Sierra Nevada

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The Sierra Nevada (Spanish meaning "snowy mountain range") is a mountain range located in the U.S. states of California and Nevada. The range is also known informally as "the Sierra," "the High Sierra," and "the Sierras."


The Sierra Nevada stretches 400 miles (650 km) from Fredonyer Pass in the north to Tehachapi Pass in the south. It is bounded on the west by California's Central Valley, and on the east by the Great Basin. 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 by natural means. However, water from several streams and the Owens River is redirected to the city of Los Angeles. Thus, by artificial means, some east-flowing river water now does ultimately make it to the Pacific Ocean.

There are several notable geographical features in the Sierra Nevada:

  • Lake Tahoe is a large, clear freshwater lake in the northern Sierra Nevada, with an elevation of 6,225 feet (1,897 m) and an area of 191 square miles (489 km²). Lake Tahoe lies between the main Sierra and the Carson Range, a spur of the Sierra. Water from Lake Tahoe eventually reaches Pyramid Lake, where it evaporates.
  • Hetch Hetchy Valley, Yosemite Valley, Kings Canyon, Tehipite Valley and Kern Canyon are the most well-known of many beautiful, glacially-scoured canyons on the west side of the Sierra.
  • Yosemite National Park is filled with stunning features, such as waterfalls and granite domes.
  • Mount Whitney, at 14,505 feet (4,421 m), is the highest point in the contiguous United States. Mt. Whitney is on the eastern border of Sequoia National Park.
  • Groves of Giant Sequoias Sequoiadendron giganteum occur along a narrow band of altitude on the western side of the Sierra Nevada. Giant Sequoias are the most massive trees in the world.

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 more than 9,000 feet (>2,700 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).

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