Top 23 wonders of the Sierra Nevada

Many of the mountains’ best sights—unlikely as it seems—are waiting for you to discover them

The secret Sierra

Photo by Thomas J. Story

The secret Sierra

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).

 

Horse packing trip

Photo by Thomas J. Story

Horse packing trip

“You don’t know the Sierra until you’ve seen it from a saddle.” So says a rider on a horse packing trip, which lets you travel like a forty-niner and cover plenty of ground in a weekend. No approach to the Sierra is unimpressive, but if you want to be hit over the head with the magnitude of the range, the eastern side is your best bet. Here, the Sierra Nevada rises from Owens Valley in a sheer 3,000-foot wall that shouts, We are what mountains are all about.

 

McGee Creek Pack Station

Photo by Thomas J. Story

McGee Creek Pack Station

The departure point for a horse packing trip, the pack station sits at 7,600 feet. Trips can climb up to 3,000 feet (or more) higher, uphill treks that shed light on the appeal of the pack trip, a Sierra tradition that dates back to 19th-century surveyors, miners, and anyone who needed to haul stuff: It’s better to have a four-footed animal lug you and your gear upward than it is to carry it all on your own two feet.

Kings Canyon National Park

Photo by David Fenton

Kings Canyon National Park

Spectacular valley famous for waterfalls and lush meadows. $20/vehicle; nps.gov/seki

More: Kings Canyon National Park guide

 

Congress Trail

Congress Trail

Forgo the General Sherman. The best sequoia grove in Sequoia and Kings Canyon parks stands on the Congress Trail. Don’t miss the House and Senate groups. $20/vehicle; nps.gov/seki

More: Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks guide

Mineral King

Photo by Thomas J. Story

Mineral King

Part of the drama of Mineral King comes just from getting there. The 25-mile, nearly 7,000-foot climb starts innocently enough in Three Rivers, one of Sequoia National Park’s gateway towns. But before you know it, Mineral King Road is leading you on a succession of twists and blind corners with drop-offs above a seemingly bottomless canyon. And farther up, through forest where massive, cinnamon-hued trunks of giant sequoias dwarf the surrounding trees.

A few miles past Silver City Mountain Resort, the only non-camping option along the way, the road rounds the last of its nearly 700 turns then dead-ends at Mineral King Valley.

At this point, it’s fine to gasp, but you’re not done. The glacier-carved valley is the jumping-off point for hikes in meadows of wildflowers, along creeks that tumble through stands of aspen, up to alpine lakes with views of cascades down mountain faces. Those 700 turns? Worth it, every one of them. Mineral King Valley: $20/vehicle (open May 22); nps.gov/seki. Silver City resort: From $100 (open May 24); silvercityresort.com.

Moro Rock

Moro Rock

About 400 granite steps ascend 6,725-foot Moro Rock—like Half Dome without the cables and the long hike. $20/vehicle; nps.gov/seki

 

Mount Whitney

Mount Whitney

At 14,494 feet, it’s the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. And it doesn’t take any mountain climbing expertise or technical climbing equipment (at least not from mid-July to early October) to tackle the 22-mile round-trip trail to the summit—just lots of stamina. Thousands of people do it each year. Information on the hike (and necessary permit) available from the U.S. Forest Service.

Huntington Lake

Photo by Thomas J. Story

Huntington Lake

A day at Huntington Lake, northeast of Fresno on State 168, goes like this: In the morning, before the wind kicks up, paddlers set out for “The Big Island“ at the lake’s west end. Anglers—in boats and dotted along the jagged shores—troll for rainbow trout and kokanee salmon. As the sun warms the air, swimmers and lawn-chair loungers take their places in sheltered coves.

At 7 miles long by 1 mile wide, Huntington is ideal for sailboat racing. And every afternoon, colorful spinnakers fan out among the whitecaps. The Fresno Yacht Club holds its High Sierra Regatta here, but Huntington sailors aren’t snobby. At Lakeshore Resort’s marina, Olympic gold medalists rub elbows with Girl Scouts in Sunfishes.

Proper lake attire is flip-flops and a bathing suit, but come evening, when the scent of campfires and roasting s’mores wafts along the shore, it’s jacket weather until bedtime.

So it goes, day after day, whether you’re camping or staying at one of the rustic resorts like Huntington Lake Resort or Lakeview Cottages, where cabins lie steps from the water. Welcome to Sierra summer. Huntington Resort: cabins from $115 (open mid-Jun); huntingtonresort.com. Lakeview Cottages: cabins from $170 (open Jun 1); lakeviewcottages.net.

Florence Lake ferry

Photo by Sean Arbabi

Florence Lake ferry

Take the Sierra Queen across the lake and walk back, or hike into the John Muir Wilderness. $12 one way; check ferry runs: florence-lake.com

 

Devils Postpile National Monument

Photo by jerici cat (on Flickr Creative Commons)

Devils Postpile National Monument

Geology meets geometry in a massive rock formation of hexagonal columns formed by an ancient lava flow. From $7; nps.gov/depo

More: 23 wonders of the West

Yosemite National Park

Photo by Kenny Karst / DNC Parks & Resort at Yosemite

Yosemite National Park

To see the terrain immortalized in Ansel Adams' photographs in person is humbling. Over a dozen waterfalls―at their most bountiful in spring―splash here; Half Dome and El Capitan lure world-class climbers, artists and photographers. In summer you can slip in a raft and bob down the Merced River. Yosemite is truly one of the West's most epic playgrounds.

More: Yosemite National Park guide

Hetch Hetchy

Photo by puliarf (on Flickr Creative Commons)

Hetch Hetchy

Yosemite’s other great valley, flooded to create Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in the early 1900s. But surrounding mountains remain gorgeous and uncrowded. A 5-mile round-trip hike leads to Wapama Falls. $20/vehicle; nps.gov/yose

More: Yosemite National Park guide

Calaveras Big Trees State Park

Calaveras Big Trees State Park

Stroll through North Grove—the first stand of giant sequoias visited by non–Native Americans. $10; parks.ca.gov

 

Kit Carson Lodge

Photo by Thomas J. Story

Kit Carson Lodge

The perfect Sierra lodge should at once give you lots of things to do and make it hard for the outside world to annoy you. Karen and Mike Riddle’s version of this ideal retreat sits on Silver Lake—a sapphire blue lake where you can swim, or rent a kayak and paddle out to the lake’s Treasure Island. A short drive away is all the hiking you’ll ever need: Easy treks include the 1-mile trail to Granite Lake. For the more ambitious, a 3.6-mile trail ascends Thunder Mountain.

Then there’s the lodge parlor, which has knotty pine walls, a stone fireplace, and landscape paintings by local artists. Comfy chairs and small tables invite protracted games of cribbage. Seclusion? Most cell phones don’t work, although they’ll let you use the house phone if you need it. And don’t forget your French press: Though fixed up in 2011, the lodge still has generators that don’t tolerate electric coffeemakers in the otherwise well-stocked cabin kitchens.

Still, you’ll feel like you’re in the hub of it all on Sundays, when the lodge’s chef caters an outdoor barbecue with sticky slabs of pork ribs and roasted chicken. Like the Kit Carson itself, they’re perfect. Rooms from $130, cabins from $180; kitcarsonlodge.com.

Wrights Lake Trailhead

Photo courtesy of Facebook fan Suzanne Gladkoff Stephen

Wrights Lake Trailhead

Hike into Desolation Wilderness from the west. Great camping too. (530) 644-2349.

More: California's best campgrounds

Lake Tahoe

Photo by David Fenton

Lake Tahoe

Clear, blue, and still a classic: Tahoe is a sparkling gem in the SIerra. Summer at Lake Tahoe is the same as it ever was, too. Go for a sunset sail, take a shot at paddleboarding, or find a slice of beach and take in the to-die-for beauty.

More: Our insider guide to Lake Tahoe

Lost Trail Lodge

Photo by Scott Sawyer

Lost Trail Lodge

Near Truckee, off-the-grid lodge accessed by foot, cross-country skis (in winter), or (in summer and fall) car. Mountain bike (BYO), then Jacuzzi to your heart’s content. From $198; losttraillodge.com

 

Sonora & Ebbetts Passes

Photo by Thomas J. Story

Sonora & Ebbetts Passes

Only a few roads cut through the Sierra from west to east. If speed’s your goal, set cruise control and take I-80 over Donner Summit. But locals argue about which other mountain pass boasts the best scenery. Which is why you shouldn’t drive just one. Instead, take a weekend for a road trip on States 4 and 108.

Day 1: From Arnold, drive State 4 to Bear Valley. Just beyond, Lake Alpine Resort serves up a hearty trout-and-eggs breakfast, and rents kayaks. Heading east, 4 curlicues up and over Ebbetts Pass’s 8,732-foot summit. Two right turns take you first over State 89’s Monitor Pass, then south on U.S. 395 through the rugged Walker River canyon. For dinner and a motel room, Bridgeport is your best bet.

Day 2: From Bridgeport, State 108 runs west to climb steep switchbacks past thick stands of aspens and craggy volcanic outcroppings to the 9,624-foot Sonora Pass. West of the summit, Kennedy Meadows Resort has hamburgers and horseback rides. At Donnell Vista, walk the path that shows off the Yosemite-like gorge of Donnell Reservoir. Cap off the trip with a swim at Pinecrest Lake, and dream of doing it all again in reverse. Passes (call for opening date): (800) 427-7623. Lake Alpine Resort: from $150 (open May 24); lakealpineresort.com. Kennedy Meadows: from $68 (restaurant open mid-May); kennedymeadows.com. Pinecrest Lake: fs.usda.gov/stanislaus.

Bridgeport

Photo by Thomas J. Story

Bridgeport

Much of Bridgeport’s Main Street is vintage 1880, from the old brick general store to the stately white Mono County Courthouse, built to serve the silver and gold mines that sprang up nearby. And in summer, the town feels equally classic, with July Fourth roping and barrel-racing contests at the rodeo grounds, old-timers debating the latest fishing report over prime rib at the 1877 Bridgeport Inn, and backpackers filing out of the mountains for a post-wilderness soft-serve at the Jolly Kone, easily spotted by its firehouse red paint.

The simple big-sky view from downtown is spectacular. Bisected by the East Walker River, Bridgeport’s grassy valley spreads out flat as a cow pie, the view broken only by the Sierra Crest at Sawtooth Ridge, where serrated granite peaks soar to 12,000 feet. bridgeportcalifornia.com

Travertine Hot Springs

Photo by Thomas J. Story

Travertine Hot Springs

Jack Kerouac and his “dharma bums” once used Bridgeport as a base to explore the Eastern Sierra. For others, though, it serves a slightly different purpose, as a gateway to a natural spa paradise: Hot waters gush to the surface in abnormally high concentration between the towns of Bridgeport and Mammoth Lakes, 60 miles south. But finding the hidden pools that are open to the public (and not scalding hot) requires local knowledge―or locals willing to share that knowledge. Travertine Hot Springs, mineral pools in an alkali-encrusted meadow just east of Bridgeport, isn’t one of those places―it’s accessible. bit.ly/15ofg9D

Mono Lake

Mono Lake

Shallow, salty―2 1/2 times as salty as the ocean―and shadowed by eerie tufa formations, Mono is Northern California's second-most famous lake; where Tahoe's beauties are clear and obvious, Mono's are more mysterious. www.monolake.org

Conway Summit

Photo by Thomas J. Story

Conway Summit

U.S. 395’s viewpoint at 7,864 feet shows you Mono Lake and the Eastern Sierra—and a guardrail festooned with bumper stickers from around the world. 13 mi. south of Bridgeport.

 

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