I found myself in an interesting conversation the other day, one that almost turned into a spirited argument. The question: where exactly is the “Southern Sierra?”
Since the 19th century, it has been common practice to divide the Sierra Nevada into three regions – northern, central, and southern. This makes sense because of the linear nature of the range. It is nearly 400 miles from one end of the Sierra to the other, and the various segments of the mountains possess strikingly different characters.
Past practice guides much of this thought. The first sightings of the Sierra Nevada by Euro-Americans in the eighteenth century took place from the hilltops immediately east of San Francisco Bay. The California Gold Rush that began in 1849 focused attention on the same region.
As a result, the Sierra Nevada was initially defined as being the snowy mountains visible to the east of the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta. And by default, what was north of that region became the “Northern Sierra,” while the region out of sight to the south became the “Southern Sierra.” No formal definitions were required.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and the definitions remain vague. All agree that it is useful to break the range into regions, but defining the frontiers that separate the three zones is largely a matter of personal opinion.
If one accepts the traditional definition of the Sierra Nevada as a whole – that it runs from Lassen Peak in the north to Tehachapi Pass in the south — the mathematical midpoint of the range falls almost exactly upon Yosemite Valley. Continuing with this same mathematical logic, the southern third of the Sierra begins at the Kings River while the northern third starts near Echo Summit, where US 50 crosses the Sierra Crest just west of South Lake Tahoe.
These divisions make logical sense, but few recognize them. The National Weather Service, for example, includes all of Yosemite National Park in its forecasts for the Southern Sierra. By this logic the Southern Sierra is larger than the central and northern portions of the range put together.
Popular usage also suggests that nothing south of Interstate 80 (Donner Pass) falls within the Northern Sierra, although this makes the northern “third” of the range notably smaller than the other two sections.
Looking closer to home, the Kings River is not a bad dividing line between the central and southern portions of the range. This major watercourse is the southernmost Sierra river to flow directly westward from the Sierra Crest to the Great Central Valley.
To the south of the Kings River, the Sierra takes on a significantly different form with a double crest and a very different drainage pattern. The Kaweah and Tule Rivers originate on the peaks of the Great Western Divide, the more westerly of the two ridges, while the Kern River comes to lire behind that ridge and flows southward some 60 miles to Lake Isabella before it finally heads for Bakersfield and the floor of the Central Valley.
Following this logic, the natural dividing line between the central and southern Sierra ought to be Kings-Kaweah and Kings-Kern divides, which, as the names suggest, separate the headwaters of the Kings River from the watersheds to the south.
This makes perfect topographic sense, but we humans are not particularly famous for our consistent logic. All the Sierra Nevada people that I know place the Kings River within the Southern Sierra.
So, seeking some form of resolution here: what if we define the “Southern Sierra” as including all the territory drained by the Kings, Kaweah, Tule, and Kern Rivers? North of that, the “Central Sierra” runs to Donner Pass, which coincides with the northern end of the continuous high alpine zone with its barren peaks. Beyond that is the “Northern Sierra.”
These definitions work on the ground and reflect visible differences between the three regions. But are they likely to be universally adopted any time soon? Don’t hold your breath.
But just maybe, if we stop describing Yosemite as being part of the Southern Sierra, we will have a more accurate sense of just where we live within the topographic complexity that defines the Golden State.
© Wm. Tweed