The Secret Sierra: We All Think We Know California' Sierra Nevada. but Many of the Mountains' Best Wonders-Unlikely as It Seems-Are Waiting for You to Discover Them

By Fish, Peter | Sunset, May 2013 | Go to article overview

The Secret Sierra: We All Think We Know California' Sierra Nevada. but Many of the Mountains' Best Wonders-Unlikely as It Seems-Are Waiting for You to Discover Them


Fish, Peter, Sunset


Here's where I am: on a horse on the McGee Canyon trail in the Sierra Nevada 350 miles east of San Francisco, 320 north of Los Angeles, and seemingly an infinity from anything that looks like civilization. Below me, the canyon's rock slopes frame a view of much of eastern California and western Nevada: Long Valley, White Mountains, and shimmering desert beyond. To the west, above me: bare 13,000-foot peaks, serrated, like mountains crayoned by an impatient child.

My horse, Lance, lifts his large head, snorts, and with a clop of hooves against stone follows in the line of equines along the trail up to Big McGee Lake. One of the riders ahead of me surveys our procession of horses, then pronounces, "You don't know the Sierra until you've seen it from a saddle."

It's the romantic statement of someone dazzled by a new adventure. The truth is, we Westerners all know California's Sierra Nevada mountain range. They are fundamental to who we are: Without the foothills' gold-festooned gravel, few would have crossed the continent to get here. And for generations it's been California's backyard mountain range. Here's where many of us went to summer camp, saw our first bear, paddled our first canoe, had that first quintessential moment of lying back on a sun-warmed expanse of gray, quartz-sparkled granite and gazing out at a universe of green pines and sharp blue sky.

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. "The largest mountain range in the Lower 48 states," Eldridge Moores, professor emeritus of geology at University of California, Davis, tells me. Then, as if addressing objections from Coloradans, "The Rockies aren't a single range--they're lots of smaller ranges."

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. I have spent most of a lifetime seeing these mountains in parts--Kings Canyon, Desolation Wilderness, even a couple of forays here in the mountains' eastern slopes. But I suspect the Sierra has kept some of its best secrets from me, wonders waiting to be explored.

WHICH IS WHY at 6:30 on a cool summer morning I'm driving up to McGee Creek Pack Station, south of Mammoth. No approach to the Sierra is unimpressive, but if you want to be hit over the head with the magnitude of the range, the eastern side is your best bet. Here, the Sierra Nevada rises from Owens Valley in a sheer 3,000-foot wall that shouts, We are what mountains are all about.

As for McGee Creek Pack Station, it's a tidy 90-year-old scattering of wooden buildings set beneath cottonwood trees. I stroll down to the corral, meet owners Lee and Jennifer Roeser, and exchange good mornings with the other blue-jeaned, sunblocked clients.

One of the wranglers leads a string of chestnuts and roans, and matches mount to rider. Up I go on Lance, with wranglers shouting advice: "Sit up tall. Heels down, legs straight. Weight on the balls of your feet."

The pack station sits at 7,600 feet. Our destination, Big McGee Lake, is 3,000 feet higher. This gets at an essential fact of the Eastern Sierra Nevada: It is very steep. The tectonic science is complex, says Moores, who roamed the range with John McPhee for the writer's Pulitzer Prize-winning Annals of the Former World. The Sierra and California's Central Valley ride on their own microplate, which is performing a geological minuet with the North American and Pacific plates. …

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