A hiker reclining on a sun-warmed boulder admires two radically different environments extending from either side of the ridge. To the east lies a sagebrush desert, its soil so dry in places that wind-bursts can lift it a half-mile high. To the west the snowcapped Sierra Crest gleams, folded and scoured by heat and ice. Below is Lake Tahoe, its cobalt hue reflecting the cloudless sky. The ridge offers just one panorama of Sierra Nevada adventures: There are plenty more.
The mountain range is next to one of the lowest elevation regions in America, Death Valley, and lifts to the highest point in the contiguous 48 states, Mt. Whitney; it grows the oldest living plant on earth, the bristlecone pine, and hosts the largest living organism on earth, a giant sequoia tree; it has some of the world’s clearest and cleanest alpine lakes, and one of the nation’s saltiest lakes; it contains an astonishingly large batholith, a granite seam with a surface of 25,000 square miles (6,474,970 hectares) and extending 6 miles (9 kilometers) deep; it also hosts one of the world’s most important metals, gold, which spreads through hard rock in elusive spidery veins.
Challenged by such extremes, visitors find ways to test their mettle: climbers scale Yosemite’s El Capitan; kayakers scout crashing rivers; hikers explore the 10,000-foot elevation Sierra High Route. Some become heroes — activist John Muir, for instance, whose writings secured Yosemite National Park, and “Snowshoe Thompson,” who delivered mail on handmade wooden skis to isolated 19th century towns. But a person need not be a hero to experience the tug of grandeur. The Sierra ignites the imagination of modern day explorers, emboldening dreams of adventure.