California’s High Sierra

The High Sierra of California is well known and is a popular destination for visitors, particularly campers, hikers and lovers of the outdoors. The High Sierra appeals to those looking for fresh air, exercise and a simpler lifestyle for a while, the popular image of rushing waters, imposing and impressive rock faces, and lush and abundant plants and trees is an accurate one. Sequoia National Park, King’s Canyon National Park and the world’s first national park Yosemite are heaven on earth for nature lovers. For those who enjoy the glitz and neon lights of gambling casinos, or great water sports and beaches, Lake Tahoe is paradise. Along with nearby Reno, Nevada, the southern shores of Lake Tahoe rival Las Vegas for gambling facilities. They have the added benefit of being situated in a breathtaking location of mountains and overlooking a very impressive lake, so if gambling becomes tiresome – nature beckons.

Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls

The High Sierra’s sheer physical beauty is a total contrast to the coastal regions, and yet the area is just as much a part of the very big picture that is California’s tourism industry, like Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco. The great pleasure in the High Sierra is that despite its popularity and sometimes congested highway access, once off the road and into the backcountry, the true wilderness experience is easy to attain. The name of the region ‘High Sierra’ comes from the Spanish name for the mountain range that dominates this region. ‘Sierra Nevada’ means ‘snowcapped mountain range’ or more literally ‘snowcapped sawblade.’ The jagged peaks of this mountain range really do look like a saw that towers and are stretched along the length of the area.

Climate

As with all high altitude areas, the climate in the High Sierra is often extreme. Travelers should be prepared for every eventuality, particularly throughout winter when snow conditions can make remote areas especially hazardous. In summer extreme thunder conditions and flash floods are also a possibility. Of course with a few fairly simple precautions made in advance, climatic extremes should not interfere with your plans. Always register and seek the advice of local park staff before venturing into more remote areas.

Otherwise, the weather in the parks gets to be fairly hot in summer (in July in Yosemite the average high is almost 90 Fahrenheit/32 Celsius), but cools down considerably at night (in Yosemite to an average low of 54 Fahrenheit/12 Celsius). The Lake Tahoe area is pleasantly warm during the summer months (a July average high of 78 Fahrenheit/ 25.5 Celsius, and an average low of 44 Fahrenheit/ 6.6 Celsius).

The climate in winter is what you would expect for an area that is renowned for great winter sports opportunities. Some of the best skiing in the U.S.A. is available in the Lake Tahoe region. In January average highs in Yosemite are nearly 48 Fahrenheit/ 9.3 Celsius and lows 27 Fahrenheit/-2.7 Celsius. In Lake Tahoe, the average January high is 38 Fahrenheit/3.3 Celsius and the average low 19 Fahrenheit/-7.2 Celsius. In the High Sierra, most precipitation occurs in the winter months.

Transportation

The main way to access this area is by road. Although there are good highway links to the entrance of all the parks, once inside vehicle access is limited, and is becoming increasingly restricted.

For the National Parks, there is airline service to Sacramento and Fresno from airports all over the country, and commuter airline service to Stockton and Merced from major California cities. The Lake Tahoe area is also served by the airport at Reno, NV and at South Lake Tahoe. It is usually necessary to rent a vehicle at the airport to tour the area further. The area is well served by interstate bus services, (though there is no bus transportation into Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks) and Amtrak also has train service to several points in or near to the region.

Top Attractions

Yosemite National Park has a deserved reputation of being one of the finest National Parks anywhere. The trend in the park is to put the environment before people, and the use of motor vehicles is becoming increasingly restricted. Even though the number of vehicles in the summer can be somewhat overwhelming, the rules restrict where vehicles can go, and so for true lovers of solitude, it is relatively easy to get off the beaten path. Yosemite consists of huge granite mountains and outcrops – ideal for rock climbers as well as magnificent waterfalls, dense sequoia groves, and high alpine meadows.

The center for activity in Yosemite is the Yosemite Valley. During the summer months, the valley and Yosemite Village is packed with throngs of tourists. However the vast majority of visitors rarely venture far from their vehicles, and even in this part of the park by taking a path leading off the valley floor it is easy to lose the crowds – especially if the path has any degree of upward incline. The spectacular views along and at the end of the steep path to Upper Yosemite Falls is worth the very ‘leg muscle challenging’ hike. Much more popular (and much less of a work out) though is the beautiful Bridal Veil Falls. These are best seen in April and May when the run-off from the melting snow is at its peak as by August the flow of the falls is usually a mere trickle. On the other side of the valley is the world’s largest granite monolith El Capitan that stands 3593 feet/1095 meters tall. This is popular with rock climbers and as they ascend up the rock they achieve miniature proportions from the ground and eventually disappear to the naked eye. Yosemite Village has a selection of museums, stores, and simple food establishments that tend to be expensive. There are plenty of campsites, but these are always crowded in the summer season so be sure to book early.

Away from the valley, the Yosemite National Park is certainly less congested. In other parts of the park, it is possible to stay closer to the road and witness some of the magnificent features that make Yosemite so popular, without the distractions of major crowds and stop and start traffic. Near the south entrance to the park at Highway 41 is the Mariposa Grove. This is a stand of sequoia trees and includes the Grizzly Giant which is estimated to be around 2700 years old. Northeast of the valley, ascending up Highway 120 (known as Tioga Road) to 8,500 feet/ 2591 meters, visitors will reach the stunning Tuolumne Meadows. This is a wonderful example of a genuine Alpine Meadow. The fields stretch for miles and in early summer these are covered in an intense display of colorful wildflowers. The Tioga Road is a good place to set out for backwoods trips, and camping here is plentiful and much less crowded than in the Yosemite Valley.

Winter in Yosemite is free of the congestion of the summer months, and many believe it is the best time to visit. While Tioga Road is closed, many others are plowed to maintain access- be sure to bring tire chains though, unless your vehicle has really good winter tires. Yosemite has some very good backcountry and cross-country skiing as well as downhill skiing at Badger Pass.

Sequoia National Park and King’s Canyon National Park are located south of Yosemite. They are less accessible and therefore less crowded. The parks are separate but are operated as one unit by the National Parks Service. They offer similar terrain to Yosemite although some may consider them not quite as spectacular as the latter. Nevertheless, some of California’s finest mountain scenery is here, as well as the copious forests of the giant sequoia tree.

The particularly notable trees here are named after famous U.S. Generals. Grant Grove along the 48 mile/77 km Generals Highway, is where the General Grant Tree stands – it is believed to be around 3500 years old. The Giant Forest has the huge General Sherman Tree. To get a true impression of these awesome trees, a hike along the Trail of the Sequoias will take visitors to the center of the forest where the feeling of peace and solitude is remarkable. For a perspective other than trees, in Sequoia National Park is Crystal Caves. It is possible to take a 50 minute guided tour of this, although it only covers a fraction of the three-mile/five km deep caverns. Lodgepole Village has some interesting geological displays and a movie at its Visitors Center.

King’s Canyon National Park is the least visited of the three big High Sierra National Parks. The lakes and canyons here are what set it apart. The King’s Canyon is cut out of the granite by the Kings River. The canyon, which at 8200 feet/2499.3 meters is claimed by many to be the deepest canyon in the Continental United States is a fairly well-kept secret. Whether or not it is the deepest, it certainly is remarkable. The granite rising from the river in a sheer wall is awe-inspiring, and its blue marble shines. The river is hazardous for swimming, and it can even be dangerous to wade close to shore because of the strong currents. As the canyon floor gets wider there is a notable increase in vegetation. Cedar Grove Village is named for the fragrant cedars that grow in abundance here. The birdlife is varied and the wildflowers are remarkable. There are plenty of hikes available here – ranging from fairly easy to fairly strenuous. Vehicle access is restricted a few miles past the village, but a network of trails allows for backcountry hiking through the many canyons and mountain peaks. A wilderness permit is necessary for this.

Lake Tahoe is dissected from north to south by the California-Nevada border. This lake is very blue, very deep and fortunately still very clean. The altitude it lies at also ensures that it is very cold. Bodies that have been in the depths of the lake for generations have been retrieved still perfectly preserved due to the frigid temperature of the water. Densely forested peaks that are home to some world-class ski and snowboard resorts surround Lake Tahoe. These include Squaw Valley – home of the Winter Olympics of 1960, and still providing first-rate skiing, but having far outgrown the original Olympic facilities. In summer the attractive beaches on the shores of the lake provide an opportunity for a variety of water sports.

About 25miles/40 km northeast of Lake Tahoe is Donner Lake close to the town of Truckee. The Donner Memorial State Park is a tribute to the ill-fated Donner Party’s ordeal in the local mountains back in 1846. The park is home to the Emigrant Trail Museum.

The northern shores of Lake Tahoe consist largely of nice up-market resort towns. Tahoe City is the largest town on the northern shore of the lake. This is an attractive community that has been well designed and laid out with attractive architecture. A popular summer activity from here is to go rafting down the Truckee River. Just south of town is Eagle Rock which is a 10-minute hike off the highway and provides a wonderful panoramic view of the lake. The western and southwestern shores of the lake provide the best in the way of beaches and scenery. These include Bliss State Park and Emerald Bay State Park which is the location of the Erhman Mansion – the grounds here were used for filming the movie Godfather II. The parks offer great water sports, lovely beaches and there are plenty of hiking trails available.

South Lake Tahoe is much more commercialized than the communities on the northern shore, and some would find it tawdry. It consists of cheaper accommodations and shopping, and of course – across the border in neighboring Stateline, NV – lots of casinos and gambling establishments. One of the nicest things to do here is to take a lake trip on a paddlewheel steamer. This is the best way of seeing the lake as to drive around it is time-consuming and much of the lake cannot be seen from the highway. Lake Tahoe is a great year-round destination and its appeal lies in the diversity of its attractions.