You’re standing in the middle of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range in California. You feel afloat in a vast granite ocean with peaks surrounding you in every direction. The fiery glow of another high elevation sunset is reflected onto the alpine lake that you’re camping near. A dark-eyed junco sings a tune that sounds as if it’s echoing across the entire valley. The sense of scale in this area is unlike anywhere else.
That’s why I keep returning, year after year, to spend my summers in this wild and beautiful place. Existing in this mountain range always reminds me how big, old, incredible and mysterious our world truly is.
I’m a lover of adventure and a geologist by trade. I’ve spent the last few summers enamored by the awe and glory of the Sierra Nevada range in California. The history of this landscape is written so clearly on the rocks we hike on, the trees we sit under and in the lakes where we swim. The strong and solid granite rock is a unifying characteristic of the entire Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, all the way from Lake Tahoe down to south terminus near Bakersfield, CA. This is because about one hundred million years ago, a large mass of magma cooled and solidified in the earth’s crust. This solid and buoyant body was then lifted upwards via tectonic action and was eventually eroded to the surface. This is what we now describe as the Sierra Nevada. All 39,000 square miles are part of this interconnected geologic event. Since then, there have been many glaciers that have scraped away at this granite hunk to create the long and dynamic U-shaped valleys, towering waterfalls and soaring peaks that define the Sierra.
You don’t have to be a geologist to appreciate or recognize the characteristics of the Sierra Nevada. Long time Outward Bound Instructor in California, Amanda Finstad said, “The Sierras are in a state that is vastly overpopulated, yet you can walk a day and not see anyone for the next 20. The landscape is crazy because of its huge granite features amongst giant ponderosas that grow straight out of the rocks.” Some locations in the Sierra feel like a second home to me because it’s where Outward Bound in California runs many courses. These places include the Courtright reservoir area, Wishon reservoir area, Sequoia & Kings National Park, the Minarets and Yosemite National Park.
The Courtright and Wishon reservoir areas lay on the border of the John Muir national wilderness. In this wandering landscape you never know when you’ll look up from your boots to see broad green valleys that have granite domes sticking out of the ground. On High Sierra backpacking courses, you may get the chance to spend the night on top of one of these domes.
In the Sequoia & Kings National Park, the experience is similar but slightly more dramatic. There are a few more major rivers running in this area that have contributed to the erosion of the scenery, creating deep valleys with jagged and rough peaks around every corner. The Minarets are also another incredible secret of the Sierra Nevada range. Named after the architectural feature of a tall slender tower, these mountains seem to shoot straight out of the sky. On a course with Outward Bound, you may be practicing your rock climbing skills on these infamous rocks.
Another very well known and well-loved location is Yosemite Valley. I vividly remember my first time in Yosemite National Park. I was driving into the valley floor with the raging Merced River on my right and steep slabs of earth to my left. I watched the rocks as they transitioned from dark and crumbly to smooth and solid gray-white granite. The heavy canopy above eventually opened to show the grandeur of the valley walls on either side of the road. El Capitan, Half Dome, Bridal Veil Falls and other landmark features towered over 2,000 feet above me. I was immediately reminded just how small I am compared to the wilderness.
The valley is a beautiful and enchanting part of Yosemite National Park, but it’s only a small sliver of the Sierra Nevada as a whole. Out of the over four million people who explored Yosemite National Park in 2019, many didn’t venture beyond the valley. The places beyond the hubbub of Yosemite Valley are where the magic happens on Outward Bound expeditions—away from the crowds, away from cell service, away from distractions.
There are peaks in the Sierra that have never been climbed within recorded history, locations that have never been mapped and mysteries left to be explored. Within 20 minutes of walking on a trail, you can feel as if you’re completely alone with your group. I’ve spent a full two weeks on a course without encountering another group of backpackers, aside from other Outward Bound crews. The wilderness offers a classroom with natural challenges and opportunities for growth. If you’d like to eat that day you’ll have to learn how to use the stove. If your group doesn’t make it to your intended campsite by nightfall, you’ll learn to be flexible with the plan and adapt to the new situation. Nothing is contrived while you’re in the wilderness.
Spending time in the California Sierra Nevada Mountains, in Yosemite Valley or outside of it, always helps give my life perspective. All of these places spark joy and beauty. They each have their own unique variety of spectacular views and distinctive ecosystems. No matter what the challenges or successes, knowing that these mountains have been persisting for millions of years is always a helpful feeling for me. That’s why this place is my second home—a place I always find the comfort of community and new challenges that allow me to grow.
About the Author
Hadley Reine is an Instructor with Outward Bound California in the High Sierra. In her off time, she enjoys skiing, climbing, and finding secret swimming holes on the Merced River.
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