Central Sierra

The Central Sierra is home to some iconic and breathtaking locations, including Yosemite National Park. With a diverse range of flora and fauna, several historic mining towns, and vast granite slabs, domes, and cliffs as far as the eye can see, the landscapes of the Central Sierra are what most people picture when they think of the mountain range.

Central Sierra Highlights Map

Land – Geography and Natural History

From the rolling hills and oak forests of the Western Sierra foothills to the desolate, juniper-dotted granite peaks, the Central Sierra is home to a massively diverse landscape.

The Central Sierra is a large and geographically diverse area that spans from Placer County in the north, down through Mariposa County in the South. The Central Sierra’s beauty makes it the most visited region in the mountain range, a fact that is juxtaposed by a landscape that has been hard-hit by climate-change-driven wildfires in recent years. It is nearly impossible to drive one of the Central Sierra’s east-west highways without seeing vast swaths of forest that have been burned in the last ten years.

In the north part of this region, Placer County is comprised mainly of the large Tahoe National Forest. The county also makes up the northwest end of Lake Tahoe and the communities there. To the south, El Dorado County is home to El Dorado National Forest as well as the stunning Desolation Wilderness.

Desolation Wilderness is a federally protected area just west of Lake Tahoe. Home to the Crystal Range, Desolation is a swath of exposed high-elevation granite dotted with lakes, juniper trees, and alpine meadows. Desolation is also home to Lake Aloha, a large and shallow lake that sits in a massive granite basin formed by glaciers during the last ice age. Desolation is one of the most-visited wilderness areas in the country thanks to its accessibility from multiple points within and just outside of the Lake Tahoe Basin.

To the south lies Yosemite National Park, the crown jewel of the Sierra Nevada and one of the most breathtaking landscapes in the world. The park is most well-known for Yosemite Valley, a 7.5-mile-long glacially carved rift that is surrounded on both sides by massive granite walls. The Merced River runs along the floor of the valley, and several streams and rivers feed the Merced via huge waterfalls that can be seen cascading down the valley’s granite walls. Yosemite is also home to Tuolomne, a high-elevation area similar to Desolation Wilderness in its plethora of bare granite domes, slabs, and peaks.


Water – Rivers, Lakes & Aquatic Ecosystems

The Central Sierra receives heavy snowfall in the winter and is home to several ecologically, culturally, and economically significant watersheds, several of which are prime examples of the devastating impacts of damming on large rivers.

The Mokelumne River, together with its main tributary, the Consumnes River, drains a massive 2143 square-mile portion of the Central Sierra Nevada. The Mokelumne begins its course high in a remote area of the Central Sierra before flowing west and downslope through multiple reservoirs and dams and joining the San Joaqin River. 

The Mokelumne is a spawning habitat for Pacific salmon and steelhead trout. However, the construction of the Camanche Dam has blocked access to the highest quality habitat for these fish and significantly reduced their annual runs.

To the South, the Tuolomne River originates high in Yosemite National Park before flowing for nearly 150 miles down to the Central Valley, where it joins the San Joaqin River. The Tuolomne carves several deep canyons in the granite slopes of the Western Sierra. Among such rifts is Hetch Hetchy, a deep valley similar in both scale and beauty to Yosemite Valley, with steep granite walls on either side. 

The O’Shaughnessy Dam was completed on the Tuolomne River in 1923, flooding the Hetch Hetchy Valley and creating the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which supplies water to the San Francisco Bay Area. The flooding of the valley erased territory for the Paiute and Miwok tribes, who historically came to Hetch Hetchy in the summers to escape the heat of lower elevations. It also erased an ecologically significant and unique valley floor habitat, which was home to many species of plants and animals.


Wildlife – Plants and Animals

The Eastern Sierra is home to species of migratory birds and other wildlife that depend on its unique ecosystems.


Sierra Juniper

Sierra juniper, also called the Sierra western juniper, is a species of tree that is endemic to the mountainous regions of the Western United States. Sierra junipers tend to grow in exposed, rocky areas such as those found in Tuolomne or the Desolation Wilderness. The trees are often spectacularly beautiful as they find ways to grow out of small cracks and fissures in sheets of otherwise bullet-proof granite. They are the fourth-oldest species of tree in the world, with two of the other oldest species, the Great Basin bristclecone and the giant sequoia, also occurring in the Sierra.


Blue Oak

Blue oaks are endemic to California, occurring almost exclusively in the coast ranges and foothills of the Sierra. The blue oak is the most drought-tolerant deciduous oak species in California, a feat it achieves by investing more growth energy into its roots than other species. The oak is culturally significant to several native Californian tribes, who make baskets out of seedlings and flour from the tree’s acorns.


Yosemite Toad

The Yosemite toad is a species of toad that is endemic to the Sierra Nevada, with a range extending only between Alpine and Fresno counties. The toads are particularly well-adapted to high elevation, and they live exclusively between around 6,400 and 11,300 feet. The Yosemite toad is listed as threatened by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, and their numbers have declined substantially in recent years due mainly to climate-change induced drought and a high prevalence of disease.


Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine falcons are well-known as the fastest animals in the world, reaching speeds of up to 242 mph. They use several areas in California, including the Sierra Nevada, as breeding grounds. The American peregrine falcon was nearly extinct in 1970 when it was listed as endangered, but thanks to the banning of the pesticide DDT, populations have since increased and stabilized.


Sierra Nevada Red Fox

The Sierra Nevada red fox, also known as the High Sierra fox, is a subspecies of red fox that is only found in the Sierra Nevada of California and in the Southern Cascades of Oregon. It is thought to be one of the most endangered mammals in North America, with just 29 adults found near Sonora Pass, another 42 adults near Lassen Volcanic National Park, and an unknown number in Oregon. Trapping of the fox has been banned since 1974 and the subspecies has been listed as threatened since 1980.


California Incense Cedar

The California incense cedar is a large tree that can grow well above 100 feet tall. The trees are native to the Sierra Nevada and can live over 500 years. Incense cedars are significant as their thick bark makes them one of the most fire and drought-resistant tree species in the Sierra. It is not uncommon to find large old-growth incense cedars with trunks hollowed and blackened, surrounded by younger trees that have replaced those lost in a past fire. Incense cedars are culturally significant to native tribes of the Sierra, as they are used for traditional medicine, making hunting and fire bows, and weaving baskets.


Western Red Bat

Western red bats can be found across the Western United States. They inhabit many areas of the Sierra Nevada, roosting in trees with impressive camouflage that makes them very hard to spot. Bat species including the western red bat are critical for keeping insect populations at bay, including certain species of pine beetles which can devastate tree populations in the Sierra.

Communities – Towns and Tribes

The Central Sierra is home to several Native American tribes. It has a deep cultural history that is inseparable from the gold rush of the 1800’s, when many boom towns formed in the region.

The Central Sierra is the ancestral homelands of several Native American tribes, including the Nisenan, Washo, Sierra Miwok, Foothill Yokuts, and Monache. Tribes in the Central Sierra were violently removed and in many instances killed by white settlers in search of land and resources. Destruction of culturally significant sites is ongoing across with the damming of rivers and development of other agricultural and infrastructure projects.

The Central Sierra was the heart of the California gold rush during the 1800s. Towns along the foothills of this region, from Auburn to Mariposa, were originally settled in the mid-1800s as gold was being found in the area. Today, thanks primarily to the Lake Tahoe Basin and Yosemite National Park, the Central Sierra is the most visited region in the mountain range, with millions of people traveling to the area each year to enjoy the scenery and recreation opportunities. 

The town of Auburn is a prime example of a historic gold rush town that has transformed into an economy based on tourism driven by that very history. Originally settled in 1849, the ground around Auburn proved extremely rich in gold. By 1850 the population had grown to over 1,500 people. Today, Auburn’s economy relies heavily on tourism to the town. People come to visit the historic old town, where several buildings have been restored. The town’s original post office and fire station are still in use today.

Traveling south from Auburn along the Sierra foothill thoroughfare, Highway 49, one will eventually reach Angel’s Camp, a small town of almost 4,000 situated near the Stanislaus River and New Melones Lake Reservoir. Like Auburn, Angel’s Camp was formed as a mining camp in the mid-1800s when gold was discovered nearby. While mining operations have ceased, the town now has several attractions that draw in tourism, including a mining history museum. People also come to the area to visit the dozens of nearby wineries and to recreate in New Melones Lake. 

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