Eastern Sierra

The Eastern Sierra is unlike any other region in the mountain range. With massive peaks, sprawling valleys, distinctive geothermal and volcanic activity, and unique flora and fauna, this area of the Sierra distinguishes itself as one of the most beautiful and remote places in California.

Eastern Sierra Highlights Map

Land – Geography and Natural History

From the highest point in the contiguous U.S. to the lowest point in North America, the Eastern Sierra is home to some unique and breathtaking landscapes.

Contrary to other parts of the range, the Eastern Sierra is predominantly a high desert environment dotted with sage brush and other desert dwelling plants and animals. Traveling west, the landscape transitions to pine forests with ancient junipers found among other conifers. Even higher in the mountains, the pine forests yield to rugged high alpine environments with sharp granite peaks that drop off dramatically to the desert floor below. It’s not uncommon to see this entire array of environments and ecosystems from a single perch.

The first thing anyone will notice as they drive up the scenic Highway 395 and look west toward the Sierra is the massive peaks. With 13 of the range’s 14 peaks over 14,000 feet, including Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the lower 48, this region of the Sierra is known for its grandeur and high alpine environments.

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shoreline of an alpine lake
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Water – Rivers, Lakes & Aquatic Ecosystems

The Eastern Sierra is home to some pristine waterways and lakes, as well as some fragile aquatic ecosystems.

With areas like Mammoth lakes receiving dozens of feet of snowfall per year, and others such as Death Valley sometimes going entire years without recording rainfall, the story of water in the Eastern Sierra is not a simple one.

Among the most notable aquatic features in the Eastern Sierra is Mono Lake, one of the oldest lakes in the western hemisphere. Mono Lake is a terminal lake, meaning it sits in a basin and has no outlets. Like many other terminal lakes, Mono Lake is saline and its waters are alkaline. Its unique chemical makeup makes Mono Lake a sanctuary to several species, including many birds and certain aquatic animals like brine shrimp.

Despite its ecological significance, Mono Lake has been the site of a long and ongoing battle to save it from human-caused threats. After the city of Los Angeles began diverting water from the lake’s tributaries in 1941, it lost half its volume, doubled in salinity, and could no longer provide a safe haven for the many species that relied upon it.

Thanks to the efforts of grassroots organizers, several lawsuits have helped to restore Mono Lake and ensure that its water supply remains intact. Still, threats like development projects and climate change continue to endanger this fragile ecosystem.

Another notable aquatic feature, the Owens River, runs north to south along the east side of the Sierra, supplying precious water to plants, animals, and communities in an otherwise arid high-desert landscape.

The Owens River is also host to environmental controversy. After the city of Los Angeles began diverting water from the watershed in 1913, the lower Owens River and Owens Lake (where the river terminates) completely dried up. The fight by environmentalists to restore Owens Lake continues today. 5% of the river’s flow was diverted back into its original course in 2006, allowing a small amount of water to return to the lower Owens River and Owens Lake.

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Owens River Valley
Owens River Valley. Water supply and water rights issues have been a big part of the recent history in the Eastern Sierra.

Wildlife – Plants and Animals

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

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California Golden Trout

The California Golden Trout is widely recognized as one of the most beautiful trout species in the world, with spectacular coloring that you have to see to believe. The species is native to only two Eastern Sierra waterways: Golden Trout Creek and the South Fork Kern River.

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Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep

The Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep are native to the Sierra and live exclusively in the range. Their current habitat is comprised mostly of the alpine areas in the Eastern Sierra. The sheep were listed as an endangered species in 2000, and their population has since risen from around 100 in 1995 to close to 600 in 2016.

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Eared Grebe

This small waterbird is part of the unique Mono Lake ecosystem. In the fall, nearly the entire population of the eared grebe migrates to either Mono Lake or to the Great Salt Lake in Utah, where the birds feast on brine shrimp and alkaline flies before continuing their migration south.

Phalaropes

Phalaropes

Phalaropes are birds that migrate between North and South America, following a path of over 20,000 miles. In the summer, thousands of Phalaropes come to Mono Lake, where they feed on larvae of alkaline flies. Phalaropes are threatened by changes to their habitats resulting from human water usage and other threats.

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Sage Grouse

The sage grouse inhabits many areas in the Eastern Sierra. This beautiful bird has recently been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and activists are working hard to protect areas of its habitat that are endangered.

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Ancient Bristlecones

The Eastern Sierra region is home to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, located high in the White Mountains above Bishop, CA. Some of these trees are thought to be over 4,000 years old—making them the oldest living organisms on the planet.

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Lupine

Lupines are one of the most beautiful of all alpine flowers. These purple spectacles can be found growing along creeks in the alpine environments of the Eastern Sierra.

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Western Cottonwood

Most areas of the Sierra do not feature cottonwoods, but the giant sprawling trees can be found lining the Owens River and other waterways of the Eastern Sierra. These trees get their namesake during the spring months when they shed their seeds wrapped in a cotton-like material that helps them to be carried by the wind.

Communities – Towns and Tribes

The Eastern Sierra has a rich cultural history. The region is home to several Native American Tribes as well as many modern-day historic and outdoor-industry-based towns.

The region we know of as the Eastern Sierra is the ancestral homelands of several Native American tribes, including the Mono Lake Northern Paiute, Owens Valley Paiute-Shoshone, and Western Shoshone.

Today, Highway 395 serves as the main thoroughfare along the east side of the Sierra and up through the Owens River Valley. Several towns line Highway 395, including small, historic towns like Lone Pine as well as the well-preserved mining ghost town of Bodie (Now Bodie Historic State Park). The area is quite remote and isolated due to the surrounding mountains, and during winter many of the Sierra passes that provide access to the region are closed.

Commerce in the Eastern Sierra is primarily a mixture of tourism and ranching. People visit the region to ski, climb, fish, and enjoy the gorgeous scenery of this remote and unique landscape. Climbing, in particular, is extremely popular in the area, with world-class bouldering, sport, traditional, and alpine climbing access.

Climate change and other human-caused factors are creating difficulties for some Eastern Sierra communities, including more frequent and intense wildfires, drought and water rights issues, and impacts on outdoor recreation due to climate change.

Mammoth Lakes, for example, is a town with an economy that relies heavily upon visitors to Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. Climate change-enhanced drought and rising temperatures are making the ski season shorter and less predictable, and warmer storms mean higher snow levels when precipitation does arrive.

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