California Mountains – Getting Over

I posted this photo last summer, too!

My husband and I drove our car back and forth over the Sierra Nevada mountains this month. We had several highway options, but no matter which pass we choose to chug up I am always reminded of the forebears in covered wagons going cross-country, and the more recent grandparents driving cars like this on one-lane roads. That’s my mother in the middle of this photo taken in Yosemite.

On the Monitor Pass south of Lake Tahoe
Giant Blazing Star on Monitor Pass

My little SUV has four cylinders to propel it forward, which sometimes ends up a bit slow on the steep grades, but at least we have no worries about our horses struggling through raging streams, or the possibility of our wagon tipping over or breaking a wheel on the rocks.

That is, if I can stay on the road — it’s so easy to get distracted by the wildflowers and swerve too wildly at the turnout for a photo op.

We passed over the Sierras by way of three different routes and summits this trip, and also drove over another pass that doesn’t cross those mountains.

We came at our first stop, Lake Tahoe, from the northwest, over Donner Pass. Ah, the Donner Party — what an uncomfortable story, one that raises severe ethical questions. My heart breaks for those pioneers who got bogged down and starved in the snow. Patty Reed’s Doll is a book that somehow manages to tell the tale for children. I recently gave it to granddaughter Annie for her birthday.

Leaving Tahoe after camping for two days, we took the Monitor Pass to the eastern side of the Sierras. Its summit is over 8,000 ft. At the top one drives through rolling “hills” as pictured above, with a mixture of meadows, conifers and sagebrush, and wildflowers galore.

Continuing south on Hwy 395 we rose above 8,000 feet again to get over the Conway Summit, a pass that doesn’t take you as the others do in a generally east-west direction, but gets you over a plateau just north of Mono Lake.

One might ask why we would want to go to all the trouble of climbing mountain passes on pavement, just to go on a hike…Why not ascend on the closer, western side? Well, if one likes to visit the highest altitudes, but doesn’t want to get sore feet walking for days, the smartest thing is to let your car do the work of getting part way up, by going over. The eastern approach is quite steep, and the Owens Valley floor itself is already aound 4,000 ft. elevation, so you’ve got a good head start if you come at the peaks from that side.

To get to our trailhead, we only had to steer upward and our four cylinders climbed over 5,000 ft. in less than half an hour. Yes, it does take us most of a day’s drive to get to the eastern side, but it would take me a week — or more likely I’d never go — to get to the same places by way of the more gradual western approach.

After our adventures on either side of the Owens Valley, we drove back up Hwy. 395 to the Sonora Pass to get home.  The sign at the top reads “9,624 feet.” It’s the second-highest pass in the Sierra Nevada, after Tioga Pass which runs through Yosemite National Park and which we won’t be traversing this year.

On the Sonora Pass, July 2011

It was quite beautiful up there. For the first hour or so on the highway we hardly met a car. By lunchtime we’d descended to hot lands again, and felt the mountains slipping behind us.

But I am so far ahead of myself, talking about the end of the trip when I’ve only begun to tell about the beginning. More to come soon, about our summer mountain adventures.

(next in the series: Tahoe, Rivers and a Song, Directions and Points )

2 thoughts on “California Mountains – Getting Over

  1. I can't wait to hear more! We have recently watched the DVD of the movie of Yogi Bear- which I watched avidly as a child. I'm going to show the suns these posts this afternoon! And I'm going to Google the unfortunate tale now- well, maybe I should so SOME housework first!!


  2. Wow, beautiful! It's amazing that the pioneers kept going when they encountered those breathtaking mountains. It's hard enough to follow an already marked little path through the rolling hills of the midwest. I can't imagine the determination it must have required to crest those mountains.

    That picture of your mom and the old car is really a treasure.


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