Alta California Guide: Sierra Nevada

From cold slopes to hot springs, one of the world’s most spectacular ranges is a land of contrasts.

alta california guides
Michael Schwab

California boasts many breathtaking mountain ranges, but few offer the opportunity to climb to incredible heights in the morning and stand small under a giant sequoia by the afternoon. The soul of the Sierra Nevada is undeniably Yosemite National Park, but beyond the bustling valley floor there are endless avenues for feeling the earth, stepping back in time, or just relaxing off the grid.

Grover Hot Springs State Park
grover hot springs state park

Most folks traveling the greater Sierra Nevada don’t know of Grover Hot Springs, and that’s just fine by those who do. The tiny park measures around 600 acres (compared with nearby Yosemite’s nearly 760,000) but is ideal for day-trippers looking to relax in some of California’s famed hot springs. Better still, this sheltered site doesn’t require an extensive hike in or heavy off-road capabilities—just snag a parking spot and wade into either of two pools (one hot, one cold) for a soak.

Tunnel View at Yosemite Valley
tunnel view at yosemite valley

The staggeringly impressive Tunnel View—visible only when entering Yosemite via Highway 41/Wawona Road—collects some of the park’s biggest beauties in one framable landscape shot, serving as an awe-inspiring reception for first-time visitors. From the sheer slopes of El Capitan and the sharp beak of Half Dome to the rushing waters of Bridalveil Fall, this is quite a welcome mat. No single image can capture the magnitude that is Yosemite; Tunnel View comes close.

Trail of 100 Giants
trail of 100 giants

Sierra Nevada visitors who find Yosemite in the summertime entirely too crowded can turn to Sequoia National Forest. This is the land less traveled, meaning fewer caravanners and car campers, though the forest is no less a marvel, with its teeming trees and towering vistas. The Trail of 100 Giants is an easy-to-reach starting point. The largely paved loop is just under one and a half miles and provides unrivaled views of massive sequoia trees, the tallest reaching 220 feet.

Mount Whitney
mount whitney

To fully appreciate the natural audacity of this peak, it’s necessary to undertake a climb of (or at least an up-close look at) Mount Whitney. Access begins by car via the Whitney Portal, itself a stunning, winding drive at elevation. The monstrous summit—at around 14,500 feet, the tallest in the Lower 48—is almost paralyzing in its height and grandeur and can carry snowfall even into midsummer. Be warned: anyone eager to reach the top will need a permit, and that itself can be a daunting task.•

Farley Elliott is the senior editor at Eater LA and the author of Los Angeles Street Food: A History from Tamaleros to Taco Trucks.
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