Spanning from the foothills in the Mojave Desert in California to Oregon, the Sierra Nevada Mountains are a formidable range with some of the most interesting wilderness areas in the US. The Sierra includes giant Sequoia forests and Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the continental US.
Every year hundreds of backpackers attempt to traverse the Sierras on the Pacific Crest Trail, while thousands more visitors flock during the summer to fish, camp, hike, mountain bike, climb, or paddle around the nooks and crannies of this dramatic granite landscape.
But, before you lace up your hiking boots and pack your climbing gear, here are some things you should understand:
1. People have been here for a while.
Buzzkill, I know. Many Sierra enthusiasts often think that they discovered something new and unique for themselves, something unknown. The truth is that there is a rich history of human presence in the Sierras and they are not as ‘untouched’ as many believe. The stewards of the past are, however, the ones who kept this wilderness so wild and clean. The Northern Paiute, the Sierra Miwok and other Native American groups have traversed and inhabited this landscape for centuries. The majority of established trails throughout the Sierras were originally Native American walking paths. After the homesteaders and herders arrived on the scene, the same routes were then fortified to support pack mules.
2. Speaking of which, mule packing is still a thing.
Yes, people still use pack mules in the Sierras. If you are unfamiliar with mules, they are sturdy sterile hybrid animals made from crossing a male donkey with a female horse. If you are unfamiliar with mule packing, let me enlighten you. Several mules are tied together single-file in a ‘pack string’ that is lead or driven by a person on a lead horse or mule in the front. The mules are ‘packed’ with gear in crates or boxes on each flank, which they carry over great stretches of mountainous terrain. It was (and still is) a common mode of transport, a tourist attraction, and a lifestyle. Some people find this concept baffling, but DO NOT mock mule packing or the formidable mountain men and women who uphold this tradition. They are tougher than you will ever be.
3. John Muir is everyone’s favorite Sierra icon.
Whether you are an inhabitant of the Sierras or a loyal visitor, you have probably heard of John Muir. After all a peak next to Mt. Whitney, a pass, an entire wilderness area, and a 210-mile section of trail, among other landmarks honor his namesake. If you do not know of him, here is my quick and dirty biography: he was Scottish but grew up in Wisconsin, he explored the Sierras in the 1868-1869, loved them, and wrote a book called “My First Summer in the Sierra” (1911), which you should read. He started an organization called the Sierra Club to help preserve and protect wilderness areas, lots of other good ol’ boys joined, and they did some cool conservation things. The Sierra Club still exists today and has many chapters nation-wide if you want to join. John Muir’s quotes decorate town welcome signs, posters, and billboards. His writings are available in nearly every local bookstore or visitor center sprinkled along the sierras. You should have a John Muir quote in your arsenal. It will help you make friends on the trail.
4. This backcountry is especially isolated.
If you are a through hiker on the PCT / John Muir Trail, you need to know that when you are out there, YOU ARE OUT THERE. Attention Appalachian Trail veterans, you are actually in the backcountry now. You are at least a day, if not two days hike from any ‘town’, which is often a tiny enclave with little more than a general store and a gas station. I know your ultralight backpacker’s guide probably told you not to carry excess food, but trust me, you do not want to run out. Every time I go into the backcountry, I encounter at least one gaunt PCT hiker who has run out of food, asking me how far they are from town. Then I have to crush their dreams with something like “You have a 5000 foot climb and 11.6 miles to hike out of Bishop pass, then another 15-20 miles to walk or hitch-hike to town”. Also, you should bring a GPS and a first aid kit. Many hikers have to get airlifted because they got lost or can’t doctor their (would be) benign injuries.
5. Here is some basic wildlife knowledge.
There are some pretty cool animals native to the Sierras, including black bears who are abundant and like human food; bobcats who are a rare find; mountain lions who you should not leave alone with your small children; mule deer, many species of raptors and songbirds, rodents such as marmots, pikas and squirrels, and my favorite the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep. These majestic ovines are slowly inching away from the endangered list thanks to extensive conservation efforts in the past few decades.
You should know that commercial fish are not native, however. For example, both golden and rainbow trout are implanted for the purpose of sport fishing. This was actually a strategic plan implemented in the early 20th century in order to attract tourism to rural mountain regions. In some cases, the presence of fish in alpine lakes has jeopardized native aquatic amphibians and smaller endemic fish species. But sport fishing remains a popular tourist attraction and local past time. Therefore the fate of fishing will likely remain unchanged despite niche ecological impacts. You should well bring your fishing pole with you. Trout are delicious after all.
6. Wilderness tourism creates an impact.
The volume of Pacific Crest Trail thru hikers has increased dramatically in recent years, leaving the same campsites, creeks, lakes, trails, passes, and peaks with more human impact than ever before. The good news: a semi-revival of half-dead mining towns such as Lone Pine (check out the Whitney Portal Hostel and well-stocked Joseph’s Bi-Rite Market), and Independence (okay, it’s still half dead but the Still Life Café is worth a taste) is underway.
The bad news: Environmental impacts. The pure sierra water sources may not be as clean as you think, especially later in the summer season. You are also likely to see a variety of broken items left behind, and piles of human waste thinly disguised. Please do your part to keep the water clean by disposing of ‘grey water’ and your ‘number 2’ appropriately. Pack out all your trash. Use a bear canister. Do all that stuff that the forest ranger tells you to do, they are wilderness sages in coniferous tree uniforms, who are paid to know their stuff. You should know that every visitor is a steward now.