Liv­ing the high life in the Range of Light

Travel Guide to California - - CONTENTS - BY JOHN FLINN

154 Mam­moth Lakes

156 Lake Ta­hoe South Shore

“The Range of Light” was John Muir’s pet name for his beloved Sierra Ne­vada. It’s not just the ethe­real lu­mi­nos­ity of the glacially pol­ished gran­ite that drew the renowned nat­u­ral­ist—and con­tin­ues to draw peo­ple—to the Sierra again and again. It’s the pris­tine lakes and rivers, the dra­matic hik­ing and bik­ing trails, the con­trast be­tween the green mead­ows and stony bat­tle­ments.

The Sierra Ne­vada may be one of the high­est and most ma­jes­tic moun­tain ranges in North Amer­ica, but it’s also one of the most ac­ces­si­ble and user-friendly. Stretch­ing 400 miles from north to south, and about 70 from east to west, it’s crossed by seven high­ways—four of them open all year—and en­com­passes ev­ery­thing from Lake Ta­hoe—where you might find your­self crowd­ing shoul­der-to-shoul­der around a bois­ter­ous craps ta­ble—to re­mote canyons in Yosemite or Kings Canyon na­tional parks where you can spend a silent and soli­tary af­ter­noon watch­ing Muir’s fa­vorite bird, the wa­ter ouzel, plunge into water­falls and cas­cades.

In a state with no short­age of su­perla­tives, the re­gion has more than its share: It can boast the world’s old­est tree, the world’s most mas­sive tree, the Old West’s largest ghost town, the na­tion’s high­est wa­ter­fall and—un­til Alaska came along and rewrote the record books—the na­tion’s high­est peak.

The range is home to three na­tional parks, 15 state parks, two na­tional mon­u­ments and 20 of­fi­cially des­ig­nated wilder­ness ar­eas. Hik­ers get itchy feet at the mere men­tion of its cel­e­brated walk­ing paths: the John Muir Trail; the Ta­hoe Rim Trail; the Pa­cific Crest Trail; the Ta­hoeyosemite Trail. At the drop of win­ter’s first snowflake, skiers be­gin mak­ing plans for the three premier ski re­sorts on Amer­ica’s West Coast: Squaw Val­ley (site of the 1960 Win­ter Olympics), Heav­enly and Mam­moth Moun­tain. Streams rush­ing down the range’s sheer east slope into the Owens Val­ley are renowned for their fly fish­ing.

Geo­graph­i­cally speak­ing, the moun­tain range is pretty much one big chunk of gran­ite tilted like a badly placed brick in a cob­ble­stone street: It’s gen­tly sloped on the west side and quite steep on the east, lower in the north and higher in the south. Keep that in mind when choos­ing a hik­ing trail: for an eas­ier am­ble, look to the north and west; for a chal­leng­ing as­cent, head south and east.

City & Town

Now con­nected by gon­dola to the Heav­enly ski re­sort, the bustling town of South Lake Ta­hoe, lo­cated on the lakeshore and the

Ne­vada bor­der, has seen an in­jec­tion of en­ergy and in­ter­est in re­cent years, with new restau­rants, shops and gal­leries. With a large in­ven­tory of ho­tel rooms and a clus­ter of ho­tel-casinos just a few steps over the bor­der, it’s a good bet for in­ex­pen­sive lodg­ing. In Truc­kee, a hand­some old rail­road and lum­ber town be­tween Don­ner Pass and Squaw Val­ley, a col­lec­tion of Old West his­toric build­ings along Com­mer­cial Row now houses busy restau­rants and bars, some adorned with por­traits of gun­slingers and des­per­a­does. Far­ther south, sprawl­ing Bishop sports the Owens Val­ley’s most ex­ten­sive col­lec­tion of lodg­ing, din­ing and re­sup­ply out­lets.

The Great Out­doors

Just a few hours’ drive from San Fran­cisco or Los An­ge­les, the Sierra Ne­vada has been Cal­i­for­nia’s out­door play­ground al­most since the ar­rival of the orig­i­nal 49ers. In Yosemite Val­ley, spec­ta­tors with tele­scopes watch the progress of climbers inch­ing their way up the im­pos­si­bly sheer gran­ite walls. Tempted to try it? Sign up for an in­tro­duc­tory class at the Yosemite Moun­taineer­ing School—or at least treat your­self to a “Go Climb a Rock” T-shirt. With some of the most re­li­ably sunny sum­mer weather of any ma­jor moun­tain range, the High Sierra is a hiker’s par­adise, from easy day walks in the Deso­la­tion Wilder­ness to chal­leng­ing, multi-week jour­neys through Kings Canyon and Se­quoia na­tional parks. Skiers have their choice of world­class venues, from begin­ner-friendly Gran­libakken to the dou­ble-di­a­mond chutes of Squaw Val­ley and Heav­enly. In sum­mer, many of the re­sorts—par­tic­u­larly North­star and Mam­moth—con­vert their lifts and gon­do­las to carry moun­tain bikes.

Her­itage & Cul­ture

Na­tive Amer­i­cans, pi­o­neer em­i­grants and gold min­ers all left their marks on the High Sierra—of­ten lit­er­ally. At Grind­ing Rock State His­toric Park near the town of Twain Harte, Mi­wok In­di­ans once ground acorns on an out­crop of mar­bleized lime­stone. The 1,185 mor­tar holes they left be­hind con­sti­tute the largest such col­lec­tion in North Amer­ica. In the Hope Val­ley, just south of Lake Ta­hoe, you can still see ruts in the rocks left by the cov­ered wag­ons of set­tlers on the Emi­grant Trail. The shafts of thou­sands of aban­doned mines pock­mark the High Sierra. One of the best places to see one is the Great Sierra Mine, a short but steep hike from Tioga Pass in Yosemite. You’ll find the re­mains of old min­ers’ cab­ins, but ex­er­cise care around the shafts, sev­eral of which re­main open and un­fenced.

Fam­ily Fun

If the kids aren’t yet ready for full-on camp­ing, Lake Ta­hoe has two old-timey re­sorts with knotty-pine cab­ins scat­tered in the trees near the lakeshore, bike and pad­dle­boat rentals and ice cream par­lors. Camp Richard­son is on the west shore, near Ta­hoe City; Ze­phyr Cove is on the south shore, just over the bor­der in Ne­vada. cam­prichard­son.com zephyr­cove.com

CA­NOE­ING be­neath the Sierra ram­parts, op­po­site; cross-coun­try ski­ing in Yosemite, above left.

OVER­LOOK­ING THE VAL­LEY to­ward Half Dome, Yosemite Na­tional Park, op­po­site; Ze­phyr Cove, Lake Ta­hoe, above; fish­ing among Mono Lake’s autumn col­ors, left; clas­sic ski mu­ral in Truc­kee, be­low.

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