A Guide to California's Mountain Ranges

A Guide to California's Mountain Ranges

By California.com
September 09, 2020

As California mitigates health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic, some travel restrictions may remain in certain communities. Call the local and regional tourism offices to learn more about the restrictions in your intended destination. Thank you for reading, and stay safe.

California’s topography is a masterpiece. The 352 intertwining mountain ranges spanning across the state make its landscape one of the most diverse in the U.S. While the east boasts the Cascade Range and the famous Sierra Nevada, the west is defined by the North America Coast Ranges stretching along California’s coastline. The Klamath Mountains are found in the far northwestern corner and are connected to the Northern and Southern Coastal Ranges. The Coastal Ranges are followed by the Transverse Ranges and the Peninsular Ranges, which extend all the way to the Baja California Peninsula. 

If you aren’t already living in one of California’s mountain ranges, you’re likely a short drive away from one, and you don’t want want to miss out on the mesmerizing mountain scenery—rolling hills, snowy peaks, wild waterfalls, and alpine lakes await you at every corner. Head down winding roads bordering ancient forests to experience nature’s essence. You’ll discover uncountable activities and unforgettable adventures. Regardless of the season, you’ll always find an opportunity to connect with nature and revitalize in the Golden State’s mountain ranges. 

Famous California Mountain Ranges

While in the Coast Ranges, admire the stunning views overlooking the California coastline as you smell the sweet scent of wildflowers.

Northern and Southern Coast Ranges

Length: 400 miles

Elevation: 8,098 feet

Highest peak: Mount Linn (also a part of the Klamath Mountains)

The Coast Range in California spans along the coast from El Norte County to Santa Barbara County, with the San Francisco Bay dividing the mountains into the Northern and Southern Coast Ranges. This expansive territory encompasses 17 separate ranges and offers a highly diverse climate. Venture off on the northern side for a maritime climate with high fog levels, or experience a desert-like climate on the eastern slopes bordering the Central Valley. 

Visit Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountain Range to observe 1,500-year-old coast redwoods along the Redwood Grove Trail. You can also camp in California's oldest state park—the majestic Big Basin Redwoods State Park—which was established in 1902. Or, observe fascinating rock formations and stunning scenery just east of San Francisco by hiking through the Diablo Range, found in Mount Diablo State Park.

Discover California’s Lost Coast in the King Range National Conservation Area, escape to Point Reyes for soothing hikes, and hit the cool waves for an adrenaline boost. Look out onto the horizon and breathe in the intermixed scent of the salty ocean and alpine air as your world-class adventure in California's coastal mountains calms your mind and soothes your soul.

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As you trek through the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, appreciate the magnificent views as you breathe in the fresh alpine air.

Sierra Nevada 

Length: 400 miles

Elevation: 14,505 feet

Highest peak: Mount Whitney

While most associate the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range with California’s Gold Rush, its real treasures are not what you think they are. The tranquility and freedom found in the forests and valleys of these world-renown mountains are much more valuable than any gold and glory. Just like the Coast Ranges, the Sierra Nevada spans from north to south and is located almost entirely in California. 

Spend a weekend at the lakes of Mammoth Mountain, or venture off to Yosemite Creek in Yosemite National Park and observe “frazil ice” (a natural miracle occurring in supercooled turbulent waters) coursing through the stream. You may also opt to traverse the John Muir Trail between Yosemite Valley and Mount Whitney for an unimaginable backpacking experience through lush forests, showcasing panoramic views of the wilderness surrounding you.

Make your way to Upper Yosemite Falls to admire the continent's tallest waterfall before visiting Sequoia National Park, where the world’s largest tree by volume—the famous General Sherman—grows. For something more romantic, plan a getaway to Lake Tahoe’s most underrated towns and explore the shores of North America’s deepest lake. 

Epic Northern California Mountain Ranges

Northern California's mountain scenery is so incredibly beautiful, you'll never want to leave the great outdoors.

Cascade Range

Length: 700 miles

Elevation: 14,411 feet

Highest peak: Mount Rainier (also known as Tahoma or Tacoma)

Before reaching California, the Cascade Range makes its way through southern British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. The range consists of both volcanic and non-volcanic mountains and is considered a part of the Pacific Ocean’s Ring of Fire. California's portion of the Cascade Range also boasts the highest peak: Mount Shasta, which towers 14,179 feet above sea level. 

After a scenic drive through the Shasta-Cascade, Mount Shasta stands tall above the landscape. Explore numerous hiking trails around Mount Shasta and Shastina that lead you through impressive sugar pine and swaying aspen forests. Hike the Seven Lakes Basin Trail in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest for panoramic views of Mount Shasta, Mount Eddy, and the Trinity Alps. Or, push yourself while rock climbing in the Castle Crags Wilderness. To get the full Shasta experience, book your campsite at the lakeshore and wake up to serene surroundings and adventurous days.

The lush forests of the Klamath Mountains will send you to seventh heaven. Experience the scenic views as you trek through the mountains.

Klamath Mountains

Length: 155 miles

Elevation: 9,025 feet

Highest peak: Mount Eddy

Hidden in the farthest northwestern corner of California lies the rugged terrain of the Klamath Mountains. Encompassing seven national forests, the enormous mountain cluster largely consists of serpentinite and marble; some of the rocks date back to 500 million years ago. With moderately cold winters, heavy snowfall, and very dry summers, the region boasts unique native vegetation. 

Traverse along 360 miles of the Bigfoot Trail or backpack the Pacific Crest Trail through three wilderness areas to explore the biodiversity of this unsung region. Home to one of the largest collections of conifers in the world, the Klamath Mountains are truly the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of big cities. View nature at one of the 23 botanical areas within the Klamath National Forest, or go white-water rafting along the 286-mile-long Klamath River for an action-filled afternoon. 

Pack your camping gear and start a road trip to the White Mountains. You won't regret the journey to this fascinating destination.

White Mountains

Length: 60 miles

Elevation: 14,252 feet

Highest peak: White Mountain Peak

Just east of the Sierra Nevada, the White Mountains are a high-desert mountain range created by tectonic movements in the earth's crust. Completely encompassed by the Inyo National Forest, the White Mountains are home to the world’s oldest trees and are a haven for nature enthusiasts. 

Journey to the White Mountains to observe ancient bristlecone pines, some of which are about 4,000 years old. Admire the trees’ extraordinary growth forms and colors on a hike through the Schulman and Patriarch Groves. Camp at the Grandview Campground, where you'll be surrounded by pinyon pines and juniper trees, for an unsurpassed star-gazing experience.

Stunning Southern California Mountain Ranges

Plan a trip to the marvelous Peninsular Ranges and prepare yourself for a transcendental experience.

Peninsular Ranges

Length: 930 miles

Elevation: 10,834 feet

Highest peak: San Jacinto Peak

Running north-south from SoCal, the Peninsular Ranges encompass the Santa Ana Mountains, Temescal Mountains, Perris Block, San Jacinto Mountains, and Laguna Mountains (which stretch to the southernmost tip of the Baja California Peninsula). The range is home to over 58 mountains, so it’s difficult to say where your voyage in this range should begin. But the San Jacinto Peak— rising high and mighty over Palm Springs—is a good starting point during both the summer and winter seasons.

Hike the 21-mile-long Cactus to Clouds Trail to mount the 10,834-foot peak of the Peninsular Ranges. For a more leisurely journey to the top, board the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and take it to the Mountain Station; from here, it's only a 5.5-mile hike to reach the San Jacinto Peak. 

If the climb up to the San Jacinto Peak doesn't satisfy your hiking hunger, travel to Mount Laguna—located an hour east of San Diego—and enjoy the drastic change in the climate. With San Diego County’s highest snowfall, Mount Laguna is the perfect getaway to sled and snowshoe.

Escape the hustle and bustle of the city by traversing the Transverse Mountain Ranges and marveling at the magnificent views below.

Transverse Ranges

Length: 300 miles

Elevation: 11,503

Highest peak: San Gorgonio Mountain

The Transverse Mountain Ranges span west to east from the coast, passing through Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and the Mojave and Colorado Deserts. With over a dozen peaks reaching above 7,000 feet in elevation, the range experiences snowfall yearly and greatly contrasts with the urban SoCal destinations located in its midst. 

Head to the San Bernardino National Forest to hike the Old Greyback—also known as San Gorgonio Mountain—Southern California’s highest peak. Then, travel to the iconic Hollywood sign, located in the Santa Monica Mountains of the Transverse Ranges, for a selfie photo sesh. You can also take a beautiful drive on the Angeles Crest Highway and venture to the Vetter Mountain Lookout, where you can take in gorgeous vistas of the Charlton-Chilao Recreation Area.

Plan a weekend getaway to Big Bear, situated just two hours east of Los Angeles, or make your way to the San Gabriel Mountains and swoosh down the slopes of the Mountain High resort.

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