National Geographic : 1954 Jun
The Fabulous Sierra Nevada 825 Millions Each Year Find Challenge, Adventure, and Self-renewal in California's Magical Mountains, Highest in the States BY J. R. CHALLACOMBE FROM a hundred miles away you can see it on a clear spring day-a jagged brush stroke of gleaming snow sus pended high in mid-air, endlessly vaulting the horizon from far north to far south. This is the grand wall of the Sierra Nevada, the fabu lous, magical mountains of the Far West. They have worked spells over many men and can work them on you. One hundred years ago the gold of the Sierra Nevada sprung our Nation's dormant energies and imagination, started the greatest continental migration in history, and rolled mellifluous "California" on the tongues of the world's adventurers. Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and John Muir became famous with their Sierra classics the extravagant tall tales, the toughness of life in the gold fields, and the rugged indi vidualism of the lone mountaineer. These mountain fastnesses again and again yielded marvels to astound the world. First it was the fortunes in gold that any hard working man might find by himself and scoop from the river banks. Then it was the Brob dingnagian forests of red trees so gigantic that the world at first refused to believe their existence. And then it was the discovery of the hidden highland valleys, more fantasti cally beautiful than any fictional Shangri La, whose meadows are lush and cut with bright rivers and whose surrounding 3,000-foot cliffs are bannered with leaping, rainbowed water falls (pages 796-801 and page 832). In Easy Reach of California's Cities Though the exciting days of easy gold are long since gone, the great days of the Sierra are now, as well as then. For, with the com forts and diversions of civilization at hand, men are still impelled toward these glittering mountains with an unceasing passion. Along the eastern border of California, only five to six hours from either Los Angeles or San Francisco, rises this wall of jagged mountains, highest in the country and almost as extensive as the entire Alps. (See the National Geographic Society's 10-color map of California, a supplement to this issue.) Only 50 years ago the western Sierra was truly formidable and remote; the eastern Sierra, a world apart. Today the Sierra is more approachable, but fortunately still for midable. The 430-mile length of the range is paralleled by high-speed highways on either side, crossed here and there by a few winding mountain roads, and probed at a hundred vital points by short dead-end roads. But for all these encroachments of civiliza tion-the paved highways, the gas stations, and the motels-some of the finest areas of the Sierra highland from Lake Tahoe south have been preserved reasonably intact in the wilderness areas of the national forests and in the three large national parks, Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia. Pack Mules Wind the High Trails There are enough roads so that you can get yourself up into the mountains quickly and see a few of the famous canyons, big trees, and waterfalls. If, however, you would actu ally feel the dizzy greatness of the land, you will have to leave your modern equipage be hind and allow the mountains to reduce you again to a simple man. Most of the High Sierra is still a realm of mountain trails, mule pack trains, and friendly hand-led burros. Because the Sierra is now an approachable wilderness, it has become important to more people than ever before. Today ten million from all over the world enjoy its thousands of square miles every year. Many come to the Sierra as a hunting and fishing paradise. Others are attracted by resorts advertising the Sierra as an all-year playground. But some come to experience deeply the mountains themselves. Among these are men who are adding to Sierra lore. Mountain people are where you find them. And men of the Sierra may include a lawyer in San Francisco, a contractor in Los Altos, and a doctor in Los Angeles; or you may find one caring for a sick horse in the darkness of a barn near a Sierra foothill town. There are many foothill communities on the western slope, some replete with fascinating brick-and stone ghost buildings of the gold era.