Top 23 wonders of the Sierra Nevada
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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