The Southern Sierra is remote and rugged. Home to the largest trees in the world, towering jagged peaks, sprawling forests, and deep granite valleys, most of this area of the Sierra is seldom-visited and is home to some precious and delicate ecosystems.
Southern Sierra Highlights Map
The Southern Sierra stretches from Madera County in the north, down into Kern County in the south. The northern portion of this region is comprised mainly of Sierra National Forest. Sierra National Forest stretches from the rolling oak foothills in the west, all the way up to nearly 14,000-foot peaks. The forest is home to a large portion of the San Joaquin River, California’s second-largest river, and five national wilderness areas including Ansel Adams, Donkey Lakes, John Muir, Kaiser, and Monarch.
To the south of Sierra National Forest lies Kings Canyon National Park the beautiful sister to neighboring Sequoia National Park. John Muir called Kings Canyon “a rival to Yosemite”, which makes sense when one enters the park and witnesses its deep canyons and distinctive granite and metamorphic rock features. Kings Canyon is also home to the world’s largest remaining grove of giant sequoia trees, Redwood Canyon.
Bordered by King’s Canyon to the north and west and Mt. Whitney to the east lies Sequoia National Park. The park was established in 1890 to protect its groves of giant sequoia trees. Sequoia National Park is home to the General Sherman Tree, the largest tree by volume in the world. Most of the remaining groves of sequoias that lie outside of the park boundaries are protected by Giant Sequoia National Monument.
Although giant sequoias have historically been some of the most fire-resilient trees in the world, a combination of climate change, drought, logging, and fire suppression policies have altered the forests. In recent years, several large fires have threatened many of the groves, with hundreds of giant sequoias being killed.
One can’t discuss Southern Sierra waters without mentioning the San Joaquin River. The river, which is the second-longest after the Sacramento, drains a huge portion of the Southern Sierra before flowing north through the Central Valley and draining into the San Francisco Bay. In 2014, an environmental group called American Rivers gave the San Joaquin the ominous title of “America’s most endangered river. Once a thriving habitat for migratory fish and wetland ecosystems, dams and water diversions have devastated fish populations and drastically reduced the flow of the river.
Friant Dam, constructed in the 1930’s, is largely to blame for the environmental disaster that has unfolded in the San Joaquin River. The dam lies at the base of the Sierra just North of Fresno and diverts the majority of the river’s water into the Friant-Kern Canal, which feeds farms and households across the Central Valley. The dam cut off Chinook salmon from their vital alpine spawning habitats and decimated wetlands downstream.
In 2006, a settlement was reached that requires the Bureau of Reclamation to restore a habitat for Chinook salmon downstream of Friant Dam. The restoration is ongoing and has seen resistance from agricultural interests, but fish have already begun returning to the river in larger numbers than in previous years.
The 165-mile long Kern River is the other major waterway of the Southern Sierra, draining a large area northeast of Bakersfield. The Kern is the southernmost major river in the mountain range. Similar to the San Joaquin, the Kern River is almost entirely diverted for agricultural use, resulting in the lower 25 miles of the river nearly drying up each year. The north and south forks of the river that flow through the Sierra were designated Wild and Scenic in 1987. These waterways are world-famous for their rafting, fishing, and gorgeous scenery.
Giant sequoias only grow on the western slope of the Sierra, with almost all of the population in the Southern Sierra. They are the largest trees in the world. There are an endangered species with fewer than 80,000 giant sequoias remaining, and an estimated 13-19% of the overall population was lost to fires in 2020 and 2021.
Black bear are native to the Sierra and can be found throughout the mountain range. They are commonly sighted in and near populous areas, largely because many individuals have adapted to rely on human-related food sources, especially garbage. Black bear are an apex predator, but they rarely show aggression towards humans.
Kern River Rainbow Trout
The Kern River Rainbow Trout is a subspecies of rainbow trout that is localized to the Kern River watershed. Because of habitat degradation and hybridization with other native and non-native trout, the Kern River Rainbow is designated as a Species of Special Concern by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Western rattlesnakes have been a part of Sierra ecosystems for a long time, but they are normally found in the lower elevations due to the region’s heavy winter snowfall. In recent years, rattlesnake sightings have become more common in higher elevations of the Sierra. Research is ongoing as to the extent of rattlesnakes’ range in the Sierra, but shorter winters and rising temperatures likely play a role.
The Sierra Columbine is a wildflower endemic to California. It exists at high elevations of the mountain range, between 8,000 and 12,000 feet. The flowers are usually a creamy white color, but the plants can hybridize with other columbines from lower elevations, leading to different colors. The plants have medicinal properties and can be used to treat digestion issues, among other problems.
California Spotted Owl
The California spotted owl inhabits old-growth forests in the SIerra Nevada and Southern Cascade Mountains. The owl is listed as near threatened and its numbers are steadily declining. Because spotted owls prefer old-growth conifer forests, the main threat to their populations comes from logging and fires that have become severe enough to wipe out old-growth trees.
Mountain hemlock is found as far north as Alaska and as far south as the Southern Sierra Nevada. This bushy conifer grows in the subalpine zone of the Sierra and prefers areas where snowpack is particularly long-lasting. As prolonged drought takes hold in the Sierra, time will tell how these conifers will adapt to the changing climate and ecology of their habitat.
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.