On the second Juan Bautista de Anza expedition to populate northern California, in April 1776, Padre Pedro Font gave the name Sierra Nevada, or "snowy range," in Spanish, to the mountains he saw to the east in the distance.
The earliest identified inhabitants of the Sierra Nevada were the Paiute tribe on the east side and the Miwok tribe on the west. Both tribes traded goods by meeting at, and traveling over, mountain passes. Obsidian arrowheads can still be found in some of the passes.
Lieutenant John C. Fremont, accompanied by Kit Carson, was the first white man to see Lake Tahoe, in the winter of 1844. By 1860, even though the California gold rush populated the outlying areas of the Sierra Nevada, most of the Sierras remained unexplored. It was then that the state legislature authorized the California Geological Survey to officially explore the range. Josiah Whitney was appointed to head the survey.
Men of the survey, including William H. Brewer, Charles F. Hoffmann, and Clarence King, explored the backcountry of what would become Yosemite National Park, in 1863.
In 1864, they explored the area around Kings Canyon. In 1871, King mistakenly thought that Mount Langley was the highest peak in the Sierra, and he climbed it. Before he could climb the true highest peak (Mount Whitney), it was scaled by some fishermen from Lone Pine, California, who left a note.
Between 1892 and 1897, Theodore Solomons was the first explorer to attempt to map a route along the crest of the Sierra (what would eventually become the John Muir Trail, along a different route). On his 1894 expedition, he took along Leigh Bierce, son of writer Ambrose Bierce.
The Sierra Nevada’s most common nickname is the "Range of Light." The description is due to the unusually light-colored granite exposed by glacial action. The nickname originates with John Muir, who in 1894, wrote The Mountains of California.
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