GET A REAL CALIFORNIA HIGH
John Muir wrote the oft-quoted line “the mountains are calling and I must go . . .” in a letter to his sister Sarah Muir Galloway.
Getting to the mountains was not a difficult challenge for the man who endlessly studied, hiked, climbed, documented and wrote about the California wilderness and founded the Sierra Club.
There are at least 170 mountain ranges in California.
Depending on which parameters are used, some put the number at 352 “interlaced mountain ranges”.
California has many mountain ranges due to its relatively short time as part of the earth’s crust defined in geologic time. They were forged and sculpted by volcanoes, earthquakes and glaciers.
Regardless of the number, we clearly take the mountains we have – as well as the deserts, rugged coastline, sandy beaches and fertile valleys – for granted.
This was hit home eight years ago.
Moses Durante, a friend of my nephew Rein, was visiting from Georgia.
As they brought it to Manteca from San Francisco International Airport, they crossed Altamont Pass at 1,009 feet.
Moses was literally amazed that California had such high mountains.
Georgia has its share of mountains including the highest peak known as Cold Mountain at 6,030 feet.
Like many first-time visitors to California, the assumption is that the Golden State is just one long beach bookended by San Diego and San Francisco.
Four days later, when I took Moses on a hike in Yosemite National Park, he stood on North Dome at 7,546 feet mesmerized by Half Dome through Tenaya Canyon.
After a minute or so, he turned around and said eight words that I will remember forever: “You’re lucky, I’ve never been this high.”
I found it amusing on two levels.
He was saved by the duo.
Moses, like many young people, occasionally takes marijuana.
I half-jokingly asked him if that included any buzz he might have gotten from marijuana.
“Definitely,” came the reply without missing a beat.
Then he asked how high you can hike in California.
I told him 14,505 feet, or nearly twice as high as we were at that moment.
When I told him I had summited Whitney four times, he couldn’t believe I lived in a state with a mountain so high you could climb to the top.
Of course, Mount Whitney is the highest point in the lower 48 states.
It is one of a dozen “true” 14ths—mountain peaks over 14,000 feet. There are actually 15 peaks over 14,000 feet, but the other three do not qualify since they are not at least 300 feet tall.
In some circles I would be called a “peak fanatic”.
It is a designation given to those who make it their goal to hike to the tops of mountain peaks. If you count repeated trips to several peaks, I’ve maxed out at maybe 50 or more mountains.
I absolutely love the mountain ranges that ring Death Valley – the Funerals, the Argus Range, the Black Mountains and the Panamint Range. There are endless vantage points where you can look out from ridges and peaks and look out for what seems like forever.
As mountain lovers go, I’m far from being anywhere near the class of more than a few people I’ve encountered hiking over the years.
That said, I believe people are missing the boat when they don’t answer the call Muir made, especially if they live in the Great Central Valley.
The Central Valley—the Sacramento Valley to the north and the San Joaquin Valley to the south of the Delta—is 450 miles long and varies from 30 to 60 miles in width.
Except where the Delta juts out into San Francisco Bay and beyond, it’s all surrounded by mountain ranges.
The forces that created the valley are why we have arguably the most fertile farmland in the world, the unique “tule” fog, as well as some of the worst air quality in the country ever.
And since we can see at least two of the mountain ranges most days from the Northern San Joaquin Valley, it wouldn’t hurt to know a little more about what’s literally in our own backyard.
The four main mountain ranges are the Sierra to the east, the Coast to the west, the Cascades to the north, and the Tehachapi Mountains to the south.
What many refer to as the Altamont Hills is a section of the Diablo Range that runs parallel to the Coast Range.
It stretches 180 miles south from the edge of the Carquinez Strait to Polonio Pass near the Salinas Valley area. It is 20 miles wide at its widest point.
It is bordered to the northeast by the San Joaquin River and to the southwest by the Santa Clara Valley.
It parallels Interstate 5 to the east and the 101 Freeway to the west.
Mount San Benito is its highest peak at 5,241 feet.
The must-drive peak is Mount Diablo at 3,848 feet. You can also walk or bike.
There is a visitor center with an observation deck at the top that offers sweeping views of the Delta, Sierra and parts of the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
The Coast Range is actually two mountain ranges – one north and one south of San Francisco Bay.
It runs 400 miles from Del Norte in Humboldt County to Santa Barbara. There are three other mountain ranges that group with the Coast Range – the Transverse Range, the Peninsula and the Klamath Mountains.
Mount Linn at 8,098 feet is the highest point in the Coast Range.
Although not a peak in itself, Big Sur is the highlight of the Coast Range.
It climbs the rugged coastline of the Coast in an unparalleled meeting of relentless surf and rugged mountains.
The aptly named Tehachapi Mountains—which means “difficult climb” in California’s indigenous language—are located between Kern and Los Angeles counties. It also separates the San Joaquin Valley from the Mojave Desert. As such, it is considered by many to be the topographical feature that separates the northern state from the southern state.
The range extends for 40 miles.
Its highest peak is Double Mountain at 7,981 feet.
Trails are quite limited due to the abundance of private property. When you drive through the mountains via Highway 58 from Bakersfield to California City, your quads, knees, and feet will appreciate the fact that you can’t hike the privately owned High Country Trail and Quail Ridge.
It has a net gain of 3,392 feet over fairly exposed terrain that—from the comfort of a car going 65 mph—looks like it almost goes straight up.
The Cascades run 700 miles from Northern California to British Columbia and are part of the Pacific Ocean Ring of Fire.
The two most recent volcanic eruptions were Lassen Peak from 1914 to 1921 and a major eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. Since then there have been minor eruptions from 2004 to 2008 at Mount St.
The highest point in the Cascades is Mount Rainer in Washington at 14,411 feet.
As for California, the highest peak in the Cascades is Mount Shasta at 14,179 feet.
The highlight of the Cascades section of California is Mount Lassen. There are a number of good and varied trails in Lassen Volcanic National Park making it worth a weekend trip or longer.
Yes, I saved the best for last.
The 400-mile-long Sierra Nevada, called “The Range of Light” by Muir, plays a major role in California’s prosperity to match the mountain range’s size. It varies from 40 to 80 miles wide.
The state relies on snowpack in a typical year for more than a third of its water needs.
It is full of superlatives.
Lake Tahoe – the largest alpine lake in North America.
Mount Whitney – at 14,505 feet, the highest peak in the continental United States.
Sequoia tree named General Sherman – the largest tree in the world by volume and is also considered the largest living thing on earth.
It is home to three national parks – Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon – as well as Devils Postpile National Monument near Mammoth Lake.
It is home to most of the state’s ski resorts.
The Gold Rush took place in its western lowlands from 1848 to 1855 to literally give birth to present-day California.
But all that glitters is not gold.
Many adventurers around the world consider the Eastern Sierra a paradise for hiking, backpacking, fishing and more.
It’s hard for me to name a favorite tip.
But if you want the most effort for your efforts in a short distance that is possible for most people, it’s Mount Dana.
At 13,061 feet it is the second highest peak in Yosemite National Park.
It’s a six-mile round trip from Highway 120 (Tioga Road).
From the top, the panorama is incredible as it seems as if you can see nothing but the mountain peaks to the south and north. The view also includes Mono Lake in the Great Basin as well as the Long Valley Caldera, one of seven California volcanoes considered active by the United States Geological Survey.
To contact Dennis Wyatt, email [email protected]