada
Highest point Mount Whitney
 - elevation 14,505 ft (4,421 m)
 - coordinates 36°34′42.9″N 118°17′31.2″W / 36.578583°N 118.292°W / 36.578583; -118.292
Length 400 mi (644 km), North-South
Geology batholith, igneous
Period Triassic
Position of Sierra Nevada inside California.

The Sierra Nevada (Spanish meaning "snowy mountain range"[1]) is a mountain range located in California and Nevada, United States. The range is also known informally as "the Sierra," "the High Sierra" and "the Sierras."



The Sierra Nevada stretches 400 miles (650 km) from Fredonyer Pass in the north to Tehachapi Pass in the south.[2] It is bounded on the west by California's Central Valley and on the east by the Great Basin. Physiographically, it is a section of the Cascade-Sierra Mountains province, which in turn is part of the larger Pacific Mountain System physiographic division.

In west-east cross section, the Sierra Nevada is shaped like a trapdoor: the elevation gradually increases on the west slope, while the east slope forms a steep escarpment.[2] Thus, the crest runs principally along the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada range.

Rivers flowing west from the Sierra Crest eventually drain into the Pacific Ocean, while rivers draining east flow into the Great Basin and do not reach any ocean by natural means.[3] [However, water from several streams and the Owens River is redirected to the city of Los Angeles (see Los Angeles Aqueduct). Thus, by artificial means, some east-flowing river water now does ultimately make it to the Pacific Ocean.]

There are several notable geographical features in the Sierra Nevada:

East Face of Mt. Whitney as seen from the way up on Whitney Portal.

The height of the mountains in the Sierra Nevada gradually increases from north to south. Between Fredonyer Pass and Lake Tahoe, the peaks range from 5,000 feet (1,524 m) to more than 9,000 feet (>2,700 m). The crest near Lake Tahoe is roughly 9,000 feet (2,700 m) high, with several peaks approaching the height of Freel Peak (10,881 feet, 3,316 m), including Mount Rose (10,776 feet, 3,285 m), which overlooks Reno from the north end of the Carson Range. The crest near Yosemite National Park is roughly 13,000 feet (4,000 m) high at Mount Dana and Mount Lyell, and the entire range attains its peak at Mount Whitney (14,505 feet, 4,421 m).

South of Mount Whitney, the range diminishes in elevation, but there are still several high points like Florence Peak (12,405 feet, 3,781 m) and Olancha Peak (12,123 feet, 3,695 m). The range still climbs almost to 10,000 feet (3,048 m) near Lake Isabella, but south of the lake, the peaks reach only to a modest 8,000 feet (2,438 m).[7][8]


Table 1: Major passes

This table shows some major passes of the Sierra Nevada, from north to south, with their elevation and significance.

Name Elevation Significance
Fredonyer Pass 5,775 ft (1,760 m) SR 36 (paved road)
Beckwourth Pass 5,221 ft (1,591 m) SR 70 (paved road)
Donner Pass 7,085 ft (2,160 m) I-80 (interstate highway)
Central Pacific Railroad (first transcontinental railroad)
Echo Summit 7,382 ft (2,250 m) US 50 (paved road) Lincoln Highway (first road access across United States of America)
Luther Pass 7,735 ft (2,358 m) SR 89 (paved road)
Carson Pass 8,650 ft (2,637 m) SR 88 (paved road), Pacific Crest Trail (foot trail).
Ebbetts Pass 8,730 ft (2,661 m) SR 4 (paved road), Pacific Crest Trail (foot trail)
Sonora Pass 9,624 ft (2,933 m) SR 108 (paved road), Pacific Crest Trail (foot trail)
Tioga Pass 9,943 ft (3,031 m) SR 120 (paved road)
No roads cross the Sierra Crest for nearly 200 miles (320 km) between Tioga and Sherman Passes.
Sherman Pass 9,200 ft (2,804 m) Sherman Pass Road (County Road J41)
Walker Pass 5,250 ft (1,600 m) SR 178 (paved road)
Tehachapi Pass 3,793 ft (1,156 m) SR 58 (paved road), Union Pacific Railroad

Out of these, state routes 4, 108, and 120 are closed during winter, while the California Department of Transportation attempts to keep I-80, US 50 and CA 88 open year-round.


Image of the Sierra Nevada and Owens Valley from the International Space Station.
See Geology of the Yosemite area for a detailed article about the geology of the central Sierra Nevada.

The well-known granite that makes up most of the southern Sierra started to form in the Triassic period. 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.[9] 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 in plumes (plutons) deep underground, their combined mass forming what is called the Sierra Nevada batholith. These plutons formed at various times, from 115-million to 87-million years ago.[10] By 65-million years ago, the proto-Sierra Nevada was worn down to a range of rolling low mountains, a few thousand feet high.

Twenty million years ago, crustal extension associated with the Basin and Range Province caused extensive volcanism in the Sierra.[11] About 4-million years ago, the Sierra Nevada started to form 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 uppermost portions of the plutons emplaced millions of years before, leaving only a remnant of metamorphic rock on top of some Sierra peaks.

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


Upper Montane Forest

The Sierra Nevada is divided into a number of biotic zones[10]


Little Lakes Valley: typical terrain in the Eastern Sierra

The earliest identified inhabitants of the Sierra Nevada were the Paiute tribe on the east side, and the Mono and Sierra Miwok tribe on the western side. Today, passes such as Duck Pass are littered with discarded obsidian arrowheads that date back to trade between tribes. There were also prehistorical territorial disputes between the Paiute and Sierra Miwok tribes[12]. Archaeological excavations placed Martis people in northcentral Sierra Nevada during the period of 3,000 BC to 500 AD. Washo and Maidu were also in this area prior to the European exploration era.[13][14]

History of exploration

1859 drawing of a camp of covered wagons, in a forest of tall pines in the Sierra Nevada.

European-American exploration of the mountain range started in the 1840s. In the winter of 1844, Lt. John C. Frémont, accompanied by Kit Carson, was the first Caucasian man to see Lake Tahoe.

By 1860 even though the California Gold Rush populated the flanks of the Sierra Nevada, most of the Sierra remained unexplored.[15][16] 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 H. Brewer, Charles F. Hoffmann and Clarence King, explored the backcountry of what would become Yosemite National Park in 1863.[15] 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. Before he could climb the true highest peak (Mount Whitney), fishermen from Lone Pine climbed it and left a note.[15]

The Minarets, first climbed by Norman Clyde.

Between 1892 and 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).[15] On his 1894 expedition he took along Leigh Bierce, son of writer Ambrose Bierce.

Other noted early mountaineers included:[15]

Features in the Sierra are named after these men.


In 1542 Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, sighting the Santa Cruz Mountains while off the peninsula of San Francisco, gave them the name Sierra Nevada meaning "snowy saw teeth"1 in Spanish. As more specific names were given to California's coastal ranges, the name was used in a general way to designate less familiar ranges toward the interior.[17] In April 1776 Padre Pedro Font on the second de Anza expedition, looking northeast across the Tulare Lake, described the mountains seen beyond:

Looking northeast we saw an immense plain without any trees, through which the water extends for a long distance, having in it several little islands of lowland. And finally, on the other side of the immense plain, and at a distance of about forty leagues, we saw a great Sierra Nevada whose trend appeared to me to be from south-southeast to north-northwest.[18]

John Muir was the first person to call the Sierra Nevada the Range of Light.[19]

Owens Valley and the Sierra Escarpment.

Climate and meteorology

Snow in the mountains of California.

During the fall, winter and spring, precipitation in the Sierra ranges from 20 to 80 in (510 to 2,000 mm) where it occurs mostly as snow above 6,000 ft (1,800 m). Rain on snow is common. Summers are dry with low humidity; however, afternoon thunderstorms are not uncommon. Summer high temperatures average 42 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The growing season lasts 20 to 230 days, strongly dependent on elevation.[20]

A peculiarity of the Sierra Nevada is that, under certain wind conditions, a large round tube of air begins to roll on the southeast side. This is known as the "Sierra Nevada Rotor" or a "Sierra Wave"[21]. This "mountain wave" forms when dry continental winds from the east cause the formation of a stacked set of counter-revolving cylinders of air reaching into the stratosphere. As of 2004 no sailplane has found its top. Similar features occur on many mountain ranges, but it is often observed and utilized in the Sierra. The phenomenon was the subject of an Air Force-funded study in the early 1950s called the Sierra Wave Project.[22]

Many recent world altitude records set in unpowered aircraft were set in the Sierra Nevada Wave, 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".[23]

Protected status

In much of the Sierra Nevada, development is restricted or highly regulated. A complex system of national forests, national parks, wilderness areas and zoological areas designates permitted land uses within the 400-mile (640 km) stretch of the Sierra. These areas are jointly administered by the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service. See List of Sierra Nevada topics for a list of protected areas.

See also


  1. ^ Carlson, Helen S., Nevada Place Names: A Geographical Dictionary, University of Nevada Press, 1976, p. 215 ISBN 978-0874170948
  2. ^ a b "Sierra Nevada". Ecological Subregions of California. United States Forest Service. 
  3. ^ "The Great Basin". Great Basin National Park. U.S. National Park Service. Retrieved 2007-05-12. 
  4. ^ a b "Facts about Lake Tahoe". USGS. Retrieved 2007-05-12. 
  5. ^ "Current Survey Control GT1811". National Geodetic Survey. 
  6. ^ "The General Sherman Tree". U.S. National Park Service. 
  7. ^ Google Earth images.
  8. ^ California State map, 2007.
  9. ^ Shaffer, Jeffrey. "Evolution of the Yosemite Landscape — The Nevadan Orogeny". One Hundred Hikes in Yosemite. 
  10. ^ a b Schoenherr, Allan A. (1995). A Natural History of California. UC Press. ISBN 0-520-06922-6. 
  11. ^ Joel Michaelsen. "Geologic History of California". 
  12. ^ Hoffmann, Charles F. (1868). "Notes on Hetch-Hetchy Valley". Proceedings of the California Academy of Science 1 (3:5): 368–370. Retrieved 2006-09-27. 
  13. ^ Drake, Bill (2000). "ANCIENT PETROGLYPH MAKERS OF THE NORTHERN SIERRA". Retrieved 2008-08-15. 
  14. ^ "Prehistoric Context". Idaho-Maryland Mine Project, Master Environmental Assessment. June 2006. p. 2. Retrieved 2008-08-15. 
  15. ^ a b c d e Roper, Steve (1997). Sierra High Route: Traversing Timberline Country. The Mountaineers Press. ISBN 0-89886-506-9. 
  16. ^ Moore, James G. (2000). Exploring the Highest Sierra. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-3703-7. 
  17. ^ Farquhar, Francis P. (March 1925). "Exploration of the Sierra Nevada". California Historical Society Quarterly. 
  18. ^ "4/2/1776". Expanded Diary of Pedro Font. Retrieved February 3 2007. 
  19. ^ Muir, John (1894). Mountains of California. 
  20. ^ "Sierran Steppe - Mixed Forest - Coniferous Forest". Ecological Subregions of the United States. US Forest Service. Retrieved 2007-01-27. 
  21. ^ "The Sierra Wave". Nature Notes. Yosemite Association. 
  22. ^ Ryan, Bertha. "A Brief History of Soaring at Inyokern Airport". Inyokern Airport Album. 
  23. ^ Austin, Mary (1974). The Land of Little Rain. University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 0826303587. 

External links


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