When it comes to mountain ranges, the Sierra Nevada in California are arguably the wealthiest for their place in history. They were a challenge to cross, provided access to wealth, and most of all, became the birthplace for conservation. This isn’t a full account, but rather a taste of important dates of the High Sierra.

1844 – 1st European Settler Sees Lake Tahoe

mount tallac at sunset in Lake Tahoe
Photo by: Rachid Dahnoun – Image appears courtesy: Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority

Can you imagine what it must’ve been like when John C Fremont and Charles Preuss climbed Red Lake Peak on February 14th near Carson Pass not too far from present day Kirkwood Ski Resort? From this vantage point, they saw a massive body of water that was Lake Tahoe. And thus, they became the 1st European settlers to set eyes on the lake. In Fremont’s own words of seeing the lake:

“Scenery and weather combined must render these mountains beautiful in summer; the purity and deep-blue color of the sky are singularly beautiful; the days are sunny and bright, and even warm in the noon hours; and if we could be free from the many anxieties that oppress us, even now we would be delighted here; but our provisions are getting fearfully scant.”

1849 – The California Gold Rush

Gold panning in Columbia State Historic Park
Photo by: Austin Banks – Image appears courtesy: Visit Tuolumne County

The discovery of gold in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in 1848 was the spark that help begin the largest migration in US history. Nearly 300,000 pioneers descended upon the Sierra Nevada, removing nearly 750,000 pounds of gold during the California Gold Rush. While many towns are long gone, there’s a few that have transformed into great vacation destinations and state parks like the historic town of Columbia that showcase how it was back then. And for those that love ghost towns, the largest unrestored town in the West is here. The historic town of Bodie gives you the option to explore by yourself or on a daily guided tour (especially during the annual Friends of Bodie event complete with actors & reenactments).

1869 – Transcontinental Railroad Is Completed

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

On May 10th, 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad was completed. Nearly 10,000 Chinese worked on the railroad at the time, many of them making Truckee their home creating the 2nd largest Chinatown on the West Coast during this period. And with one of the key segments of this conduit near the summit of the Sierra, it’s what became the historic town of Truckee. Due to the railroad, Truckee was vital for connecting industry such as lumber yards and manufacturing ice. And as tourism grew, it also became the conduit for visitors to access Lake Tahoe. To this day, Amtrak passenger lines still run daily through downtown Truckee. 

1890 – Yosemite Becomes A National Park

Image appears courtesy: NPS – Yosemite in 1864 prior to it becoming a national park

Fun fact: Mariposa Grove and the Yosemite Valley were actually already preserved for more than a quarter of a century. It was on October 1st, 1890 those 39,000 acres grew to nearly 748,436 acres and became what is now the national park we know and love. It was all due to the hard work of historical figures like John Muir and Frederick Olmsted.

1960 – The Winter Olympics

1960 Squaw Valley Winter Olympics
Image appears courtesy: Squaw Valley|Alpine Meadows

Even though the 1st chairlift in the Lake Tahoe area arrived in 1939 at Sugar Bowl, what really put the region’s skiing on the map were the winter Olympics at Squaw Valley. The 1960 Winter Olympics were the 1st time a town was built for them. In fact, within 5 years, it went from a single lodge and untamed wilderness to a fully equipped and accessible town. Those Olympics also set the standard of what to expect. The first live broadcast, the first to use snowcats to mechanically groom runs, and first choreographed opening and closing ceremony (by none other than Walt Disney).

From Olympic dreams to gold fever, you can see these mountains aren’t just some peaks. They’ve literally helped put California on the map both financially and internationally.

Author: Alex Silgalis

Alex founded Local Freshies® in 2014 to be the #1 website providing the “local scoop” on where to eat, drink & play in mountain towns throughout North America. When he’s not writing and executing marketing strategies for small businesses & agencies, he’s in search of the deepest snow in the winter and tackiest dirt in the summer.

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