Coke Smith Photography & Travelogue

California's Sierra Nevada Mountains

The glorious sunrise glow on the east side of the Sierra near Alabama Hills.  


Since I was a young boy growing up in Bakersfield and Fresno California (yes I can admit it!), I have had the extreme pleasure of regularly camping and playing in California’s spectacular Sierra Nevada mountain range that forms the spine of the Golden State.  One of the good things about my stint in the Boy Scouts (aside from learning what a fascist organization they are – a training ground for right-wing wackos…), was that I was taken on a semi-monthly basis to some glorious spot somewhere in the Sierra just outside of Fresno.  The scouts took me to such locations as Yosemite, Bass Lake, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks and many other splendid camping sites.  Aside from some of the brainwashing that was attempted in the scouts, many of my memories are actually very positive.

On one occasion we even did a two week, 100 mile hike from Devil’s Post Pile National Monument, over Donahue Pass in to Yosemite Valley.  My stepfather joined us on this trip and that made it a blast!  We saw tons of wildlife in the backcountry of the Sierra.  So many Black Bears!  One night, I recall my stepfather calling my name while I was fast asleep under the open sky, and all I remember was the black bear basically standing over me slobbering in to my backpack trying to get a bite to eat!  There are many bear stories from my trips to the Sierra.

Later in life I had the pleasure of living near the Sierra and being able to spend countless days camping and trekking the various locations in the mountain range.  During my time in Fresno, we went to Yosemite National Park several times a year.  I also traveled to Sequoia and Kings Canyon quite a bit as well.  I was usually after bugs as this was the peak of my bug-collecting period (although I NEVER collected in the parks), but I also went for the scenery and nature experience as well.  Hiking the back country in the Sequoiadendron giganteum community is awesome to say the least.

After spending several years exploring the Sierra using Fresno as a jumping-off spot, I moved north to Sacramento with Lien.  From Sactown, we would explore a very different part of the Sierra.  Although we still made it to Yosemite from time to time, we spent most of our time camping and trekking the Sierra wilderness on or around the Ebbett’s and Sonora Passes on routes 4 and 8 respectively.  These two roads transected the Sierra and crossed some of the most sublime wilderness remaining on the mountain range.  We had a special spot at the peak of Ebbett’s Pass that we snuck away too regularly which was situated on an amazing overlook in a grove of ancient Sierra Juniper.  I will always cherish the memories made there with Lien and our friends.


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Allow me to share some images of these very special mountains.




Yosemite Valley with Half Dome in the background.  Without a doubt, Yosemite offers some of the more spectacular scenery in the Sierra Nevada.




The Merced River traveling through Yosemite Valley with Half Dome in the background.  Every spot is a postcard!  The images below show more of the valley along with El Capitan and Yosemite Falls.




Small streams feeding the Merced River were commonly encountered on my countless treks of the valley and mountains of the Sierra and Yosemite.






While cruising the region near Tuolumne Meadows, Som caught a glimpse of the spectacular Cinnamon Black Bear meandering through the woods.  Som's eagle eyes have given me more wildlife viewing opportunities than I could ever tell.



Lodgepole Chipmunks are a common rodent in the Sierra.  This one was pictured in Yosemite National Park.




Mount Whitney and Whitney Portal are seen on a clear morning while driving the east side of the Sierra.  I always try to take Rt 395 any time I can.  This highway is arguably one of the more spectacular drives in the United States.  On a clear day it is always possible to see California's tallest mountain.



More east side Sierra views...




Deep in the heart of the Sierra rainshadow, the Alabama Hills region offers unbelievable views of the east side Sierra.  This winter shot was taken just after sunrise.



This magnificent and ancient Sierra Juniper (Juniperus occidentalis australis) became a good friend over the years.  Lien and I camped beneath this patriarch of the alpine every time we came up to Ebbett's Pass.



While the Sierra are actually in the background, Mono Lake was often on our itinerary while visiting the mountain range.  I loved kayaking and exploring the lake and its enigmatic Tufa Mounds composed of ancient calcium carbonate.  I lead field courses to the lake nearly annually for a number of years as well.  The Sand Tufa below are bit off the beaten path but are spectacular natural formations.



This Jeffery Pine (Pinus jefferyi) cone is from a tree species that is found only on the east side of the Sierra.  One can always tell the difference between a Jeffery Pine and a Yellow Pine (P. ponderosa).  One can play catch with a Jeffery Pine without experiencing pain!





The foothills of the Sierra are great places to explore as well.  Here along the banks of the American River in Placer County, we would raft, trek and explore regularly while we lived in Sacramento.  Digger Pines (Pinus sabiniana) and Quercus species compose this classic Pine-Oak woodland that covers the majority of the foothills of the Sierra.



Flower blooms are common in the spring in the Sierra.  This hillside along the banks of the South Fork of the American River is alive with California Poppies.



Vernal pools like this one in Phoenix Fields near Sacramento were once common in the lowlands near the Sierra in the Sacramento Valley.  Now these rare habitats are found in very few protected areas.  Valley Oaks (Quercus lobata) were also once common in the central valley but are now very scarce and fragmented in distribution.



Wild Turkeys are commonly seen in the foothills of the Sierra and along the riverways.  This one was seen in Effie Yeaw Reserve near Folsom, California.



Clark's Nutcracker is another common bird in the higer elevations pine forests of the Sierra.



Snow Geese often stay until spring in Grey Lodge, which receives its waters from the Sierra Watershed.  Grey Lodge is one of the premier birding spots in the valley.