Guide Exploring the Highest Sierra

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It represents where the granitic bedrock of the Sierra Nevada dives below the southern extent of Cenozoic igneous surface rock from the Cascade Range.

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The southern boundary is at Tehachapi Pass. Physiographically, the Sierra is a section of the Cascade-Sierra Mountains province, which in turn is part of the larger Pacific Mountain System physiographic division. The California Geological Survey states that "the northern Sierra boundary is marked where bedrock disappears under the Cenozoic volcanic cover of the Cascade Range. The range is drained on its western slope by the Central Valley watershed, which discharges into the Pacific Ocean at San Francisco. The northern third of the western Sierra is part of the Sacramento River watershed including the Feather , Yuba , and American River tributaries , and the middle third is drained by the San Joaquin River including the Mokelumne , Stanislaus , Tuolumne , and Merced River tributaries.

The southern third of the range is drained by the Kings , Kaweah , Tule , and Kern rivers, which flow into the endorheic basin of Tulare Lake , which rarely overflows into the San Joaquin during wet years. The eastern slope watershed of the Sierra is much narrower; its rivers flow out into the endorheic Great Basin of eastern California and western Nevada. Although none of the eastern rivers reach the sea, many of the streams from Mono Lake southwards are diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct which provides water to Southern California.

The height of the mountains in the Sierra Nevada increases gradually from north to south. South of Mount Whitney, the elevation of the range quickly dwindles. Much of the Sierra Nevada consists of federal lands and is either protected from development or strictly managed.

These areas protect Starting in , hikers were unable to enter the Area from May 15 through December 15, in order to protect the sheep. As of , the restriction has been lifted and access to the Area is open for the whole year. The earliest rocks in the Sierra Nevada are metamorphic roof pendants of Paleozoic age, the oldest being metasedimentary rocks from the Cambrian in the Mount Morrison region. This granite is mostly found east of the crest and north of In the Cretaceous , a subduction zone formed at the edge of the continent.

Magma formed through the subduction of the ancient Farallon Plate rose in plumes plutons deep underground, their combined mass forming what is called the Sierra Nevada batholith. Twenty million years ago, crustal extension associated with the Basin and Range Province caused extensive volcanism in the Sierra. Rivers started cutting deep canyons on both sides of the range. Lava filled some of these canyons, which have subsequently eroded leaving table mountains that follow the old river channels. 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 The climate of the Sierra Nevada is influenced by the Mediterranean climate of California. Most parts of the range east of the crest are in a rain shadow , and receive less than 25 inches of precipitation per year. Some of these summer thunderstorms drop over an inch of rain in a short period, and the lightning can start fires.

Winters are comparatively mild, and the temperature is usually only just low enough to sustain a heavy snowpack. The Sierra Nevada snowpack is the major source of water and a significant source of electric power generation in California. However, the Sierra casts a rain shadow , which greatly affects the climate and ecology of the central Great Basin. This rain shadow is largely responsible for Nevada being the driest state in the United States.

Precipitation varies substantially from year to year. It is not uncommon for some years to receive precipitation totals far above or below normal.

Discover the High Sierra

The height of the range and the steepness of the Sierra Escarpment, particularly at the southern end of the range, produces a wind phenomenon known as the "Sierra Rotor". This is a horizontal rotation of the atmosphere just east of the crest of the Sierra, set in motion as an effect of strong westerly winds. Because of the large number of airplanes that have crashed in the Sierra Nevada, primarily due to the complex weather and atmospheric conditions such as downdrafts and microbursts caused by geography there, a portion of the area, a triangle whose vertices are Reno, Nevada ; Fresno, California ; and Las Vegas, Nevada , has been dubbed the "Nevada Triangle", in reference to the Bermuda Triangle.

Some counts put the number of crashes in the triangle at 2,, including millionaire and record-breaking flyer Steve Fossett. Hypotheses that the crashes are related in some way to the United States Air Force 's Area 51 , or to the activities of extra-terrestrial aliens , have no evidence to support them. The Sierra Nevada is divided into a number of biotic zones , each of which is defined by its climate and supports a number of interdependent species.


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The rain shadow of the Sierra causes the eastern slope to be warmer and drier: The earliest identified sustaining indigenous people in the Sierra Nevada were the Northern Paiute tribes on the east side, with the Mono tribe and Sierra Miwok tribe on the western side, and the Kawaiisu and T ubatulabal tribes in the southern Sierra. Today, some historic intertribal trade route trails over mountain passes are known artifact locations, such as Duck Pass with its obsidian arrowheads. The California and Sierra Native American tribes were predominantly peaceful, with occasional territorial disputes between the Paiute and Sierra Miwok tribes in the mountains.

The literal translation is "snowy mountains", from sierra "a range of hills", s, from Spanish sierra "jagged mountain range", lit. American exploration of the mountain range started in Although prior to the s there were Spanish missions , pueblos towns , presidios forts , and ranchos along the coast of California, no Spanish explorers visited the Sierra Nevada. In , a subgroup of the Bonneville Expedition led by Joseph Reddeford Walker was sent westward to find an overland route to California.

Eventually the party discovered a route along the Humboldt River across present-day Nevada , ascending the Sierra Nevada, starting near present-day Bridgeport and descending between the Tuolumne and Merced River drainage. The group may have been the first non-indigenous people to see Yosemite Valley. In the winter of , Lt. Marshall, a foreman working for Sacramento pioneer John Sutter , found shiny metal in the tailrace of a lumber mill Marshall was building for Sutter on the American River. Brannan strode through the streets of San Francisco, holding aloft a vial of gold, shouting "Gold!

Gold from the American River! On August 19, , the New York Herald was the first major newspaper on the East Coast to report the discovery of gold.

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Miners lived in tents, wood shanties, or deck cabins removed from abandoned ships. Because the gold in the California gravel beds was so richly concentrated, the early forty-niners simply panned for gold in California's rivers and streams. Groups of prospectors would divert the water from an entire river into a sluice alongside the river, and then dig for gold in the newly exposed river bottom. By , most of the easily accessible gold had been collected, and attention turned to extracting gold from more difficult locations.

Hydraulic mining was used on ancient gold-bearing gravel beds on hillsides and bluffs in the gold fields. It is estimated that by , at least , gold-seekers, merchants, and other immigrants had arrived in California from around the world. To protect their homes and livelihood, some Native Americans responded by attacking the miners, provoking counter-attacks on native villages.

The Native Americans, out-gunned, were often slaughtered. The Gold Rush populated the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada, but even by , most of the Sierra was unexplored. 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 In , John Muir started his wanderings in the Sierra Nevada range, [56] and in , King was the first to climb Mount Langley , mistakenly believing he had summited Mount Whitney , the highest peak in the range.

Other people finished exploring and mapping the Sierra. Bolton Coit Brown explored the Kings River watershed in — Hutchinson , a noted mountaineer, climbed the Palisades and Mount Humphreys The tourism potential of the Sierra Nevada was recognized early in the European history of the range. Yosemite Valley was first protected by the federal government in The Valley and Mariposa Grove were ceded to California in and turned into a state park.

Exploring the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California

Muir successfully lobbied for the protection of the rest of Yosemite National Park: Congress created an Act to protect the park in The Valley and Mariposa Grove were added to the Park in In , the city of San Francisco proposed building a hydroelectric dam to flood Hetch Hetchy Valley.

The site is recognized as a 'type area' for studying volcanic phenomena, with world-class exposures of an extraordinary variety of glacial, volcanic, and structural assemblages and landforms. Unique ecosystems alpine meadows and forests, high deserts, alkaline lakes and cultural heritage indigenous peoples history, early mining and exploration history and complex environmental issues development issues, water use, environmental contamination offer a wonderfully rich mixture of possible learning experiences.

All of the important volcanic systems are located on public lands. Information resource centers, logistical support, and accessibility are all excellent.


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Because much of the viewing and quality of the experience is weather dependent, this trip is designed to be modular, taking advantage of the clear weather and geography to see and feel the earth and ecosystems when the weather is best. For instance, the Yosemite excursion could take place at either the beginning or the end of the trip.

Below is a tentative schedule for the two-week field course that can be adjusted as field conditions require. The final project will consist of a group-developed web site covering a range of topics related to our field study of the Sierra Nevada. Each student's contribution should be equivalent to a page research paper, and should cover some topic related to geological, biological, cultural, historical, or political aspects of the study area.

The paper must be based on original research sources. Final projects are due at the end of the first summer session, June The readings for the course will come from a variety of source materials, including geological textbooks, field guides, technical articles, and materials from the popular press. Plate Tectonics and the Evolution of the Continents Lecture: A laboratory analog to plate tectonics. The origin of magmas Readings: Structural Geology and the Evolution of the Western U. Topographic and Geological Maps. Crystallization and the Evolution of Magmas Readings: Water, Ice, and Wind Lecture: Rivers, glaciers, and the evolution of the Sierra Nevada Readings: Relation between Geologic and Biotic processes Lecture: Cultural and Environmental Issues Lecture: The History of Water Use in the western U.

Cadillac Desert Video session: Group flies into Las Vegas, arriving late morning. Pick up vans, drive to Death Valley. Overview of Death Valley from Dante's View. Discussion of borax mineralization and mining industry. Introduction to desert geomorphology and desert ecosystems.

Exploration of Death Valley region. Hike to the Stovepipe Wells sand dunes, traverse the Panamint Range, observe and discuss Precambrian through middle Paleozoic strata and structural processes. Proceed up Owens Valley; observe Mt. Whitney and discuss tectonic deformation and structural geologic processes.

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Hike above Lone Pine and observe earthquake-related structures. Drive to White Mountain research labs by nightfall. Night at White Mountain Research Station. Hike to White Mountain preserve. Observe 5, year old bristlecone pines. Discuss dendrochronology, corrections to radiometric age dating, alpine ecology with Connie Millar, US Forest Service. Hike to fossil collecting locality for Cambrian-aged archeocyathid fossils.

Observe folding of Paleozoic strata, discuss geometry of folds and tectonic causes. Overview of Long Valley region. Begin with examination of distal airfall deposits near Bishop, followed by traverse up Owens River Valley for examination of exposure of Bishop Tuff. Continue north to Lookout Mountain for a panoramic view of Long Valley caldera. Drive to Glass Creek and Obsidian domes to explore rhyolitic lava domes and associated structures.

Afternoon hike into Inyo Crater Lakes phreatic explosion craters; discussion of explosive volcanism, geological dating of recent eruptions. Introduction to seismic and volcanic hazards at Long Valley.

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Discussion of regional geology and glacial and fluvial erosion of Sierra Nevada. Hike to south summit for view of tree kills in Horseshoe Lake area; discussion of possible relation to magmatic activity in caldera. Evening session at US Geological Survey's laser observatory; explore geophysical monitoring of volcanic activity at Long Valley. Observe Quaternary glacial moraines cut by Hilton Creek normal fault.