Exploring America’s Mountain Ranges
By Joan Rykal
In a letter to his sister in 1873, naturalist John Muir first wrote his now famous quote “The mountains are calling and I must go.”
Muir wrote that letter from Yosemite, where the majestic Sierra Nevada peaks were definitely calling him. Muir spent ten years exploring the Sierra Nevada mountain range and all are detailed in his book, The Mountains of California.
Do the mountains call you? If they do, the US offers a variety of opportunities to experience the peaks and valleys of these rock and earth masterpieces.
The US has three major mountain ranges: the Sierra Nevada, the Rocky Mountains, and the Appalachian. Other notable ranges include the Cascade Range, stretching through the Pacific Northwest into Canada and the Adirondacks in northeast New York.
These ranges offer exhilarating adventures, scenic drives, and quaint mountain towns that will offer you a glimpse into why Mr. Muir was called to explore the mysteries of the mountains.
Sierra Nevada Range
Almost all of the 400 mile Sierra Nevada mountain range is within California. The range is home to nine national forests, three national parks, and two national monuments. Also of note, Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States, with an elevation of 14,505, lies within the range.
Yosemite National Park, of course, is well-known. El Capitan, the 3,000 vertical rock formation, and Half Dome, the aptly-named 4,737 granite dome, draws climbers from around the world. For those with less lofty ambitions, Yosemite also offers multiple hiking trails, scenic drives and is on every camera buff’s bucket list.
Canyons, caverns, and ages-old sequoia trees that are nothing but majestic are what you’ll find in Sequoia National Park. Giant sequoias grow only on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada and range in height from 4,000 to 8,000 feet. There are 40 different groves within the park. One grove not to be missed is Giant Forest, which is home to the General Sherman Tree, considered the largest living sequoia and estimated to be close to 2,000 years old.
If you’re looking to experience the faster side of the Sierra Nevada’s consider the snow sports available in areas such as Mammoth Lakes, Squaw Valley, and South Lake Tahoe.
Mammoth Lakes is home to several ski resorts as well as the Mammoth Ski Museum. Open year-round, the museum features more than 10,000 historic pieces chronicling the sport that is more than 5,000 years old. For information on Mammoth skiing as well as the museum, visit allmammoth.com.
Mammoth Lakes also hosts a variety of annual festivals including Bluesapalooza, a beer and blues music festival in early August, and an Oktoberfest in late September.
A notable ski area of the Sierra Nevada range is Squaw Valley, the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics. In addition to the winter skiing opportunities, Squaw Valley is popular for mountain biking and hiking. For more information about Squaw Valley and what to do in the area, visit squawalpine.com.
Lake Tahoe offers both beaches and ski opportunities all centering around the large freshwater lake for which the area is named. Lake Tahoe is, in fact, the largest alpine lake in North America (an alpine lake is classified as a lake located in a high altitude area.) For ski resorts in the area, visit skilaketahoe.com.
Summer in Lake Tahoe is all about mountain biking, hiking, and fishing as well as beach time. Check out the “potholes” of Lake Tahoe, which are unique swimming holes created as the American River hits granite plateaus and forms swimming pockets. To learn more about the potholes, visit aboutlaketahoe.com.
The Cascade Mountains
The Cascades extend from northern California through Oregon and Washington up to British Columbia. They are part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, which is a ring of volcanoes around the Pacific Ocean. The highest point in the Cascade Range is Mt. Rainier (Washington) at 14,411 feet. Mt. Hood (Oregon), at 11,250 feet, is also part of the Cascades.
Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the US, is often called the Gem of the Cascades. Located with Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, it was formed more than 7,000 years ago after the collapse of Mt. Mazama, a volcanic mountain.
The Timberline Lodge, designated as a National Historic Landmark, was built by the Works Progress Administration from 1936-1938. It serves as the ski base for Mt. Hood, which is the tallest mountain in Oregon. The Timberline ski area is the only ski area open year-round.
One very popular way to view the majesty of the Cascades is the Cascade Loop, a 400-mile journey that takes you up and down and in and out of the area. Hike a bit, view wildlife, or stop and enjoy the charms of the small mountain towns. For information on the Cascade Loop visit cascadeloop.com.
Charming Mountain Towns of the West
Truckee is a charming mountain town that offers art galleries, shops and dining, and breweries and wineries. Every Thursday from June to August, there is a farmers market as part of the regular Downtown Truckee Thursdays which also features concerts, and arts and crafts events. There’s also an annual Pro Rodeo, set this year for August 25 and 26.
McCloud is another town that centers its life around the mountains. The big event here is the Mushroom Festival, scheduled this year for May 25-27. It’s all about the mushroom with food demonstrations, tastings, and educational seminars. For more information visit mccloudchamber.com.
Once a booming lumber town, Bend is now a travel destination for outdoor enthusiasts. Winter and summer sports abound but there are also fairs and festivals. For more Bend adventures, visit visitbend.com.
This beautiful Bavarian-styled village with the stunning backdrop of the mountains is a must-see. Winter brings out all the stops here but any time is a good time to visit Leavenworth. Follow visitleavenworth.org for more information on this charming town.
The Appalachian Mountains
On the other side of the country, you’ll find the Appalachian Mountains which run through 18 US states and into Canada. The most aggressive way to view the Appalachian Mountains is via the Appalachian Trail, a 2,200-mile trail that the most ambitious hikers attempt in one fell swoop. For our purposes, we’ll explore bits and pieces of the Appalachians, but if you’re considering doing the thru-hike, visit appalachiantrail.org.
Similar to the Sierra Nevadas, the mountain range is ripe for mountain biking, hiking, and fishing. There are designated National Parks and Forests along the way, as well as historic sites throughout. Also, since the range covers such a large area, for reference it is divided into three sections, the northern section, the central section, and the southern section.
White Mountain National Forest (New Hampshire)
The White Mountains in New Hampshire are part of the northern Appalachians. The Kancamagus Highway, or the Kanc as locals call it, is considered one of the most scenic highways in the US and is actually a path cut right through the forest.
The Blue Ridge Mountains
A major highlight of the Appalachians is the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway which runs stretches over 469 scenic miles through North Carolina and Virginia. Travelling the Parkway in autumn is another great opportunity to experience the fall colors. Highlights along the Parkway include Mabry Mill (milepost 176.1), which features a restored sawmill and gristmill and is one of the most photographed places in the US; Craggy Gardens (Milepost 364) which offers breathtaking views and amazing flora; and Natural Bridge (Milepost 61.6), a nature-sculpted arch designated as a national historic landmark. For more information on the Blue Ridge Parkway visit blueridgeheritage.com or blueridgeparkway.org.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Over 9 million people visit the “Smokies” annually to take in the flora and fauna of the area which was designated a National Park in 1934. Popular attractions include Clingmans Dome, which at 6,643 feet is the highest point in Tennessee, and in the park, as well as the numerous waterfalls, of which Grotto, Laurel, and Rainbow are major highlights. For must-sees and information visit nps.gov/grsm.
Charming Mountain Towns of the East
Mt. Airy, NC
Andy Griffith, known for his role as Sheriff Andy Taylor of the fictional town of Mayberry, was born here so it’s no wonder the town has a similar small-town charm to that of show’s setting. There’s actually an Andy Griffith Museum and a Floyd’s Barbershop. The 29th Annual Mayberry Days are scheduled for September 24-30. Nearby Pilot Mountain offers great hiking as well as beautiful scenery.
Harpers Ferry, WV
Historic Harpers Ferry gained notoriety during the Civil War when abolitionist John Brown initiated a slave revolt. A visit to Harpers Ferry in present-day will provide opportunities for history lessons, antique shopping, and a delightful time in this small town.
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park includes the town itself, which has several museums and historic sites, as well as the surrounding land which lies in parts of Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland. Civil War battle sites include Harpers Ferry and Antietam. From an outdoor adventure standpoint, you can kayak, canoe, rock climb, zip line, and hike, just to name a few. For more information visit nps.gov/hafe.
Whether you want to vacation in a Tiny House at our Leavenworth and Mt. Hood campgrounds or stay in a cozy cabin, we have the perfect option for your mountain getaway. Visit thousandtrails.com to plan your trip today.