Saturday, January 24, 2015
The Sierra Beyond Yosemite: Donnell Vista and Sonora Pass
That's the thing. Say "Sierra Nevada", and a lot of people will immediately think of the beautiful valley of the Ah-wah-nee, John Muir's favorite place on the planet, and in many ways mine as well. But the floor of Yosemite Valley is about 7 square miles. The national park covers 1,190 square miles (3,081 square kilometers). But the Sierra Nevada? It covers 39,612 sq miles (102,594 km²). You could hide more than 30 Yosemite parks in the rest of the range. It is in fact the largest single range in the lower 48 states (large mountain systems like the Rockies and Appalachians are made up of numerous smaller sub-ranges).
I wrote about it back then, and it was picked up on Reddit and IFLS, links that led to the post being the most read ever on Geotripper (12,400 hits and counting). We emerged from the smoke and climbed the upper reaches of the Stanislaus River, approaching Sonora Pass, which after Tioga is the highest paved highway over the Sierra Nevada at 9,624 feet (2,933 meters). Tioga Pass in Yosemite is 9,943 ft. (3,031 m.).
In a series of ice ages, glaciers covered about 30% of the range, reaching as low as 3,000 feet or so in some of the deeper canyons. Yosemite is simply the most famous of the glacially carved gorges, and many others are of incredible and spectacular beauty. This was not always fully appreciated, and some of these wonderful wild canyons were dammed for irrigation storage and domestic use. Hetch Hetchy is the most familiar, but the canyon below Donnell Vista on Highway 108 has also been inundated. Still, the glacial heritage of Middle Fork of the Stanislaus is evident from the viewpoint. The steep canyon walls of granitic rock and the overall U-shape of the valleys are the result first of ancient river erosion and then modification by thick rivers of ice.
If you look at the second picture above, you can see some unusual looking mountain peaks. Their blocky flat aspect indicates they are composed of something different than the "expected" granitic rock. They are the remains of lava flows, ash flows and volcanic cones that once covered this part of the Sierra Nevada. Indeed, until 9 or 10 million years ago, the Sierra looked far more like today's Cascades Range than the lofty glacial peaks we see today. There were a number of snow-covered stratovolcanoes, but much of the remainder of the range was composed of lower hills. The upper reaches of Highway 108 where it crosses Sonora Pass cut through some of the volcanic rocks.
Glaciers scoured the surface of the granodiorite, polishing it and providing a nice view of the structure of the rocks. Some of the orthoclase (potassium feldspar) has formed huge blocky crystals easily visible in the shot below. Even better, during the intrusion process, blocks of the surrounding rock broke off and sank into the magma. Composed of minerals that had higher melting points, it didn't melt, but instead persisted as an alien mass in the granitic rock. Such inclusions are called xenoliths. They provide a peek at what existed here before the intrusion of the magmas.
We drove over Sonora Pass and headed into the barren lands beyond. Our destination was the site of a gold rush, but not the one that Californians are familiar with.