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
BASIN AND RANGE PROVINCE
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.
TOPAZ LAKE AND ANTELOPE
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
THE WALKER RIVER
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
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.
also a great visitors’ center with a wonderful view over the Lake and
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.
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.
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.
THE LONG VALLEY CALDERA
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.
THE WHITE MOUNTAINS AND
THE BRISTLECONE PINES
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.
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.
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
THE SOUTHERN SIERRA
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
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.