California is home to more than 350 mountain ranges that are scattered throughout the state. The highest peak is Mt. Whitney, in fact Mt. Whitney is the highest peak in the continental U.S.A. There are even mountains in the desert. Many of the mountains are forest covered and quite a few are practically nothing but rock. Of course there still is at least chaparral and plenty of little or big animals to be aware of.
Many of these mountains are Federal, State, County or City Parks and protecting mandates are in place. So, when planning to stay in a mountain area, check the authority governing it.
One of the biggest concerns is forest fires. However, there are other issues that the authorities deal with to keep the natural conditions sustaining life in "them thar hills."
Just a simple trip up to the mountains can be exhilarating but there are so many activities that are popular to do, mountain biking, horseback riding, river rafting, fishing, hiking, mountain climbing, snowboarding, skiing, camping, searching out waterfalls. Just so many it's hard to list them all.
Lone Pine is at the southern end of the regularly tourist-traveled part of Owens Valley. It's often visited, and it's no wonder. The town has an essential location; it lies at the junction for roads to Death Valley and Las Vegas, Yosemite and Lake Tahoe, and Los Angeles. There's an even better reason to visit: the Alabama Hills, a series of orange colored rocks that sit at the foot of the Sierra Nevada. These hills are extremely photogenic, especially at sunrise and sunset. The area was (and is) often used in Western movies and advertisements; this can be attested to by names like Movie Flat Road.
And although these things are great, there is really one reason everyone comes to Lone Pine- Mt. Whitney, the 14,494 foot peak towering over the town. Whitney is the highest peak in the Sierra Nevada and in the 48 contiguous states. Each day a little over a hundred climbers will hike a long trail to its summit; this is something I haven't done yet, because the hike requires obtaining a rare hiking permit.
Manzanar- "Apple Orchard" in Spanish- is the site of one of the greatest abuses of human rights in US history. During the second World War, Mazanar served as an internment camp for thousands of Japanese-Americans who were moved here to insure they could not "aid" the "enemy." This race-based imprisonment stripped many American citizens of their rights simply because they had Japanese heritage.
The national historic site has a good visitor center, and an motor loop-trail around the original camp allows you to get a good sense of what those interned there felt- the scorching hot sun, the wind and sand, the desolation. The original buildings were destroyed after the war ended, but there still stands a memorial in the camp's cemetery, at the foot of Mt. Williamson, that serves as a reminder for the mistakes we made.
11,000 feet up in the stark, dry White Mountains, there is an amazing forest. Hundreds of bristlecone pines, many millenia old, stand silently; they are the oldest living things on this planet. The oldest is over 4,800 years old; many others come close to matching that age. There are two main groves, Schulman and Patriarch, which are easily accessible by a narrow paved/gravel road. There are also a good number of trails to hike here and explore the area. I highly recommend a visit to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest on any visit to the Eastern Sierra Nevada.
Bishop is a large town on the northern end of Owens Valley; in fact, it is the largest town in the Eastern Sierra. The town has numerous roadside motels, a Vons Supermarket, and plenty of dining choices, making it a convenient base for exploring the area, or a nice place to stock up on whatever you need before heading to more remote areas. But there are plenty of attractions in and around the town itself.
One of the best reasons to visit Bishop is for the Mountain Light Gallery, filled with the works of the late Galen and Barbara Rowell. Galen Rowell was one of the most masterful photographers of the Sierra Nevada and many other mountain ranges. Heading into the mountains, there's plenty more to see; two roads lead to South Lake and Lake Sabrina, both reservoirs, nestled in the Sierran peaks. A multitude of hiking leads from those lakes into the John Muir Wilderness and Kings Canyon National Park. Closer to town, the Buttermilk Hills offer nice views across a creme-colored desert landscape to Mt. Humphries and Mt. Tom.
The wildest and highest mountainous areas of the Sierra Nevada are in the large and magnificent John Muir Wilderness, named for the famous conservationist. This is an amazing area- a giant wilderness, much of it rarely trodden, that follows the spine of America's most stunning mountain range.
The deepest I went into this wilderness was at Little Lakes Valley- ironically the wilderness's easiest access point. Nestled beneath granite Sierra peaks, the valley contains numerous pretty lakes. Further to the south, the wilderness hugs the boundary of Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. Within its boundaries are the Palisades and the large Palisade Glacier, far-off Lake Italy and Seven Gables Lake which I hope to hike to someday; and the Sierra Crest, including Mt. Williamson and of course, Mt. Whitney. Considering the overwhelming vastness and beauty of the area, it is appropriate that this wilderness was named for the man who loved it most.
Northeast of Yosemite National Park is a thin, pretty High Sierra wilderness dotted with lakes, glaciers, granite peaks, and mosquitoes. This is the Hoover Wildernes- apparently named for the unpopular Great Depression president of the United States. There are multiple access points into this wilderness- Lundy Lake, Virginia Lakes, and Twin Lakes- but I only went in through one, at Saddlebag Lake.
Two of the most prominent features of the wilderness are Mt. Conness, and the North Peak of Mt. Conness. On the slopes of Mt. Conness is the Conness Glacier, one of the largest in the region. There is also some excellent hiking. Straight north from Saddlebag Lake is the scenic and easy day hike to the Twenty Lakes Basin- an eight mile loop trail that visits seven lakes and has only a few hundred feet of elevation change. There is plenty more hiking in the northern parts of the park which I hope to come back someday and explore.
The most stunning Sierra high-country I've seen is in Ansel Adams Wilderness, southeast of Yosemite National Park. Originally named the Minarets Wilderness because of one of their most prominent features, it was later renamed for one of America's greatest nature photographers; it was the landscapes of this wilderness that made him famous. And it's no wonder; the wilderness contains the photogenic Ritter Range, a range of sawtooth spire-like peaks that include the Minarets, Banner Peak, and Mt. Ritter. One of the most popular destinations and beautiful places in the wilderness is Thousand Island Lake, which lies at the foot of Banner Peak and can be accessed by either the John Muir, Pacific Crest, or River Trails from Agnews Meadows. Another pretty area is Mono Pass and Bloody Canyon, near the border with Yosemite National Park.
Mammoth Lakes is a small town off US 395 at the foot of the Eastern Sierra Nevada. It is known one of California's best skiing destinations as well as one of its best hiking destinations. During my visit, it was late June with deep snow on the ground- the Mammoth Mountain ski resort was still up and running, but hiking was out of question.
This meant our time at Mammoth was limited to just driving up to Minaret Vista and looking at the colossal mountains surrounding the town. There were a good number of hikes that I had hoped we would have done, had it not snowed so much this year- TJ Lake, Devils Postpile, and Ediza Lake. As luck would have it, the Devils Postpile Road was under 4 feet of snow at the time of my arrival.
I will definitely return to Mammoth someday, because there is one hike here I know that I absolutely must do- Thousand Island Lake.
For more on Mammoth Lakes, see my Mammoth Lakes page.
9,628-foot Sonora Pass is the second-highest automobile pass in the state of California. The pass north of Yosemite National Park on Hwy 108 in Stanislaus National Forest. The road is very scenic, though not quite as beautiful as Tioga Road. Hwy 108 is a winding, corkscrewing road with grades of up to 26%; drive carefully and slowly.
The main attraction, of course, is the alpine Sonora Pass, where snow remains until July on high peaks of volcanic rock (notice the difference between here and Tioga Pass, where there's more granite). Heading west on the road there is the Column of the Giants, a roadside geology stop where you can walk (free!) to a ridge made of pillars of basalt.
For more information on the Sonora Pass area see my Sonora page.
Do you have the urge to climb the tallest mountain in the Continental United States? Even if you don't, Mount Whitney is worth a visit, as is the entire Eastern Sierra area. Mount Whitney is located in Lone Pine, about 4-5 hours from Los Angeles and about the same distance from Reno, Nevada. At the foot of the mountain, you'll find the unusual Alabama Hills. At its peak, you'll find happyand somewhat altitude dazed hikers celebrating their ascent at the highest summit in the lower 48.
For more information, feel free to browse my Lone Pine page.
That's a complete, one-stop playground, with activities and events daily throughout the summer season. From the base of the valley, the Cable Car rises over 610 m to the mountaintop wonder, High Camp, where you can indulge in a variety of activities.
Besides the Sierra, there are many other ranges to explore - the Marbles and Trinity Alps of northwest California; the many ranges comprising the Coast Ranges, extending as far south as Los Angeles; the Laguna Mountains, east of San Diego, rising above the arid deserts of Anza-Borrego; the Great Basin ranges of the White Mountains and in the extreme northeast, near Alturas, the Warner Mountains, true gems lying just off-the-beaten-path.
One of the main reasons for the famous LA smog is the mountain walls lying north and east of the city. Three mountains, in particular, rise higher than the rest: San Antonio (Old Baldy), San Gregornio and San Jacinto. The peaks are encompassed in wilderness areas allowing Los Angelenos to esacape into montane recovery rooms. Get you backcountry trail campsite reservations at your nearest Ticketron.
Mt Shasta is the second largest of the Cascade volcanoes, reaching 14162 feet/4292 meters. On the mountain's north side are the largest glaciers of California. The peak is a center for would-be alpinists with an easy side to the south. The alititude is still a major consdieration in any climb. Some consider Shasta to be a vortex of universal energy. You can hear New Agers chanting around campfires along the south side of the mountain. As big as the mountain is - only 250 feet lower than Rainier - it is amazing to see the difference between this giant and the truly monolithic Rainier, about 400 miles to the north. Also, the differences in glaciation between the two peaks is incredible - all the matter of a few degrees of latitude.