The western slope of the Sierra Nevada rolls gradually from foothills up to the jagged pinnacles of volcanic and granite high country, creating a cross-section of the elevations, animal life, and vegetation. Then it drops dramatically on the East Side, where a more arid climate supports a different landscape and volcanic influences are quite apparent.
More than any other area of this mountain range, the Central Sierra defies boundaries. Many naturalists consider Yosemite National Park to be part of it, even though Yosemite is an entity unto itself in the Sierra and California in general. Many naturalists lump the El Dorado National Forest into the Northern Sierra, which understates its importance as a central regional transportation hub in the Sierra.
The center part of this 400-mile range is best defined as El Dorado on the north, Stanislaus National Forest on the south, and the Toiyabe National Forest to the eastabout 3 million acres of the Sierra Nevada and all its natural charms along with a considerable wealth of natural and cultural history.
The three national forests include vast wild areas such as the Hoover Wilderness and the Emigrant Wilderness with high country lakes and volcanic features such as The Dardanelles and a Table Mountain. Yet these forests are known for so much moreskiing, fishing, bicycling, and bird-watching, among other activities.
The gold rush of the late 1840s happened here more than anywhere in the Sierra. The state parks in the foothills display vestiges of that past in museums, preserved structures, and artifacts. Hydraulic mining, the use of water cannons to blast sediment away from ancient riverbeds and reveal gold, left scars that tell perhaps as much about the time as the artifacts.
Driving the west-east arteries across the crest of the Sierra is perhaps the fastest and most revealing method of inquiry. Highways 88, 108, and 4 wind through some of the wildest high country, while Highway 50 is faster and more like a freeway.
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