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SIERRA NEVADA – A Virtual Field Trip

Reading this Elevation Cross-Section

The chart above demonstrates the types of forests and plant communities that live on the western and eastern faces of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. It is drawn as if it is one mountain, from valley bottom to peak and down again. But in reality, it represents the entire mountain range that spans the eastern 2/3s of the state. We are seeing a slice of it as if we were standing in the Mohave Desert looking north towards Mount Shasta.

Imagine that your family or friends have piled into a mini-van to go on a field trip. You are going to start out your trip by approaching the Sierras from the western side, by way of the Central Valley. As you drive up into the mountains, you will notice that the soil color changes, the rocks change, and the plants change. There are different trees at different elevations. The spacing of the trees changes. Sometimes they are dense, and in other places they are not so close together. Sometimes you will see where a fire has burned through the forest. The underbrush will change. In some places there will only be low chaparral brush, in others there will be only pine needles beneath the trees. There will be flowering plants if you make the drive in the spring, and if you hike into the meadows you will enjoy a carpet of colorful wildflowers with buzzing bees and dragonflies flitting across the surface of the streams.

In each of these seven mountain plant communities that form the Sierra mountain biotic zone, there are specific flowers, vines, brush, animals, and insects that call the land their home. A few miles up or down the road and they will not exist. This rise and fall in elevation also results in changes of available water – the rain patterns and snow patterns are climate factors that also influence who and what live where and why.

Here goes our drive up and over the Sierras. Get out your Expedition Journal and start making drawings to help you remember what you will see. ( You can create your own plant journal on plain paper, then staple it when you are done, and keep it in your Camp Internet Passport. You may want to add the animals life we will be studying later in the year to this same journal ).

The Virtual Sierra Field Trip Begins

On the Western Face of the Sierras

The Sierra Nevada Mountain Range lifts up out of the Central Valley Grasslands. We will pass through what were once all native grasslands, but are now the scene of miles and miles of agricultural operations that have replaced much of the grasslands. This picture is an example of the increasingly rare bunch grasses that used to fill California valleys. They have in the last few centuries had to compete not only with agriculture, but also with introduced European grasses that are annuals. The bunch grass were year-round perennial grasses, and were much less of a fire hazard than the European oats, barley, and rye that now cover much of California’s grasslands and rangelands.

Copyright © 1995 Brother Eric Vogel, St. Mary's College

Leaving the larger cities behind us, we feel the car start to head up hill, slowly rising up towards the mountains we can see ahead.

The foothills begin with California Chaparral at the 1,000-3,000 feet elevations, and we hillsides covered with low scrub bushes, like this chamise


Copyright © 1998 California Academy of Sciences

What looks to the eye from a distance like scruffy, prickly low bushes, up close to the eye can actually reveal beautiful flowers that attract bees and butterflies. If we got out of the car and walked down into an arroyo like this, we would see the Chamise up close ….

Copyright © 1995 Brother Eric Vogel, St. Mary's College

As we head upwards, we might pass through with Foothill Woodlands that patchwork the landscape with the Chaparral at elevations up to 4,500 feet in the mountain foothills, arroyos, and valleys. Willows and Sycamores would dot the landscape. This is a California Sycamore in springtime …

Copyright © 1995 Brother Eric Vogel, St. Mary's College

And here is the Sycamore leaves up close (note the number of ‘fingers’ on the leaves that look like hands, and the seed pod ). Did you know that California’s hummingbirds use the fuzz off these leaves, mixed with spider web, to make their nests ?


Copyright © 1998 California Academy of Sciences

Wildflowers are abundant at every elevation in the Sierras, some flowers even exist in their dwarf version at the higher, more extreme altitudes. Here are a series to study and draw :


Congdon's bitterroot Copyright © 1999 John Game

Fremont's tidytips Copyright © 1995 Brother Eric Vogel, St. Mary's College

Padres Shooting Star Copyright © 1995 Brother Eric Vogel, St. Mary's College



California Poppy Copyright © 1995 Brother Eric Vogel, St. Mary's College


Sierran Lupine Copyright © 1995 Brother Eric Vogel, St. Mary's College



Now we will rise up in elevation to a point where we are clearly no longer in the foothills or chaparral landscape. From 3,000 to just under 7,000 feet in elevation, the mountains are now predominantly Yellow Pine Forest. Look at the leaves of the Yellow Pine – compare them to the Sycamore leaves above – these are called pine needles due to their narrow tubular shape. And look at the seed pod. This tree is the beginning of the coniferous forests on the western slopes of the Sierras. The word pine cone, comes from the word coniferous.


Copyright © 1999 California Academy of Sciences

From 7,000 feet to 9,000 feet, the primary forest is Lodgepole and Red Fir.

Why do you imagine the Lodgepole has its name ? Look at the picture and consider the possibilities of how it got its name ….

Copyright © 1999 California Academy of Sciences

As you can see from the background behind the Lodgepole Pine trees, we are nearing the upper most elevation of the Sierras, where the plant communities have to adapt to the coldest temperatures and to very rocky surfaces that make it difficult to put down roots.

Once the mountains have risen to 9,000 feet, the Subalpine Forest begins,

and the hearty Mountain Juniper may be seen clinging to seemingly unwelcoming rock faces.

Copyright © 1995 Brother Eric Vogel, St. Mary's College

Look at the leaves of the juniper. They are different in what way from the round pine needles or the broad, flat, fuzzy sycamore ? And notice that the Juniper seed pods are berries – not cones or spiny balls. These berries were an important Native American food source with medicinal properties.

Copyright © 1995 Brother Eric Vogel, St. Mary's College


As we cross over the pass at the top of the Sierras, we see around us peaks from 10,800 feet to 14,000 feet. This is Alpine Tundra. Here the plants re dwarfed due to the lack of warm growing season. They cling to the granite rock faces and find homes in nooks and crannies where ever they can find enough soil to support themselves. The dwarf bilberry is an example.


Copyright © 1999 California Academy of Sciences

Mountain heather is another Alpine plant that can survive at the highest elevations, and gives color to this world of gray granite and white snow.

Copyright © 1998 California Academy of Sciences


The Virtual Sierra Plant Trip Concludes


On the Eastern Face of the Sierras

From the Alpine Tundra peaks at 14,000 feet, the eastern face, which we learned in our geography and climate sections is in the rain shadow (receives much less precipitation ), the elevations of the plant communities differs from the western face. In fact, our geology studies showed us that the geologic forces lifting the Sierra Nevada up from the plains are not lifting her evenly, she is getting more push up from the eastern side and that accounts for the tilt to the west we see on the chart. The profile of the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada is very similar to the valley, plain, and mountain plant communities across the interiors of the American Southwest – in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Arizona for example.

On the eastern face, the Alpine Tundra is in the 12,000-14,000 foot range.

Just below it the Subalpine Forests have a range from 10,800-12,00 feet.

The Lodgepole and Red-Fir live at the 8,800-10,800 elevations,

and the Jeffrey Pine Forests are at the 6,000-8,800 elevations.

Here is a straight Jeffrey Pine.

Copyright © 1995 Brother Eric Vogel, St. Mary's College

The Jeffrey Pine has deeply textured bark that makes it easy to identify this Eastern Sierra Tree.

Copyright © 1995 Brother Eric Vogel, St. Mary's College

Here is a contorted Jeffrey Pine. Why so you think it grew this way ?


Copyright © 1998 California Academy of Sciences

The western faces Chaparral and Foot Hill Woodlands are not present on the eastern side; instead, there is a Pinyon-Juniper Woodland at the 4,000-6,000 foot elevation.

Like the Juniper that often accompanies the Pinyon, the leaves of the Pinyon are adapted to survive in a harsh climate, where water may be scarce, and temperatures drop to very cold or freezing levels at night.


Copyright © 1995 Brother Eric Vogel, St. Mary's College

It is the seed from the pinyon that was such a highly valued trade commodity in early claifornia. The Backcountry trails connected the eatern and western side softeh sierras inorder to trade for these precious food stuffs greatly valued by Indians who lived at elevations or locations that did not support the Pinyon Pine. This is wehre the nust come from


Copyright © 1998 California Academy of Sciences

And from here we can look back up to the peaks of the Sierras and think about the many. Varied plant communities we have had a chance to visit on this Virtual Field Trip.


Copyright © 1998 California Academy of Sciences



Here are more details on the plant communities that make up this mountain biotic zone. The text is provided by D. Chippin From Cal Poly. The descriptions start at the lower elevations and move to the highest. If you would like to search for images of these plants, please refer to the Digital Library at Berkeley



"Chaparral" is a kind of vegetation dominated by shrubs that have stiff branches and thick, leathery leaves. It may require fire for regeneration or grow in non-productive sites. The various kinds of chaparral are often found in a mosaic with grasslands and forests in the foothill, montane, and subalpine zones of the Sierra Nevada.

Chamise-dominated chaparrals occupy xeric foothill sites, and include the Chamise and Chamise-Wedgeleaf Ceanothus series. Manzanita-dominated chaparrals include the Greenleaf Manzanita, Ione Manzanita, and Whiteleaf Manzanita series. Ceanothus dominated chaparrals include the Wedgeleaf Ceanothus, Deer Brush, Mountain Whitethorn, and Tobacco Brush Series. Oak-dominated chaparrals include the Brewer Oak, Huckleberry Oak. Scrub Oak, and Shrub Interior Live Oak series. Other chaparrals include the Birchleaf Mountain-mahogany, Bush Chinquapin, Foothill Pine, Holodiscus, and Knobcone Pine series.

Riparian forests, woodlands, thickets, and scrubs associated with various of chaparrals include the Arroyo Willow, Black Willow, California Sycamore, Fremont Cottonwood, Narrowleaf Willow, Pacific Willow, Red Willow, and White Alder series.

Riparian communities include the White Alder Series, Fremont Cottonwood Series, California Sycamore Series, Arroyo Willow Series, Black Willow Series, Red Willow Series, Pacific Willow Series, and Narrowleaf Willow Series.


Foothill woodlands of the Sierra Nevada are dominated by Blue Oak Series. The Interior Live Oak Series occurs on more mesic sites and the Valley Oak Series on the flatter, valley floor environments. The Canyon Live Oak Series is found in sheltered canyons and more mesic slopes. The Mixed Oak Series represents various mixes of the oaks, and the Tanoak Series occurs at upper elevations.

Riparian forests and woodlands include the Arroyo Willow, California Sycamore, Fremont Cottonwood, Narrowleaf Willow, Pacific Willow, Red Willow, and White Alder series. Other woodlands include the California Buckeye and Foothill Pine series. The last series occurs in areas transitional to various chaparrals.

Foothill woodlands merge with the montane forests at upper elevations in the zone, and with chaparrals and grasslands at lower elevations. At the transitions from the foothill and montane zones, forests normally found at higher elevations will be on north slopes, while chaparrals, grasslands, and woodlands normally found at lower elevations will be on south slopes.


Montane elevations of the Sierra Nevada are dominated by a set of conifer forests. Lowest elevations are often covered by yellow pine forest. At higher in elevations in the zone, the mixed conifer forest becomes common, and at even higher elevations white fir forests are extensive.

"Yellow pine forest" is a collective term for forests for the Ponderosa Pine, Jeffrey Pine, Jeffrey Pine -Ponderosa Pine, or Washoe Pine series. Although ponderosa pine is the dominant yellow pine of the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, a similar but distinct variant, the Jeffrey pine, grows in the more xeric environments and is more common on the eastern slopes. Washoe pine appears to be a cross between the ponderosa and Jeffrey pines, and grows locally at higher elevations in the northeastern part of the range.

"Mixed conifer forest" is a collective term for stands with varying mixes of ponderosa pine, sugar pine, incense-cedar, Douglas-fir, and white fir. Forests with these species can be assigned to the Douglas-fir, Douglas-fir - Ponderosa Pine, Douglas-fir - Tanoak, Incense-cedar, Mixed Conifer, and Ponderosa Pine series depending on commonness of each species in the stand. Higher elevations in the zone have forests of the White fir series. The vegetation mosaic may also include Western White Pine Series. Other west-side forests can be assigned to the Black Oak, Canyon Live Oak, and Giant Sequoia series (southern part of the range).

At lower elevation yellow pine forests may form a mosaic with series associated with the foothill woodlands and chaparrals, while at the higher elevations a mosaic may occur with forests the Lodgepole Pine and Red Fir series. The stands of Aspen Series occur locally at higher elevations.


The Lodgepole Pine Series is the keynote forest found throughout the zone. Red Fir Series is found in the more mesic areas, and is all but absent from the southern east side of the range. Other forests can be assigned to the Mountain Hemlock, or Western White Pine series, and at lower elevations, to the White Fir Series. Woodlands of the Mountain Juniper Series grow on exposed and xeric sites. Mosaics between conifer forests and stands of the Aspen Series occur throughout the zone. Washoe Pine Series lies at lower elevations in the northern Sierra. Stands of Black Cottonwood and Narrowleaf Willow series may be found along streams.


Pine-dominated series including Foxtail Pine, Limber Pine, and Whitebark Pine are characteristic of the zone. Stands lacking a single dominant tree species belong to the Mixed Subalpine Series. In addition, there are extensions from lower zones of the Lodgepole Pine, Red Fir, Western White Pine, and White Fir series into sheltered areas. Mountain Hemlock and Mountain Juniper series also occur. Shrublands include the Curlleaf Mountain-mahogany Series. Aspen Series may be found in sheltered locations.


The Sierra Nevada Alpine habitat includes fell fields, glaciers, dry and wet meadows, snowfields, dry and wet talus. Some of this variation is described in the Mountain Heather-Bilberry Series. There are numerous alpine plant associations that have not yet been assigned to a series.


Stands of Singleleaf Pinyon or Western Juniper series mix on the xeric eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada. Jeffrey Pine or Ponderosa Pine series may occur in more mesic areas, particularly along watercourses. The dominant scrubs are often Big Sagebrush, Black Brush, Curlleaf Mountain- mahogany, Rubber Rabbitbrush, or Shadscale series. Grassland series such as Ashy Ryegrass, Cheatgrass, and One-sided Bluegrass. Stands of the Joshua Tree Series may also occur.


Scrubs at lowest elevations are most often assigned to the Big Sagebrush Series, but there is local dominance of the Rubber Rabbitbrush Series as well. Grassland series such as Ashy Ryegrass, Cheatgrass and One-sided Bluegrass. Local stands Black Bush, Joshua Tree, Singleleaf Pinyon, and Western juniper series are more extensive at higher elevations. Sagebrush scrub intermixes with yellow pine, lodgepole pine, and subalpine forests at higher elevations, and with Shadscale Series at lower elevations.