The Sierra Nevada (Spanish for "Snowy Range") is a mountain range located in the U.S. state of California. In a few places, it overlaps into neighboring Nevada. The range is also known informally as the Sierra, the High Sierra, and the Sierras.
Physiographically, it is a section of the Cascade-Sierra Mountains province, which in turn is part of the larger Pacific Mountain System physiographic division.
In west-east cross section, the Sierra is shaped like a trapdoor: the elevation gradually increases on the west slope, while the east slope forms a steep escarpment. Thus, the crest runs principally along the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada range. Rivers flowing west from the Sierra Crest eventually drain into the Pacific Ocean, while rivers draining east flow into the Great Basin and do not reach any ocean. However, water from several streams and the Owens River is redirected to the city of Los Angeles (see Los Angeles Aqueduct). Thus, by artificial means, some east-flowing river water does make it to the Pacific Ocean.
There are several notable geographical features in the Sierra Nevada:
The height of the mountains in the Sierra Nevada gradually increases from north to south. Between Fredonyer Pass and Lake Tahoe, the peaks range from 5,000 feet (1,524 m) to 8,000 feet (2,438 m). The crest near Lake Tahoe is roughly 9,000 feet (2,700 m) high, with several peaks approaching the height of Freel Peak (10,881 feet, 3,316 m), including Mount Rose (10,776 feet, 3,285 m), which overlooks Reno from the north end of the Carson Range. The crest near Yosemite National Park is roughly 13,000 feet (4,000 m) high at Mount Dana and Mount Lyell, and the entire range attains its peak at Mount Whitney (14,505 feet, 4,421 m). South of Mount Whitney, the range diminishes in elevation, but there are still several high points like Florence Peak (12,405 feet, 3,781 m) and Olancha Peak (12,123 feet, 3,695 m). The range still climbs almost to 10,000 feet (3,048 m) near Lake Isabella, but south of the lake, the peaks reach only to a modest 8,000 feet (2,438 m).
The well-known granite that makes up most of the southern Sierra started to form in the Triassic period. At that time, an island arc collided with the West coast of North America and raised a set of mountains, in an event called the Nevadan orogeny. This event produced metamorphic rock. At roughly the same time, a subduction zone started to form at the edge of the continent. This means that an oceanic plate started to dive beneath the North American plate. Magma from the melting oceanic plate rose in plumes (plutons) deep underground, their combined mass forming what is called the Sierra Nevada batholith. These plutons formed at various times, from 115 million to 87 million years ago. By 65 million years ago, the proto-Sierra Nevada was worn down to a range of rolling low mountains, a few thousand feet high.
Twenty million years ago, crustal extension associated with the Basin and Range Province caused extensive volcanism in the Sierra. About 4 million years ago, the Sierra Nevada started to form and tilt to the west. Rivers started cutting deep canyons on both sides of the range. The Earth's climate cooled, and ice ages started about 2.5 million years ago. Glaciers carved out characteristic U-shaped canyons throughout the Sierra. The combination of river and glacier erosion exposed the uppermost portions of the plutons emplaced millions of years before, leaving only a remnant of metamorphic rock on top of some Sierra peaks.
Uplift of the Sierra Nevada continues today, especially along its eastern side. This uplift causes large earthquakes, such as the Lone Pine earthquake of 1872.
The Sierra Nevada is divided into a number of biotic zones
By 1860, even though the California Gold Rush populated the flanks of the Sierra Nevada, most of the Sierra remained unexplored. Therefore, the state legislature authorized the California Geological Survey to officially explore the Sierra (and survey the rest of the state). Josiah Whitney was appointed to head the survey.
Men of the survey, including William H. Brewer, Charles F. Hoffmann, and Clarence King, explored the backcountry of what would become Yosemite National Park in 1863. In 1864, they explored the area around Kings Canyon. King later recounted his adventures over the Kings-Kern divide in his book Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada. In 1871, King mistakenly thought that Mount Langley was the highest peak in the Sierra and climbed it. However, before he could climb the true highest peak (Mount Whitney), fishermen from Lone Pine climbed it and left a note.
Between 1892 and 1897, Theodore Solomons was the first explorer to attempt to map a route along the crest of the Sierra (what would eventually become the John Muir Trail, along a different route). On his 1894 expedition, he took along Leigh Bierce, son of writer Ambrose Bierce.
Other noted early mountaineers included:
Features in the Sierra are named after these men.
Looking northeast we saw an immense plain without any trees, through which the water extends for a long distance, having in it several little islands of lowland. And finally, on the other side of the immense plain, and at a distance of about forty leagues, we saw a great Sierra Nevada whose trend appeared to me to be from south-southeast to north-northwest.
Its most common nickname is the Range of Light. This nickname comes from John Muir, which is a description of the unusually light colored granite exposed by glacial action.
A unique peculiarity of the Sierra Nevada is that, under certain wind conditions, a large round tube of air begins to roll on the southeast side. This is known as the "Sierra Nevada Rotor" or a "Sierra Wave. This "mountain wave" forms when dry continental winds from the east cause the formation of a stacked set of counter-revolving cylinders of air reaching into the stratosphere. As of 2004, no sailplane has found its top. Similar features occur on many mountain ranges, but it is often observed and utilized in the Sierra. The phenomenon was the subject of an Air Force-funded study in the early 1950s called the Sierra Wave Project. Many recent world altitude records set in unpowered aircraft were set in the Sierra Nevada Wave, most flown from Mojave Airport.