California As Collision

Along the northeastern shore of the Great Ocean, a long, thin strip of land stretches 1500 miles, in about as straight a line as Nature will allow Herself to draw. The strip is born of the grinding of the great oceanic plate against the continental plate.

From Cabo San Lucas to Cape Mendocino, California is characterized by a system of strike-slip faults between the Pacific and North American plates, but California is more than a mere side-swipe; it is a collision, and this intercontinental collision involves—like so many others—one continent wedging under the other. In this head-on component of the collision vector is born the Sierra Nevada.

The uplift of the Sierra Nevada has not been gentle. It was associated with one of the most powerful earthquakes in California history, the Great Lone Pine Earthquake. It has also been associated with one of the most fantastic volcanic events known to science: the Long Valley supervolcano.

Sierra California

The boundary between Southern and Northern California ignores the compass points, wrapping around the San Joaquin Valley from Tejon to Tehachapi and northward along the Sierra Crest to Tioga and around the northern limit of the Mono Basin. This is made necessary by the Sierra Nevada. The Los Angeles Aqueduct is perhaps the strongest argument for this suggestion, but there is further evidence. If you live in San Francisco, you probably don’t ski at Mammoth, because you’d usually have to drive 220 miles over the Sierra Nevada to Gardnerville, Nevada and drive 120 miles down US-395—over three mountain ranges—to get there. If you live in downtown Los Angeles, it’s 310 easy miles to Mammoth, and Mono Basin is 20 miles farther.

Besides being the highest and perhaps the most monolithic mountain range in the contiguous 48 states, the Sierra Nevada is essential to California in terms of physiography, history, economy, culture, and conscience. But this preeminent position is not merely a matter of gold, pioneers, mammoth cliffs, sky-high waterfalls, giant trees, and alpenglow. The physiography, history, economy, culture, and conscience are as much a matter of water as anything else.

Though the first image of California may be that of a sunny beach, it’s hard to imagine California without the Sierra Nevada and the valleys at her feet. About three quarters of the readily available surface water originating in California flows off Sierra Nevada slopes, and nearly all of the remainder flows along the foot of the Sierra Nevada in the Sacramento River. Though sunshine is what has drawn the millions to California, it is water that has allowed them to remain, and to grow a multitude of sun-loving crops, many of which have become synonymous with the state.

The fact that the Sierra Nevada provides so much water to California is not merely due to the fact that it’s the biggest mountain range around. The range looks as though it were designed to be a great dam to capture the moisture of the great westerly stream pouring off the Pacific Ocean. The dam extends four hundred miles from North to South, capturing over 20 million acre-feet a year. Like the reservoirs and diversions of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the Sierra Nevada greedily hoards the waters of life for California, leaving the lands downstream barren and uninhabited.

As with any dam, the effectiveness of the Sierra Nevada is a direct product of its location, its shape, its orientation, and its height. Beyond its utility, its grandeur is not any more a product of its height than of its shape and its mass. Nowhere is this more pronounced than along its most massive segment, the great crest between the Tulare Basin and Owens Valley. Beginning in the flat expanse of cotton fields where once a great lake lived, one can travel across what is perhaps the most productive land on earth, and ascend to over 14,000 feet to the crest of the Sierra, following the streams that feed the crops, and passing great redwood forests, cliffs, and lakes along the way. There are few gentle slopes along this great ascent, but on the other side, the 10,000 foot descent is breathtaking. Though the air has been wrung dry on the east side, the Sierra provides enough water to support a thriving economy at its eastern foot.

Beyond Owens Lake, the lifeless monument to the thirst of California, lay the truly barren monument to the greed of the Sierra: Death Valley, which is, in terms of extremes, the second hottest spot on the planet. Death Valley lay directly east of Owens Lake, over Towne Pass.

A less direct route to Death Valley can be found by following the ice age spillway of Owens Lake, down the Rose Valley to China Lake and Searles Lake, from there through Pilot Knob Valley and over Wingate Pass into Death Valley. This low road between Death Valley and the foot of the Sierra would have provided the “Death Valley 49ers” a direct route from the old Spanish Trail to the Central Valley and the gold of the Sierra, had they been able to follow it. Indeed, had they used this route across Death Valley, it is likely they wouldn’t have named it Death Valley as they did. Given the time that they passed through, they might have named it Christmas Valley, or maybe Sun Valley, if they thought enough of it to name it at all.