Many of the mountains’ best sights—unlikely as it seems—are waiting for you to discover them
We Westerners all know California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. They are fundamental to who we are: Without the foothills’ gold-festooned gravel, few would have crossed the continent to get here. And for generations it’s been California’s backyard mountain range. Here’s where many of us went to summer camp, saw our first bear, paddled our first canoe, had that first quintessential moment of lying back on a sun-warmed expanse of gray, quartz-sparkled granite and gazing out at a universe of green pines and sharp blue sky.
Every year, about 4 million people visit Yosemite National Park alone, more than a million ski Mammoth, almost 3 million visit Lake Tahoe. Even the trails of Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, can seem like a thoroughfare on a summer weekend—more than 20,000 attempt to reach the summit each year.
Yet, equally true: It’s impossible to know the Sierra. Look at any map of California, and the mountains occupy a huge swath of the state—400 miles north to south and 70 miles east to west. We see the Sierra Nevada only in bits. We nibble at them. For every Yosemite, the Sierra holds hundreds of equally lovely but barely known alpine valleys; for every Tahoe, dozens of high mountain lakes. Here are some of the Sierra's top hits and best-kept secrets, wonders waiting to be explored (such as McGee Creek and the Sierra Crest, pictured).