It runs along in Central and Eastern California, overlapping into neighboring Nevada in some areas.
The range stretches 640 kilometers (400 miles) north-to-south, and is approximately 110 kilometers (70 miles) across east-to-west.
The height of the mountains in the Sierra Nevada increases gradually from north to south. Summits in the northern portion reaching altitudes of only 1,500 to 2,700 meters (5,000 feet to 9,000 feet). Summits in the southern portion are higher reaching altitudes from 3,350 meters to more than 4,300 meters (11,000 to more than 14,100 feet) above sea level.
Mount Whitney is the highest summit in the Sierra Nevada and in the contiguous United States and, with an elevation of 4,421 meters (14,505 feet).
The Sierra is home to three national parks (Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Sequoia), two National Monuments (Devils Postpile, Giant Sequoia), and 26 wilderness areas lie within the Sierra. These areas protect 15.4% of the Sierra’s 63,118 square kilometers (24,370 square miles) from logging and grazing.
Designated a World Heritage Site in 1984, Yosemite is internationally recognized for its granite cliffs, waterfalls, clear streams, lakes, mountains, glaciers, and biological diversity. Yosemite is one of the largest and least fragmented habitat blocks in the Sierra Nevada, and the park supports a diversity of plants and animals.
Hetch Hetchy Valley, Yosemite Valley, Kings Canyon [photo below], Tehipite Valley and Kern Canyon are the most well-known of many beautiful, glacially-scoured canyons on the west side of the Sierra.
Lake Tahoe is a large, clear freshwater lake in the northern Sierra Nevada, with an elevation of 1,897 meters (6,225 feet) and an area of 490 square kilometers (191 square miles). It is the largest alpine lake in North America.
Groves of Giant Sequoias occur naturally only along a narrow band of altitude on the western side of the Sierra Nevada. Giant sequoias are the largest trees in the world.
Two of the largest rivers in California, which form the Central Valley and drain into San Francisco Bay, derive most of their flow from the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada range. The northern of the two is the Sacramento River; the more southern is the San Joaquin River [photo below].
One could argue that the most beautiful waterfalls in the world are in the Sierra Nevada. From Yosemite Falls [photo below], the tallest in the United States, to innumerable smaller but just as beautiful backcountry falls, the Sierra has it all.
Home to a great diversity of plant and animal life, its magnificent skyline and variety of landscapes lead it to be considered by many as one of the most beautiful natural features of the United States.
Archaeological excavations placed Martis people of Paleo-Indians in northcentral Sierra Nevada during the period of 3,000 BCE to 500 CE.
In 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, sighting the Santa Cruz Mountains while off the peninsula of San Francisco, gave them the name Sierra Nevada meaning “snowy mountain range” in Spanish.
The range has had a major influence on the climate, agriculture, economics, population spread, and settlement patterns of the Western United States and has been a major facet of life for generations of Native Americans.
European-American exploration of the mountain range began in the 1840s. In the winter of 1844, Lieutenant John C. Fremont, accompanied by Kit Carson, was the first white man to see Lake Tahoe.
The California Gold Rush occurred in the western foothills from 1848 through 1855.
Due to inaccessibility, the range was not fully explored until 1912.
The John Muir Trail, was funded in 1915 and finished in 1938. It is a long-distance trail passing through Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks.
The Sierra Nevada region has been called California’s outdoor playground. The region’s diversity attracts tens of millions of visitors each year, and nearly two-thirds of the visits occur on public lands.
The climate of the Sierra Nevada is influenced by the Mediterranean climate of California. During the fall, winter and spring, precipitation in the Sierra ranges from 510 to 2,030 mm (20 to 80 in) where it occurs mostly as snow above 1,800 meters (6,000 feet).
The Sierra Nevada is divided into a number of biotic zones, each of which is defined by its climate and supports a number of interdependent species.
Much of the rock is granite or a near relative of granite. There are dividing bands of metamorphosed (heat- and pressure-altered) sedimentary rock—all that is left of a once extensive sedimentary basin—and some large areas of extrusive rock, especially from Lake Tahoe northward; at the northern limit of the Sierras, these rocks merge with the volcanic rocks of the Cascades.
Geologists say there are two possible, and wildly different, ages for the Sierra Nevada range: either 40 million to 80 million years old, or only about 3 million years old.
Using GPS and space radar technology, scientists found that the range is growing by about a millimeter each year. At this rate, the entire Sierra Nevada could have been built in just the last 3 million years, the researchers say.
The Sierra Nevada is part of the American Cordillera, a chain of mountain ranges (cordillera) that consists of an almost continuous sequence of such ranges that form the western “backbone” of North America, Central America, South America and Antarctica.