The image most people have of California is sunny beaches and beach life, but in reality, it is only a small part of what this vast state has to offer in terms of tourism. On the eastern side of the state, on the border with Nevada, the Sierra Nevada (also known as the High Sierra) possess beauty far removed from stereotypes as well as an impressive array of natural landscapes, making it one of the most fascinating regions in America.
Just think of the fact that in this area there are 4 national parks, 3 national monuments, a remarkable number of crystal clear water mountain lakes nestled in the mountains, western towns that still bear witness to the era of the Gold Rush, some of the mightiest peaks in the United States (for example Mount Whitney) and many hidden and incredible natural wonders, often produced by centuries of volcanic activity.
So what are the places to visit in this region full of attractions? How do you organize an itinerary and what are best thing to do on the Sierra Nevada? Here is a list (as complete as possible) that I have drawn up in an attempt to help you choose.
Where is the Sierra Nevada located?
As you can see from the map above, although the main attractions are concentrated in the eastern section of California, it is a very large region and it is virtually impossible to explore the entire area in a single trip, considering that there are also other places of interest on the California coast and in nearby states, such as Nevada, Arizona, and Utah.
Places to Visit in the Sierra Nevada
So here are the main things to see broken down by geographical area:
Western Side: National Parks and Large Sequoias
The western side of the Sierra Nevada has 3 of the most famous national parks in all of California. The top choice is definitely Yosemite National Park with its immense and smooth monoliths that the park is famous for. The entire area, full of alpine lakes, waterfalls, and forests, is a true paradise for hikers and mountaineers, but also for those who love road trips. Tioga Road is a wonderful scenic road and it is just as fascinating as the drive to Glacier Point, which will reward you with one of the most stunning views in the entire park. Those who prefer to relax can make use of the free shuttle, which makes stops at various points of interest. You can find all the necessary information on how to visit the park in our section about Yosemite National Park.
A second particularly popular park in California is Sequoia National Park, another mountainous park whose most famous attractions are undoubtedly the large sequoias, above all, the General Sherman Tree. But to limit yourself to visiting these gigantic trees and not exploring the rest of the park would be unfair. Just think of the Moro Rock monolith, where you can enjoy a breathtaking view, Crescent Meadows, a green clearing, or the beautiful mountain views that can be admired from various vista points. Also in this case, I recommend that you read to our in-depth guide to Sequoia National Park.
These big California trees are not just found in Sequoia National Park. They are actually also present in Yosemite (to learn more, read our article on how to visit Mariposa Grove), but is not the only other place. One of the most famous sequoias, General Grant, is located in Kings Canyon National Park, the park bordering Sequoia where, in addition to the large trees, you can take the scenic route through the wooded canyon that gives the park its name, enjoy elevated viewpoints, waterfalls, endless green meadows and admire the wildlife, including bears, mule deer and a wide variety of birds. Kings Canyon is rarely visited in depth and usually people choose to only visit a part of it, mainly the sequoias, in conjunction with the more popular Sequoia National Park. To learn more about what this park has to offer, I refer you to our guide to Kings Canyon National Park in California.
While I am still on the subject, as you can see, sequoias abound in the western section of the Sierra Nevada. Near Sequoia National Park there is the Sequoia National Forest, a natural area that is wilder than the national park of the same name, and the Giant Sequoia National Monument, a protected area with the largest concentration of sequoias and the home of the Boole Tree, a sequoia that is 270 ft wide. However, these areas are much less frequented by tourists also because they are not as easy to visit and to be included in an itinerary. If you are on your first trip to California, it is very unlikely that will visit these 2 areas, since there are also the national parks mentioned above.
Eastern Sierra: Among the Snow-capped Peaks of the Eastern Slope
The itinerary along the eastern ridge of the Sierra Nevada is marked by a sequence of natural wonders, a route framed by beautiful snow-capped peaks that allow you to admire some of the highest mountains in America, crystal clear lakes and extraordinary natural beauty created by volcanic activity. In this area you will find 2 national monuments, the Devils Postpile National Monument, with its peculiar hexagon-shaped rocky pillars, and the Manzanar National Historic Site, the concentration camp where thousands of Japanese Americans were sent during World War II.
In addition to the two national monuments mentioned, this area has much more to offer, such as the surreal Mono Lake, with its striking tufa formations emerging above the surface, Bodie, one of the best preserved western towns in the United States, Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, the forest with the oldest trees in the world, the rounded hills of Alabama Hills near Lone Pine (which was used as a film set for many western movies) or the many hot springs framed by the mountains (for example, Hilltop Hot Springs). The ideal base for exploring most of the area’s attractions is Mammoth Lakes, but there are also many other towns to choose from. For a full list, see my article about the Eastern Sierra.
This area of the Sierra Nevada is crossed in order to travel from Yosemite to Death Valley, so if you plan to visit the two parks in your itinerary, you will definitely pass through it.
The Northern Side: A Land of Emerald Lakes and Volcanic Calderas
In the northernmost part of Sierra Nevada, you will find the fourth national park in the mountain range, Lassen Volcanic National Park, the lesser-known park full of surprises where lava pools, calderas and fumaroles await you, creating a magnificent contrast with the clear blue lakes and the surrounding green conifer forests. This national park is named after Lassen Peak, one of the largest domed volcanoes in the world. The road through the park allows you to visit the area effortlessly, but you have to pay attention to road closures, because Lassen Park Rd closes when the first snowfall of the season comes. I suggest you read carefully our guide on how to visit Lassen Volcanic National Park in order not to run into unpleasant surprises.
Another gem on the northern side of the Sierra Nevada is Lake Tahoe, one of the most popular lakes in the United States. As you drive on the scenic road that runs along the entire lake, you will be immediately struck by the picturesque landscape and splendid color contrast that the emerald color of the water forms with the surrounding forests and snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada. The small bay of Emerald Bay State Park (in the cover picture) is probably the best place to test your photographic talents. If you want to circumnavigate the shore of this lake and enjoy its breathtaking views, read our article on how to visit Lake Tahoe, where you will also find information about all the best places to stop along the way.
These are two main attractions in the northern region of the Sierra Nevada, but if you explore the whole area, you will discover that there are many other places of interest, such as some small towns that are evidence of the Gold Rush (which we talk about in the paragraph below) and some little known natural wonders, such as Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, where you will find hills with unique color patterns (from white to reddish) and the incredible remains of the mining town. The northern section of the Sierra Nevada is actually more difficult to include in the classic road trips, since it is rather inconvenient to connect it to the other standard road trip destinations on the West Coast.
Gold Rush Towns
It was 1848 when the carpenter James Marshall found a gold nugget in the American River. That day would indelibly mark the destiny of California, which owes its identity to the epic Gold Rush. At the foot of the Sierra Nevada there are towns and cities that are the safeguard of the history of the Gold Rush. Most of these towns and cities, such as Nevada City, Auburn, Columbia, are located along the Gold Country Highway (Highway 49). In the mid-19th century, a crowd of people in search of fortune flocked to this area. When you visit Gold Country, you will take a step back in time.
This stop is usually considered secondary to the main attractions of California, however, it can be really interesting for those who are fascinated by the history of California and by the adventurous spirit that characterized the Gold Rush. If you want to know more, read our guide on the Gold Country. If you can’t fit a visit to the Gold Country into your itinerary, you can have your Far West fix in the aforementioned Bodie, whose proximity to Yosemite National Park makes it easier to fit into a West Coast road trip.