California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, fittingly named from the Spanish words for “snowy” and “saw” and usually called just “the Sierra,” comprise some of the highest and most rugged terrain in the United States.  Paradoxically, they are also among the most accessible.  The western side of the Sierra is a modest slope rising from California’s flat Central Valley to near the mountain crests, and highways deeply penetrate the massif, a handful of them creeping over high passes to the eastern side.

In contrast, the eastern side of the Sierra is a steep escarpment, falling abruptly from the ridge line nearly 14,000 feet high to the floors of deep valleys like the Owens Valley at just 4,000 feet.  20 to 30 miles away across these valleys lie similarly steep faces of tall mountains like the White Mountains, in which White Mountain Peak tops out only a few hundred feet shorter than the Sierra’s 14,505 foot tall Mount Whitney, and the Panamint Range in which Telescope Peak rises to 11,331 feet.  But along the base of this daunting escarpment runs highly accessible U.S. Highway 395.  From it travelers can comfortably experience the most rugged and highest terrain in the lower 48 states, California’s best preserved gold rush town, the thrill of walking into an active volcano, the almost unearthly beauty of alpine lakes, the mountain-encircled breeding ground of half of California’s seagulls, the touch of the oldest living things on Earth, and more.  Those who make this journey and come away from the Eastern Sierra unmoved by the Earth in her splendor have a hard heart indeed.

The Face of the Eastern Sierra


This narrative encompasses what can be seen and easily visited by traveling south on 395 from a beginning a bit south of Carson City, Nevada and ending at the town of Delano in the southern Central Valley.  It is by no means exhaustive of the fascinating and beautiful places available along the way, but is merely a sampling of these natural wonders.  A full trip takes a few days, but a delightful and thrilling jaunt can be accomplished with one overnight stop.

Most of the territory explored in this narrative is part of the great Basin and Range Province of which the Sierra are a part.  The Basin and Range Province was, and still, is being formed by the collision of the Pacific Tectonic Plate with the North American Tectonic Plate.  These plates are huge pieces of the Earth’s outer crust and float on the plastic upper mantle.  The plates move around, driven by the heat of the mantle.  For several million years the Pacific Plate has been smashing against the North American Plate where they intersect at the California coast, compressing it and causing part of the North American Plate to rotate counter-clockwise. The part of the North American Plate under the Basin and Range Province was pulled apart and it fractured.  In effect it corrugated, alternately pushing up mountain ranges and dropping down valley basins to fill the space.  Erosion has moved some of the mountains into the valleys so the escarpments of most of the Basin and Range mountains are not as abrupt as the Eastern Sierra escarpment.  The Sierras are the westernmost and tallest of the Basin and Range mountains and its associated valleys like the Owens Valley are the deepest valleys because they are closer to the collision zone between the two plates than any of the other ranges and basins.  This means that the Sierra escarpment is the sharpest feature of its type in the Basin and Ranch Province and a dramatic one, the altitude difference between the Sierra ridge crest and the floor of Owens Valley being 10,000 feet.

The Basin And Range Province

The collision of the two tectonic plates is also the cause of the California Gold Rush.  After all, gold is needed for a gold rush, and the California gold was available to the miners  in surface rivers and streams because of the plate collision.  In addition to smashing together, the Pacific Plate also dives (subducts)  under the North American Plate.  Pushed down until it becomes super heated the water saturating the Pacific Plate—it was, of course, the floor of the Pacific Ocean before it was smushed under the North American Plate—becomes superheated water capable of dissolving metals in the plate material, such as gold and silver.  The collision also fractured both plates and created pathways by which the super hot water bearing the gold could rise toward the surface.  As the water approached the surface, it cooled enough that the gold precipitated in the small crevices and fractures.  Later, as the collision caused the Sierran mountain building, the rock bearing the precipitated metals was pushed up, exposed and eroded.  The resulting silt, including the metals, were washed down by the newly formed Sierran rivers. In the foothills the slope of the land flattened out and the speed of the water slowed enough for the gravels and heavier things like gold to settle to the rive and stream bottoms and await the California Gold Rush a few million years later.

The mountains of California’s extended Coast Ranges like the Santa Lucias, the Gabilans, Mt. Tamalpais and the King Range were also created by the collision of the two tectonic plates.  They were built by the North American Plate scraping the top layers of sedimentary rocks and material off of the Pacific Plate as the Pacific Plate was (and still is) forcing itself under the North American Plate.  These scrapings piled up, and have grown so large over the millions of years that they are now thousands of feet high, and so we see them as mountain ranges.  The Coast Ranges parallel the coast because the coast was the scraper edge of the North American Plate. 


South of Carson City, 395 skirts Topaz Lake, actually, but not obviously, a reservoir.  It is indeed topaz in color, partly from the glacial melt carried to by its source, the West Walker River.  Coming down from the area of the lake, 395 enters the Antelope Valley, located between the Sierra on the west and the Sweetwater Range to the east.  The Sweetwaters are one of the multiple mountain ranges of the Basin and Range Province that lies east of the Sierra.  The Antelope Valley is one of its “basins.”  The Basin and Range Province mountains and valleys are like a gigantic washboard all the way from the Sierra, its westernmost range, to the great salt desert 300 miles away in Utah.

The Antelope Valley is not nearly as dramatic as the valleys further south along 395, but is a typical basin of the Basin and Range Province. Its floor is flat and the mountains to either side are steep sided even though not as tall as near Mt. Whitney.  Antelope Valley is high enough that a dusting of snow is common during a lot of year.

Antelope Valley With Snow Storm Coming

Just as 395 enters Antelope Valley at the south end of Topaz Lake, it is joined by California State Highway 89 coming down out of the Sierra and ending at 395.  Highway 89 has crawled up from Lake Tahoe, west of the Sierra summit ridge by crossing successively Luther Pass at 7,700 feet and Monitor Pass at 8,300 feet.  Monitor Pass is the location of the Leviathan Mine, accessible from 89 near the pass.  Little remains visible of the mine, but the stark and spectacular view of the beginnings of the Basin and Range Province from near the mine seems endless and well worth the detour.

From Monitor Pass


After leaving Topaz Lake and the Antelope Valley, 395 winds along the course of the West Walker River Valley that separates the Sierra escarpment from the Sweetwaters to the east.   The road climbs up and over Devils Gate Pass, at 7,500 feet a low point in the Sweetwaters, but higher than Donner Pass where Interstate 80 crosses the Sierra.  The scenery remains one of mighty vistas and intimate little valleys, some with the hot springs that pervade the eastern escarpment.  The gigantic fault that resulted from the uplift of the Sierra and the depression of the valleys is a natural pathway for the persistent volcanism of the area and the hot springs giving off steam and slightly sulfurous smells along the side of the highway.

On the shoulder of the Sweetwaters 395 is joined by California Highway 108, another trans-Sierran road that climbs out of the Central Valley, crossing Sonora Pass, at over 9,600 feet before descending a bit to 395.  108 enjoys a euphonious journey before crossing the pass:  it passes through Twain Harte, named not for a heart broken in two, but for Mark Twain and Bret Harte, both active in California journalism during the gold rush era; Mi-Wuk Village, commemorating a local Native American tribe; and the little towns of Bumblebee, Cow Creek, and Peaceful Pines before reaching 395.


Descending from the Sweetwaters, 395 enters Bridgeport Valley, a large flat and very fertile plain at the headwaters of the East Walker River.  It is the next basin south of the Walker River Valley in the Basin and Range Province.  Bridgeport itself is a small but active little town that is THE nightlife for a long way in all directions.  There are a few motels, one with a diner attached, and two late night bars with satellite dishes and wide screen TVs.  East of Bridgeport, the Sierra is pierced by the headwaters of several small rivers, penetrating to alpine and glacial lakes higher up.  At the north edge of town Twin Lakes Road reaches west to two small glacial lakes nestled at the base of the Sierra redoubt.  These were formed by the action of a glacier that carved out the canyons east of the lakes and then retreated at the end of the last ice age.  The glacier pushed a pile of rocks and soil down the canyon as it grew, and when it retreated, it left a debris pile, called a terminal moraine, blocking the mouth of the canyon.  The lake formed behind the moraine.  In fact, the glacier did the trick twice: it grew, retreated, leaving one moraine, and it grew and retreated again, leaving a second moraine slightly higher up the canyon.  Behind the second moraine a second lake formed.  Surrounded by the steep slopes of the canyon and now also by trees, the lakes are evidence of both the era of glaciers in the Sierra and the possibility of intense beauty even in this stark landscape.

Inyo County Courthouse-Bridgeport


The 12-mile side road to the gold rush era town of Bodie turns east off 395 south of Bridgeport.  Partially paved and climbing back up to over 8,000 feet, the road rises into the Bodie Mountains and pops out at the rootenest, tootenest and, perhaps, most violent gold rush town of them all.  Remote, high, cold and snowy in winter, hot and insect ridden in summer, Bodie existed for only one reason: to keep the miners fed, housed and amused, with emphasis on the “amused,” between their shifts in the mines that dotted the nearby hills sides.  Bodie had a lot of gold, and at one time it had 10,000 residents, 65 saloons, two banks, a brass band, a railroad, miner's and mechanic's unions, several newspapers, and a jail.  As a violent gold rush town, of course, it also had a boot hill.  A lot of Bodie is left.  A California State Historical Park, it is the best preserved gold rush mining town in the west and well worth the detour off 395.


The Real Mr Science at Bodie

Bodie Undertakers

More Bodie


South of the Bodie turnoff the highway crosses Conway Summit at 8,100 feet and drops down into the Mono Basin, another valley appears in the Basin and Range Province, but one with a distinct twist.  The view of Mono Lake on the way down off the pass is superb and reveals that the large, somewhat round lake is a volcanic formation with a real volcanic island—Negit—in the middle of it.  Negit, “blue winged goose” in the local Native American language, erupted last just 250 years ago.  The lake is completely landlocked and, as a consequence, highly saline and alkaline and the habitat to billions of brine shrimp and alkali flies.  Almost 2,000,000 birds migrate through the lake area each year, resting and feeding on the abundant protein available in and around the lake.  A significant part of the California sea gull population breeds at the lake, flying over the Sierra to get there.  It has a stark beauty that belies its ecologically fecund resources. 

There is also a great visitors’ center with a wonderful view over the Lake and interesting exhibits.

This link is to a video of a seagull "dancing" in Mono Lake to stir up the alkali fly larvae and brine shrimp for easy eating. 

Dancing Seagull

Mono Lake from Conway Summit

Mono Lake in a Gathering Storm

Mono Lake also exhibits some strange but fascinating geological formations.  The lake level goes up and down. Down when the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power tapped the lake for water, but up when litigation stopped that activity 25 years ago.  The “down” in the water level, however, exposed tufa towers in the lake, calcite towers up to 25 feet high formed by the precipitation of minerals in tower shape as supersaturated hot spring water from volcanic activity entered the cooler lake water through fissures in the lake’s bottom.  These strange towers are visible from the shore of the lake on both north and south sides.

Tufa Formations

Also at Mono Lake California Highway, 120 comes down out of the Sierra after crossing Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park, at 9,900 feet, the highest highway pass over the Sierra.  If the pass is open, Yosemite Valley can be reached from Mono Lake in a few hours.

South of Mono Lake and before 395 reaches Crowley Lake, the June Lake Loop Road branches to the west and climbs gently to several beautiful alpine lakes in glacial basins carved from the Sierra escarpment.  South of June Lake Junction and Wilson Butte 395 crosses from the Mono Lake watershed into the Rock Creek watershed at Deadman’s Summit, over 8,000 feet high.

Alpine Lake



The Rock Creek watershed is home to the Long Valley Caldera.  750,000 years ago the volcano now known as the Long Valley Caldera cataclysmically erupted.  It buried thousands of square miles of the West under many feet of pyroclastic flow—molten rock to you and me—and spread pumice and ash over a large part of the American West, almost to Kansas City.  The 20- by 17-mile Long Valley Caldera is almost invisible from ground level.  Highway 395 goes more or less through the middle of it, but from ground level it looks like a shallow, bowl shaped mountain valley.  On the west 11,000 foot Mammoth Mountain rises steeply up, and on the east is almost equally tall Glass Mountain.  These are actually volcanic mountains formed by eruptions that happened as recently as 50,000 years ago.

Placid Crowley Lake, at the southern end of the caldera, gives the impression of a pleasant mountain valley lake, but it and the gently sloping floor of the volcano disguises the history of the beast.  The continued presence of molten rock in the volcanic magma chamber only 4 miles beneath the highway and the frequent hydrothermal activity, including that powering a couple of geothermal power plants, show that the Long Valley Caldera volcano is still “active” and a threat.   In 1980 multiple magnitude 6 earthquakes warned it may erupt again at any time. 


Crossing the south lip of the Long Valley Caldera, 395 descends from 7,000 foot Sherwin Summit into the heart of the Eastern Sierra—the Owens Valley.  The Owens Valley is surrounded by some of the most magnificent mountains on Earth.  To the east rises up the White Mountain Range, 14,000 feet tall, guarding the northern end of Death Valley, and harboring the oldest individual living things on Earth—the 5,000 year old bristle cone pines.  To the west lies the even taller Sierra crest—Mount Whitney, Mount Ritter, Mount Lyle, the Minarets, topping thousands of feet of sheer rise.  To the south lie the Inyo Mountains with Mount Waucoba at over 11,000 feet and even further south the 11,000 foot Panamints.  These are bones of the Earth, the massive result of the titanic collision between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates.

The Owens Valley Floor

Between these giants rests the Owens Valley, the westernmost basin or graben of the Basin and Range Province.  In the tectonic collision, the North American Plate was fractured, with the fractures trending uniformly north and south, perpendicular to the direction of the collision.  The blocks between the fractures were pressed alternately upward and downward.  The first block pressed upward became the Sierra; the first downward became the Owens Valley.  Owens Valley’s floor was originally 10,000 feet deeper down than it is today.  That much of the Sierras, the White Mountains, the Inyos and the mountains around the Long Valley Caldera eroded and filled in the valley floor.  The alluvial fans visible flowing out of the deep canyons of the surrounding mountains show that the process is still on going.  Perhaps in 20 million years or so, the floor of Owens Valley will reach White Mountain Peak. 


Side roads on the valley’s west lead up into the Sierra escarpment.  Some lead to trailheads like that to Mr. Whitney.  Others lead to glacial lakes and alpine settings.  All are beautiful and awe inspiring.  On the east side California Highway 168 heads east out of the town of Big Pine and climbs Westgard Pass over the southern shoulder of the White Mountains.  White Mountain Road (closed in winter) is a left turn off 168 a short distance before the pass itself.  White Mountain Road is paved as far as the White Mountains National Forest Service Visitors’ Center. 

                         The White Mountains

Part way up White Mountain Road to the ridge crest is the Sierra Overlook.  A 100 yard, relatively flat walk from a small parking lot brings a visitor to a viewing platform on the lip of a sheer drop above the Owens Valley floor.  On a clear day there is a view of the eastern Sierra escarpment northward to mountains near Lake Tahoe and all the way around southward to where the Sierra tail off into the Mojave Desert.  It is a span of almost 200 miles.  The Owens Valley is at the visitor’s feet—well, actually 5000 feet below the visitor’s feet—and the wall of the eastern Sierra immediately in front, perhaps 30 miles away. 

View South from Sierra Overlook

This is a link to a panorama video from the overlook, north all the way around to the Basin and Range mountains to the east in Nevada.

Sierra Overlook Panorama

Thirteen miles further along this road is the visitor center, with its exhibits about the bristle cone pines and why, in this arid, high, cold, windy place the trees grow old, old, old.  These trees were alive before Babylon was young, when the Egyptian pyramids were not yet built, when the Indus River civilizations were new.  A walk of a mile or so from the visitor center takes you to the Grove of the Ancients.  Methuselah, the oldest of the bristle cones is here (although to prevent vandalism the scientists do not label it), the oldest individual living thing—over 5000 years old.  The spirit of the Earth permeates the grove.  Time moves so slowly that tomorrow might be a human lifetime away.  Awe at how such ancient things can survive, much less grow in this desolate place, is palpable.

An Ancient Bristle Cone Pine

The Patriarch Grove of ancient bristlecones is on a ridge pf the mountains at close to 12,000 above sea level.  The following link is to a panorama of the grove and includes the Patriarch Tree, the largest of the trees by volume and one of the oldest.

Video Panorama of Patriarch Grove

Recently, biologists have discovered a sea grass in the eastern Mediterranean Sea which reproduces by cloning itself.  Seagrass Story.  On that basis the scientists believe that the genetic basis of the present sea grass has been around for 200,000, making the grass "the oldest living thing."  Scientists will undoubted debate what the word "thing" means.  Is it be the identical genetic successor to an preceding plant or must it be same discrete living organism.  If the latter, the Bristle Cone Pines win the "oldest living" contest.  And we should not overlook the fact that California's Coast Redwoods--sequoia sempervirens--also reproduce by cloning and well as by scattering seeds.  Early genetic studies of groves of Coast Redwoods indicate that members of the grove are clones of trees that existed many, many thousands of years ago and now long gone, just like the sea grass. 

Further south along 395, evidence that the Eastern Sierra is a hot bed of volcanic activity is evident.  Many of the formations here are older than the eruptions of the Long Valley Caldera.  Here there are reddish brown cinder cones, eroded lava flows and mounds of volcanic material pushed up by the hot magma below.  Starting at Lone Pine to the west of 395 are the Alabama Hills, volcanic intrusions pushed above the level of the Owens Valley floor by rising magma.  The hills have fantastic shapes, curves, arches and secret caves. They are worth a long explore.  Go west on the Whitney Portal Road out of Lone Pine. To reach one especially interesting spot turn left on Horseshoe Meadows Road and look to left for a monument indicating that the movie "Gunda Din" was filmed in the area. (Lots of films and TV westerns were filed in the Alabama Hills.) Drive or walk past the marker into secluded valleys of rock.

South along 395 there are chains of mini-volcanoes.  Visitors won’t notice them unless they know these are in fact volcanoes.  At one place the highway cut literally slices through a small cinder cone, but it can easily be passed unnoticed.  These cones are the characteristic reddish brown in contrast to the dun color of the alluvial valley floor.

These two links are to video footage of the Alabama Hills. 

Alabama Hills Panorama

Alabama Hills Drive

Alabama Hills with Mt. Whitney Behind


South of Big Pine and before Independence, 395 passes one of the saddest places in California—Manzanar.  Little remains of it now except for a memorial and the entrance gate, but Manzanar was one of the camps into which America herded its Japanese citizens at the beginning of WW II.  The flimsy wood and tarpaper shacks are gone, but the spirit of this lonely, remote place moves anyone who stops and walks a little along the paths the innocents trod during their imprisonment.  The looming guard’s gun tower, reconstructed at the edge of camp, reminds us that this was a real prison for real Americans and not the location of a protracted mountain camping trip.

Manzanar Gun Tower


Lone Pine is the cutoff point for anyone headed for the Panamint Valley, the Panamint Mountains, Towne Pass, gold rush towns like Cerro Gordo and Darwin, Searles Dry Lake, the source of a large fraction of world’s supply of some very exotic minerals, and, of course, Death Valley, the lowest spot in the western hemisphere at Badwater, about 280 feet BELOW sea level and one of the hottest spots on Earth with a recorded temperature of 134 degrees on July 13, 1913.  And to the east of Death Valley, the Daylight Pass through the Armargosa Range, Searchlight, Nevada, and eventually Las Vegas.  Curiously, the lowest place in North America—Badwater—and the highest spot in the lower 48 states—Mt. Whitney—are only 76 miles apart as the crow flies


Past Lone Pine the Sierra gradually decline down into the Mojave Desert, and 395 continues to head south with Los Angeles in mind.  But the mighty Sierra still bars an easy return to the California Central Valley.  To reach Bakersfield, at the southern extremity of the Central Valley, a traveler must cross the southern Sierra on California Highway 178.  178 crosses Walker Pass, at a mere 5,240 feet above sea level the lowest of the Sierra Passes south of Lake Tahoe.  It is nevertheless rugged and winding.  The Sierra at this point consists of largely sedimentary rocks that have been tilted on end by the Sierra uplift and eroded into spikes and fins.  After crossing Walker Pass, at Lake Isabella, 178 turns south down the Kern River canyon and emerges from the foothills near Bakersfield.  A more adventuresome route turns northward at Lake Isabella onto California Highway 155.  155 climbs steeply over the southern ramparts of the Sierra, up, up to Greenhorn Summit at 6,100 feet, and then slowly winds down to the floor of the Central Valley near the town of Delano.  Along the way, 155 passes huge granite boulders embedded in the sedimentary rock of the roadside cuts.  These boulders were formed as molten magma droplets were eroded and displaced by glacial action, and ended up buried in what was then the sediment of the coastal plain.  California’s Coast Range did not exist when these boulders were formed, and the Central Valley sediments were still several thousand feet further up the Sierras.  The Coast Range was formed later, scraped off the sea floor on the Pacific Plate as it dived under the North American Plate during the ongoing collision and piled up many thousands of feet deep by the bulldozer-like action.  The silt was washed down and buried the boulders.  Then the silt was transformed into rock layers by heat and pressure, pushed up to 5,000 feet by the mountain building collision and then eroded again, exposing the granite boulders.  In miniature it is the story of the California Mountains.

John Muir had it exactly right when he said about the Sierra Nevada Mountains: “The mountains are calling and I must go.”  Muir also said: “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”  The Sierras are calling.  The rest is up to you.