Yosemite's Landscapes and Life Zones

The Yosemite region encompasses a diversity of life zones, rising from the foothills of California's Central Valley into high country of the Sierra Nevada.
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The Yosemite region encompasses a diversity of life zones, rising from the foothills of California's Central Valley into high country of the Sierra Nevada.
Clothespin Tree in the Mariposa Grove of Sequoia. Photo by Peter Flanigan

Clothespin Tree in the Mariposa Grove of Sequoia. Photo by Peter Flanigan

The Yosemite region encompasses a diversity of life zones, rising from the foothills of California's Central Valley (just above sea level) into the high country of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where craggy peaks tower over 13,000 feet. This enormous diversity is what makes Yosemite's landscapes so memorable: rushing rivers, deep canyons, wildflower meadows, giant sequoia groves, alpine lakes, glacier-cut valleys, and polished domes are just a few of park's awesome natural features.

Sierra Nevada Foothills & Chaparral

Just outside the park, you'll drive up through the Sierra Nevada foothills as you approach Yosemite from the west. Slowly, the Central Valley's irrigated farm fields give way to low-lying hills covered in canyon live oak, California black oak, and fragrant California bay laurel trees. In spring, many of the Sierra Nevada's western foothills are covered in colorful wildflowers, including orange and gold native California poppies, purple lupine, and redbud.

At some elevations in the western Sierra Nevada foothills, you'll see chaparral. Thickly growing with dense, shrubby plants such as manzanita and California buckeye, chaparral is also the domain of poison oak, so hikers should watch out (remember: "Leaves of three, let it be!").

In the eastern Sierra Nevada, the mountains drop much more steeply to meet the arid Great Basin and the Mojave Desert, so low-lying foothills are less dominant. In the Alabama Hills area around Bishop, the dusty, boulder-strewn landscape looks like the setting for an Old Western movie - and in fact, many classic Westerns were once filmed by Hollywood studios there.

Lower & Upper Montane Forests

Driving up to Yosemite Valley from the west or Wawona from the south, the sunny foothills transition to cooler, shadier forests. Yosemite's lower montane forest typically starts above 3000 feet. Ponderosa pines start off in abundance, giving way to the mixed conifer forests where giant sequoias thrive. In Yosemite, you can visit giant sequoias in the Mariposa Grove near Wawona and at the Tuolumne and Merced Groves near the park's Big Oak Flat entrance. Also in the lower montane forest belt, look for incense cedar trees and sugar pines with their gigantic cones.

Heading up from Yosemite Valley to Glacier Point or along the Tioga Road, you'll enter the upper montane forest between 5500 and 7500 feet. There red firs, which resemble Christmas trees, and lodgepole pines predominate. You'll also notice western (Sierra) juniper trees with their gnarly root systems that can penetrate rocky outcrops, spreading far and wide to absorb as much water as possible from the soil.

Subalpine Forest & Alpine Zones

In Yosemite's high country, subalpine forests and lush grassy meadows abound between elevations of 8000 and 10,000 feet. There pine, juniper, hemlock and aspen trees are all common. Aspens put on a show in autumn, when their leaves turn golden, especially off Tioga Road.

Just below the tree line, foxtail pines carve out a unique niche for themselves. They're related to the ancient bristlecone pines on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. Foxtails often have a windblown, gnarled appearance, due to the challenging environmental conditions found at higher elevations in Yosemite's subalpine zone.

Above 10,000 feet, hikers won't find many trees growing. As you climb even higher, the landscape gives way to a rocky sea of granite talus and mountain peaks, with oases of meadows spreading beside high-altitude lakes fed by streams, rivers, and the melting snow each year.