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Welcome to the Sierra

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What is the Sierra Nevada?

Known as the Range of Light, the Sierra Nevada is a vast mountain range that lies primarily in California, with the Carson Range spur expanding into Nevada.

The collision of tectonic plates formed the Sierra Nevada around 40-100 million years ago, creating a chain of volcanoes through faulting and subduction. The volcanoes eventually became dormant and shaped the Sierra Nevada range through time.

Today, the towering mountain range runs roughly 400 miles from Tehachapi Pass in the south to the Cascade Range, along the North Fork of the  Feather River, spanning 24 counties and containing the headwaters of 24 river basins.

Did you know?

The Sierra is rich in natural resources. It produces 60% of California’s water supply and supplies the state with 50% of its hydroelectric energy. Wildlife is abundant with 3500 plant, 572 animal, and 321 aquatic species.

View Map of the Sierra

Discover the Rich History of the Sierra

Indigenous peoples of the Sierra Nevada have been living and caring for this land, water, and natural habitats for thousands of years. Since the Spanish colonization in the late 1700s, Native American populations, and their way of life have been disrespected and nearly decimated. Learn more about the history of Native people and how we can be more than an optical ally.

In 1776, Spanish explorer Padre Pedro Font gave the name Sierra Nevada to the craggy mountain range. In Spanish, Sierra means mountains, and Nevada means snow-covered.

Both John Muir – a 19th-century naturalist, author, glaciologist, and founder of the Sierra Club, and Ansel Adams – famed American landscape photographer and environmentalist, had passion and astonishment for the Sierra.

Whether it’s the dazzling wildflowers in Butte County, glistening Aspens of Alpine County, majestic granite peaks of Lake Tahoe, or the picturesque tufas of Mono Lake – the Sierra has something for just about everyone.

Did you know?

The region is home to General Sherman, the world’s largest tree by volume; Lake Tahoe, the largest alpine lake in North America; Mount Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states; and over 5,000 square miles of protected wilderness.

How was the Sierra formed?

Granite formed deep underground more than one hundred million years ago during the Nevadan orogeny – a mountain-building event in western North America that started in the Lake Jurassic Epoch about 156 million years ago. The Sierra Nevada range started to uplift less than five million years ago, and erosion by glaciers exposed the granite and formed the light-colored mountains and cliffs that make up the range. The uplift caused a wide range of elevations and climates in the Sierra, and uplifting continues today due to tectonic forces.

Glaciers in the Sierra

A glacier is a body of perennial ice or snow that moves. The Sierra has both invisible subsurface rock glaciers and mountain permafrost. The estimated number in the Sierra Nevada ranges from 50 to 500 glaciers.

Glaciers are found high in the Sierra Nevada, generally above 10,000 feet in elevation on the north sides of steep mountains. You may see them on a trip to Yosemite National Park north or Sequoia National Park in the south. Sierra Nevada glaciers are typically located in mountain cirques – small bowl-like depressions on the sides of mountains that were created by previous glaciers.

Did you know?

In addition to a system of glaciers, there are over 2,000 freshwater lakes in the Sierra Nevada and nearly 100 named rivers.

Plants

With thousands of plant species, the Sierra is well known for its diverse flora, or trees and plants, found across the range.

From chaparral and oak woodlands in the valleys to lower montane forests of ponderosa and sugar pine in the lower elevations, all the way up to the alpine plant communities, the Sierra is made up of diverse ecosystems. Within the range, there are over 1,300 plant species. This includes the world-famous Giant Sequoia, the bright pink Western Redbud, the Sugar Pine, and the native Sierra Juniper. Grab your field guide and head outside to identify some of the Sierra’s flora.

Giant Sequoia

Sequoiadendron giganteum
Giant Sequoias are the largest living trees by volume. These giants are found on the western slopes of the Sierra.

Western Redbud

Cercis occidentalis
When in bloom, you cannot miss the bright pink and magenta flowers on the Western Redbud.

Sugar Pine

Pinus lambertiana
Sugar pines are the largest of the pines in both height and volume. Their cones can grow over 20 inches in length!

Sierra Juniper

Juniperus grandis
The native Sierra Juniper can be found in high elevations of the Sierra Nevada. Their trunks are very distinctive, with a ragged, gnarled appearance.

Animals

In the Sierra, there are 572 animal species, and 321 aquatic species that call this majestic place their home.

Here, you can find black bears roaming the mountains, the Steller’s jay singing their songs, and the kokanee salmon swimming in the alpine lakes and rivers. Adventure up to the alpine terrain to find the elusive American pika or if you are lucky, you may be able to spot a bald eagle.

American Pika

Ochotona princeps
The tiny pika lives at high elevation in rocky talus slopes. They are very vocal animals, so listen for their call.

Bald Eagle

Haliaeetus leucocephalus
With its iconic white head and yellow beak, the bald eagle is the emblem bird of the US.

Black Bear

Ursus americanus
Black bears are the largest animal in the Sierra Nevada. As omnivores, the bears have pretty flexible diets, so make sure you store your food and trash properly in the mountains.

Kokanee Salmon

Oncorhynchus nerka
Kokanee can be spotted with a bright red body and green head when spawning and a blue-green back with silvery sides when non-spawning.

For some, the Sierra is our backyard, and for others, it is an incredible place to visit and experience all that the region has to offer.

Averaging 50 million visitors annually, the Sierra Nevada welcomes people from all over the world. Three of California’s ten most popular tourist attractions – Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe, and Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Park- reside within the Sierra. Yosemite brought in over 4.4 million visitors in 2019, and Lake Tahoe brings in 8-14 million visitors a year alone. The Sierra generated $3.6 billion in travel spending in 2017, creating 36,400 jobs in California. Covering almost 40,000 square miles, it is no surprise that the region is so popular!

Although tourism is vital to the Sierra’s economy, it does take a toll on the region. With increased visitation to areas where infrastructure is easily overwhelmed, the unending traffic, illegal campfires, public intoxication, trash, and other pollutants have become an issue. Take Care Sierra is an opportunity for you to learn more about this magical place and join together to step up and protect the land and water we all love so much.

Learn How to Take Care and protect the Sierra now and for generations to come.

Learn More