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    Sierra Nevada in California: all the stages not to be missed

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    Martí Micolau

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    The common imaginary of California is made up of sunny beaches and beach life, but in reality it is only a small part of what this huge state has to offer in terms of tourism offer. On the opposite side of the Pacific, on the border with Nevada, the mountain range of the Sierra Nevada (also known as High Sierra) offers a spectacle far from stereotypes, camping one after the other, an impressive series of natural wonders, making it one of the most fascinating regions of America.

    To give an idea just think of the fact that they arise in this area 4 national parks, 3 national monuments, an impressive concentration of mountain lakes of crystalline water nestled between the mountains, western cities that still bear the traces of the gold rush, peaks among the most dizzying and imposing in all the United States (for example the Monte Whitney) and a series of hidden and unusual natural beauties, often produced by centuries of volcanic activity.

    So what to see in this region full of attractions? How to organize an itinerary and what to favor among all these wonders? Here is a list (as complete as possible), drawn up in an attempt to help you in your choice.


    • The main attractions of the Sierra Nevada
      • Western side: the national parks and the great sequoias
      • Eastern Sierra: among the snow-capped peaks of the eastern side
      • The northern side: between emerald lakes and volcanic calderas
      • The towns of the gold rush

    The main attractions of the Sierra Nevada

    As you can see from the map above, even if the main attractions are concentrated in the eastern section of California, it is a very large territory and it is practically impossible for you to be able to explore the entire area in one trip, considering all the other places. of interest that surround you from the coast to inland states such as Nevada, Arizona and Utah. Here are the main things to see divided by geographical criterion:

    Western side: the national parks and the great sequoias

    Yosemite Falls

    The western side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range is what offers 3 of the most famous national parks in all of California. At the top of the preferences there is definitely Yosemite National Park with its immense and smooth rock monoliths that make the park recognizable almost everywhere. The whole area, rich in alpine lakes, waterfalls and forests, is a true paradise for hikers and mountaineers, but also for those who love on the road. Tioga Road is a wonderful scenic drive and just as fascinating is the drive to Glacier Point, which will reward you with one of the most stunning views in the entire park. Those who prefer to relax can instead take advantage of the free shuttle, which makes stops at various points of interest. Find all the information you need on how to visit the park in our section dedicated to Yosemite park.

    Tunnel View a Yosemite National Park

    Another particularly popular destination among the California parks is Sequoia National Park, another alpine nature reserve whose most famous attractions are undoubtedly the great sequoias, above all the General Sherman Tree. But reducing this park to the visit of these immense trees would be ungenerous, just think of the monolith of Moro Rock, from which you can enjoy a breathtaking view, to the green clearing of Crescent Meadows or the splendid mountain views that can be admired from the various observation points. Also in this case, to better organize a visit, I refer you to our in-depth study on Sequoia National Park.

    And then these big California trees are also found outside Sequoia park: they are actually present in Yosemite too (to find out more, read our article on how to visit butterfly grove), but not only; one of the most famous, the General Grant is located in Kings Canyon National Park, the park bordering the Sequoia where, in addition to the large trees, you can take the scenic road that crosses the wooded canyon that gives the park its name, enjoy elevated viewpoints, waterfalls, endless green meadows and admire wildlife including bears, mule deer and a wide variety of birds. The Kings Canyon it is rarely visited in depth, usually a part of it is visited, that of the sequoias, in conjunction with the most popular Sequoia national park. To learn more and understand what this park has to offer, I refer you to our guide to the Kings Canyon park in California.

    General Grant Tree
    Sequoia national park

    Speaking of sequoias, as you will have understood in this area they abound, there is still more: in the surroundings of the Sequoia park there is the Sequoia National Forest, a wilder nature reserve than the park of the same name, and the Giant Sequoia National Monument, a protected area where the greatest number of redwoods of the same forest are concentrated and where you will find the Boole Tree, a redwood 82 meters wide. However, these areas are much less popular with tourists, also because they are less easy to visit and to include in an itinerary; if you are on your first trip to California it is very difficult for you to visit these 2 areas, also considering the presence of the national parks mentioned above.

    Eastern Sierra: among the snow-capped peaks of the eastern side

    Along the eastern ridge of the Sierra Nevada it is possible to embark on a road trip continuously marked by beauty, a path framed by splendid snow-capped peaks that allows you to admire some of the highest mountains in America, crystalline lakes and extraordinary natural beauties shaped from the work of the volcanoes in the area. In this area you will find 2 national monuments, the Devils Postpile National Monument, with its peculiar hexagonal shaped rocky pillars, and the Manzanar National Historic Site, the concentration camp where thousands of Japanese were deported during the Second World War.

    On the road nella Eastern Sierra
    Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
    Devils Postpile National Monument

    In addition to the 2 national monuments mentioned, this area is populated by many attractions, suffice it to mention the surreal Mono Lake, with its suggestive tuff formations that overlook the surface, Bodie, one of the best preserved western cities in all of the United States, Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, the forest with the oldest trees in the world, the rocky hills of the Alabama Hills a Lone Pine Lone Pine or the many hot springs framed by the mountains (one above all Hilltop Hot Springs). The prime base for exploring most of the area's attractions is Mammoth Lakes, but many other towns can be considered as a base for getting around; for a complete list see my article dedicated to Eastern Sierra.

    This area of ​​the Sierra Nevada is traveled as an itinerary to cover the distance between Yosemite and Death Valley, so if you plan to visit the 2 parks on your itinerary, you will certainly cross it.

    The northern side: between emerald lakes and volcanic calderas

    Lassen Volcanic National Park

    In the plus area north of the Sierra Nevada you will find the fourth national park in the region, the little known but full of surprises Lassen Volcanic National Park, where lava pools, calderas and fumaroles await you, creating a magnificent contrast with the clear blue lakes and the surrounding green coniferous forests. To give the name to this nature reserve is the Leave Peak, one of the largest domed volcanoes in the world. The road that crosses the park allows you to visit the area in a fairly simple way, but you need to be careful when it is closed because the road is closed when the first snow falls. Lassen Park Rd is closed; I recommend that you carefully read our guide on how to visit the Lassen volcano park in order not to run into nasty surprises.

    Another pearl awaits you on the northern side of the Sierra Nevada, it is Lake Tahoe, one of the most loved lakes in all of the United States. Along the panoramic road that runs along the entire lake you will be immediately struck by the splendid chromatic contrast that the emerald color of the crystal clear waters forms with the surrounding woods and the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada, which seem to ideally surround this natural wonder. The small bay of Emerald Bay State Park (in the cover photo) is probably the best place to test your photographic talent. If you want to circumnavigate the shore of this particular lake enjoying its breathtaking views, find all the stops worthy of a stop in our article dedicated to how to visit Lake Tahoe.

    Bumpass Hell al Parco Lassen
    Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park

    These are just the 2 main attractions of the area, but exploring the whole area there are many other places of interest, such as some cities that symbolize the gold rush (which we talk about in the paragraph below) and some little-known natural beauties, Such as Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, with its hills with particular colors (from white to reddish) and the interesting remains of the mining village. The northern section of the Sierra Nevada is actually more difficult to insert in the classic itineraries as it is rather inconvenient to connect to the other standard stages of on the road on the West Coast.

    The towns of the gold rush

    Gold Country: the land of the gold rush

    It was 1848 when the carpenter James Marshall found a gold nugget in the American River; that day would have indelibly marked the fate of California, which owes its identity as a state to the gold rush epic. At the foot of the Sierra Nevada are the main city centers that still collect the main testimonies of the Gold Rush: in Nevada City, Auburn, Columbia and other cities, mostly camped along the Gold Country Highway (Hwy 49), 800 crowds of people in search of fortune poured in in the middle and a visit to this area means embarking on a kind of journey back in time.

    This is a stage usually overshadowed by the main attractions of Californa, however it can be really interesting for those fascinated by the history of the state and by that vaguely western and adventurous flavor that characterized these years. If you want to know more, I refer you to our guide on Gold countryIf, on the other hand, you are unable to include this area in your itinerary, you can have your good dose of spaghetti western in the aforementioned Bodie, whose proximity to Yosemite park certainly makes it easier to include in a tour of the West Coast.

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