A Guide to Hiking the Sierra Nevada Mountains

Ascending to sites like Half Dome in Yosemite National Park is just part of the draw of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. See more pictures of national parks.
Timothy Faust/Photolibrary/Getty Images

"Wander here a whole summer, if you can," advised the renowned naturalist John Muir, referring to the Sierra Nevada Mountains of eastern California. The range, which runs 400 miles (644 kilometers) north to south, offers some of the most awesome sights on Earth, just as it did when Muir wrote about the region in 1901 [source: Muir].

Muir called the Sierra Nevada Mountains the "range of light," referencing the play of light on the exposed granite of the peaks [source: Wood]. After exploring much of the area following the Civil War, he made an effort to protect the region from development. In 1984, the United Nations declared Yosemite a World Heritage site, an area "of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science, conservation or natural beauty" [source: UNESCO].

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But even if this history and international caché don't impress you, the Sierra Nevadas still offer plenty to entice even the most seasoned hiker:

  • Three national parks, Yosemite, Sequoia and King's Canyon, offer famed sights like Half Dome, Bridalveil Falls and the General Grant Grove of giant trees.
  • The vast Sierra National Forest and the pristine wilderness areas named for John Muir and Ansel Adams provide unlimited access to solitude amid nature's wonders.
  • Extensive areas of bare alpine heights make for some of the most jaw-dropping scenery in the world.
  • Dry, mild weather dominates the peak late-summer period.
  • The highest mountain in the lower 48 states, Mount Whitney, is easily accessible to hikers.

For hikers, the variety of this region is one of its key attractions. On a single hike, you might encounter lush forests, crystalline lakes, high waterfalls and open granite outcroppings. The area's great for both the casual stroller and the inveterate rock climber -- you just need to know which trails to look for.

Sierra Mountains Hiking: Trails

For some hikers, the ideal trail is a smooth, flat pathway leading to a view. For others, it's a rugged track blazed through the deep woods. The Sierra Nevadas offer both types of excursions and everything in between.

There are thousands of miles of trails to choose from -- Yosemite National Park alone has 800 miles (1,287 kilometers) of trails [source: NPS/Hiking Safety]. Some are suitable for children. Others require technical rock climbing skills. In Yosemite, you might start with the trail to Bridalveil Falls, the famous cascade that breaks into a mist as it drops down a precipice. The trail is an easy half-mile walk along a paved path that offers a cool spray in summer. The falls drop 617 feet (188 meters), almost four times as far as Niagara Falls.

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A popular but challenging hike in Yosemite is the climb up Half Dome, the iconic rock outcropping that towers 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) above Yosemite Valley. It's 14 miles (23 kilometers) round trip and requires a permit. The trail leads to the huge stone outcropping that's one of the park's premier sights. Two parallel cables attached to the rock assist hikers up the final 400-foot (122-meter) climb. The view from the top is dazzling [source: NPS/Day Hikes].

The High Sierra Loop takes you on a tour of the highlights of Yosemite. It's a strenuous all-day hike of 12.8 miles (21 kilometers) with 3,124 feet (952 meters) of elevation gain. Shuttle buses take you to the beginning and pick you up at the end. Along the way, you'll come close to Vernal and Nevada Falls and get a great view of Half Dome [source: Modern Hiker].

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks feature their own great trails. Only a quarter-mile (402 meters) long, the Moro Rock trail mounts a steep staircase for 300 feet (91 meters) to reach the top of a huge granite outcropping. On a clear day, the views of the high peaks of the Sierras from this vantage point are breathtaking.

The Sierra National Forest has 1,100 miles (1,770 kilometers) of hiking trails [source: Forest Service]. The Jackass Meadow Handicap Access Nature Trail provides easy access to a grassy meadow, rock outcroppings and a variety of trees. The trail is 0.7 miles (1.1 kilometers) long and accommodates wheelchairs. The Kaiser Peak Trail is a tough 10-mile (16-kilometer) hike with a 3,000-foot (914-meter) climb. You start at Huntington Lake in the Sierra National forest, which is already 7,000 feet (2134 meters) above sea level. At the top, you'll have a glorious view of the entire central Sierras.

For experienced hikers, the Sierras offer trails you can walk for weeks. The John Muir Trail, for example, is one of the outstanding hiking trails in the U.S. It stretches from Yosemite through the Ansel Adams Wilderness, the spectacular stretch of craggy peaks along the Sierra crest. The beauty of this area inspired Adams, one of America's premier nature photographers. The trail ends at the very peak of Mt. Whitney. Hiking the complete 215 miles (346 kilometers) requires careful planning and takes about a month [source: Muir Trail].

Along all these trails, you'll be taking in some stunning scenery. Keep reading to find out about the vast range of landscapes and terrain in the Sierras.

Sierra Mountains Hiking: Landscapes and Terrain

Mount Whitney is the highest mountain in the lower 48 United States, and hikers can ascend to its 14,494-foot (4,418-meter) peak.
Mount Whitney is the highest mountain in the lower 48 United States, and hikers can ascend to its 14,494-foot (4,418-meter) peak.
Mark Lewis/Photodisc/Getty Images

In Spanish, Sierra Nevada means snow-covered mountain range. And sure enough, the Sierras don't fool around when it comes to frozen precipitation. In 1991, the Tamarack area between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite set a record when it got 32.5 feet (9.9 meters) of snow in one month. Some of the highest Sierra elevations are snow-covered well into the summer [source: Virtual Museum].

In addition to snow, the feature that dominates the Sierra landscape is granite. The range was formed from an enormous block of granite, raised and tilted by geological forces over many eons. Then, glaciers and water set to work, stripping away much of the sedimentary rock at the surface and sculpting the granite bedrock below. What's left is a westward sloping range of craggy peaks, slashed by deep canyons and cliffs.

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The highest mountains are in the southern Sierras, and the wide-open vistas above the tree line there are a hiker's dream. Mount Whitney is the highest of them all, and the ascent to the top of the 14,494-foot (4,418-meter) peak can be made as a long day hike or as a two-day backpacking trip [source: USGA].

Rivers are an important part of the Sierra Nevada terrain. In spring, 15 major river systems and watersheds carry water from melting snow down the slopes, deepening canyons and providing 60 percent of California's water through a system of canals and aqueducts [source: Virtual Museum].

Plants are a distinctive part of the Sierra landscape. Hikers come from around the world to view the trees, which include towering ponderosa pines and the monumental sequoias. Some of the sequoias, a type of redwood, are 3,500 years old. The General Sherman tree in Sequoia National Park is 272 feet (83 meters) high and 27.5 feet (8.4 meters) in diameter [source: Virtual Museum]. At higher elevations, lodgepole pines and mountain hemlocks twist into baroque forms.

As you hike through the Sierras, you'll encounter a fascinating variety of terrain and landscape features. For example, there are 100 small glaciers -- the southernmost glaciers in the U.S. -- scattered through the high peaks. They reside among the alpine lakes of the region, which are defined as lakes above 5,000 feet. Lake Tahoe is the most famous of them. You'll also find caves carved out of marble -- Crystal Cave in Sequoia National Park is one that allows tours. In other parts of the Sierras, you'll find deep canyons, waterfalls, volcanic rock and hot springs.

If your hiking feet are eager to get on the trail, read on to check out the accommodations that are available in the Sierras.

Sierra Mountains Hiking: Accommodations and Camping

Sleeping under the stars is special. Waking in the wilderness far from all traces of civilization can restore the soul. If that's your philosophy, backpacking and camping are certainly the best ways to experience the Sierra Nevadas in all their glory. To keep the wilderness wild, the National Park Service limits the number of hikers who can camp there. You'll need to obtain a permit in advance and follow the rules designed to minimize your impact. Then you're on your own, free to explore nature.

If camping in the untamed wild isn't your thing, you'll still have your choice of accommodations in the Sierras. You might want to stay in a campground so you can be close to nature without having to lug your tent and other gear into the woods. The Sierra National Forest has 100 campgrounds, where you'll be assigned a spot to pitch your tent. There are 13 in Yosemite and 14 in Sequoia and Kings Canyon [sources: NPS/Yosemite; NPS/Sequoia]. Most have picnic tables, water and restrooms.

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Trailer camping allows you to bring even more of the comforts of home. Throughout the Sierra Nevadas, there are sites with electrical and water hookups, showers and toilet facilities. Yosemite alone has 10 campgrounds that accommodate RVs and trailers, but no hookups. Reservations are necessary and they go fast. However, if you can't get space inside the parks, you might find an RV park nearby.

The Sierras offer a wide range of lodges and motels, too. For example, the Ahwahnee Lodge in Yosemite was built in 1927. It offers luxury accommodations, including a solarium and fine dining [source: Ahwahnee]. The 102-room Wuksachi Lodge in Sequoia National Park is another comfortable spot with a full-service restaurant near the Giant Forest area [source: Wuksachi].

If you're looking for a compromise between camping and fancy lodge living, the Housekeeping Camp at Yosemite might be the place for you. It has 266 units, each with three concrete walls, a concrete floor and a canvas roof. Equipped with bunk beds and cots, each unit sleeps six. You can cook over a camp fire or plug appliances into the outlets provided [source: Housekeeping].

A perfect way to explore the upper reaches of Yosemite is to take advantage of the High Sierra Camps. These are tent lodgings run by the Park Service spaced from 10 to 15 miles (16 to 24 kilometers) apart, a good day's hike. Since meals are also provided, the camps let you hike without being weighed down by food and tent. Reservations for the camps are sought after by hikers and the Park Service gives them out by lottery [source: High Sierra Camps].

Whether you're a novice or experienced hiker, you'll need to take a few basic safety precautions before you hit the trail. You'll read about these in the next section.

Sierra Mountains Hiking: Safety Guidelines

Vilhjalmur Stefansson, an Icelandic polar explorer, is quoted as saying, "An adventure is a sign of incompetence" [source: Layman]. Experienced hikers know that poor planning and carelessness can ruin your day. An "adventure" in the rugged Sierras can easily turn into a life-threatening disaster.

The first rule is to know yourself. Hikes here can be very strenuous and may take you to high altitudes. Overexertion is one of the most common difficulties hikers encounter. Understand your limits. You may need to spend a few days acclimating to the altitude before you go on a big hike. Take breaks and don't overdo it.

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Also, remember to drink enough water. Dehydration from heavy exercise is a common problem. Carry water for short hikes, and bring a filter for longer stays. Drinking unfiltered water from streams and lakes invites some unpleasant diseases.

There's safety in numbers, so hike with a partner or small group. Leave word as to where you're going and when you'll be back. Take a cell phone with you, but don't depend on it. There may be no reception in the backcountry.

Even for a day hike, learn something about the terrain, the elevation gain and availability of water on the trail you'll be tackling before you head out. Keep an eye on the weather, too. Thunderstorms sweep through the Sierras regularly during summer. Carry rain gear or a tarp -- getting soaked can reduce your body heat to dangerously low levels. Lightning may be a problem, as well, especially at higher elevations. Take precautions during severe storms: Lie down and avoid exposed areas.

The right gear can help make for a safer, more enjoyable hike. Good shoes, well broken-in, are essential. Make sure you have a warm jacket, even during the summer, as high-country weather is unpredictable. Take a supply of food, especially energy bars and nuts, which are convenient and rich in calories (you'll be burning a lot of them). Also, don't forget a first aid kit and sunscreen. Additionally, walking sticks can save you from a sprained ankle on rough terrain, and a GPS device or compass and topographical map are essentials to avoid getting lost.

It all comes down to common sense. With adequate preparation and some basic precautions, the Sierras will reward you with a hiking experience you'll remember for the rest of your life. "Going to the mountains is going home," John Muir wrote. "That wildness is a necessity" [source: NPS/Backpacking].

Author's Note

I am a distant cousin of John Burroughs, the 19th-century naturalist who was a contemporary of John Muir and joined him to promote nature as something to be treasured and preserved, not trampled on and exploited. The idea of setting aside national parks and pristine wilderness areas is taken for granted today; it was revolutionary 100 years ago.

Like Muir, Burroughs was a dedicated hiker. The two men traveled to Alaska together. But Burroughs mainly walked through the Catskill Mountains of New York State, near where he was born. I am fortunate to live close to the Catskills myself, and have spent many hours hiking the mountains and valleys where Rip Van Winkle is said to have rambled. These mountains aren't as spectacular as the Sierras, of course. But as all hikers know, getting into the woods and away from civilization is as important as any panorama.

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