Text Box: Sierra Nevada Introduction | Geomorphic History | Yosemite National Park | Features of Yosemite | Other National Parks | Lake Tahoe and Resources
The Sierra Nevada is the longest single mountain range in the United States, extending 430 miles–more than half the length of California–from just south of Lassen Peak (Mount Lassen) in northern California to the northern edge of the Mojave Desert in the southern part of the state.  (The 600-mile-long Brooks Range in Alaska is composed of several subranges.)  The Sierra Nevada,  sometimes called the high eastern backbone of California, comprises nearly all of the Sierra Nevada province, which is entirely in California except a very small portion in western Nevada east of Lake Tahoe.  The Tehachapi Mountains, which form a southwest extension of the Sierra Nevada, are included in the province, although this relatively small range is somewhat different than the main block of the Sierra Nevada.  Some classifications combine the Sierra Nevada with the Cascade Mountains to the north into a single geomorphic province, called the Sierra Nevada-Cascades or rarely the Interior Mountains and Plateaus province, primarily because these two ranges form a nearly continuous chain exceeding 1,000 miles in length.  However, the Cascades differ in many substantial ways from the Sierra Nevada, including geological structures, mode of formation, topography and geomorphic history.  The significant differences between these two mountain ranges warrant their treatment as two distinct provinces. 
The Sierra Nevada received its name in 1776 from a Franciscan missionary who referred to the area as Una Gran Sierra Nevada, meaning A Great Snowy Mountain Range.  The name is appropriate, as some portions of the mountains receive more than 60 feet of snowfall annually, and snow has accumulated to a depth as much as 5 feet in 1 day.  Because the name includes the English equivalents of mountain and range, these terms are not appropriately used in conjunction with Sierra Nevada (i.e., Sierra Nevada Mountains is redundant).  John Muir, who  provided the primary impetus for the establishment of Yosemite National Park within the Sierra Nevada, added the moniker Range of Light.
The range is an asymmetrical fault-block with a very steep eastern face and much gentler sloping western side.  The eastern face, which has essentially no foothills, rises 11,000 feet above adjacent Owens Valley to the east; this is higher above its immediate surroundings than any other mountain front in the conterminous United States.  This change in elevation occurs over a horizontal distance of less than 10 miles, indicating this face of the range rises at a rate exceeding 1,000 feet per mile; for more than half the length of the Sierra Nevada the crest is within 10 miles of the eastern base of the mountains.  In contrast, portions of the western slope rise at only about one-tenth the rate of the eastern side.  This flank in many places has an appearance of a gently sloping plateau of mostly moderate topographic variation, rather than that of the side of a major mountain range.   In some places the crest of the mountain range is 5 miles from the eastern base and more than 50 miles from the western foothills.  Elevations are generally higher in the southern portion of the province.  The highest peak is Mt. Whitney, with an elevation of 14,495 feet.  This peak, with a rather level 3-acre summit, is the tallest in the conterminous United States, and like the entire range, its eastern face is much steeper than its western side.  Interestingly, Mt. Whitney has the second greatest topographic prominence in the conterminous United States (see the discussion of prominence in the Mt. Rainier portion of the chapter on the Cascade Mountains), but the peak does not stand in splendid isolation:  there are six peaks within 6 miles of Mt. Whitney that exceed 14,000 feet in elevation.  Eleven peaks throughout the range are taller than 14,000 feet, and there are more than 500 peaks greater than 12,000 feet in elevation.  There are about 12 major rivers that flow down the western side, but no river crosses through the range.
 Sierra Nevada Introduction | Geomorphic History | Yosemite National Park | Features of Yosemite | Other National Parks | Lake Tahoe and Resources