Glaciers of California

Palisade Glacier
Upper Palisade Glacier, Sierra Nevada, California (H. Basagic, 2003)

Welcome to the Glaciers of California page. This webpage contains information and pictures of glaciers in California. Glaciers of the past have played an important role in shaping parts of California's beautiful high country. Perhaps one of the best known of these locations is Yosemite Valley, in Yosemite National Park.  Glaciers of today are much smaller as compared to those of the Pleistocene, but still play an important role in shaping the landscape. Additionally, the small glaciers are important to the hydrology of alpine ecosystems, and important indicators of climate change.
Yoesmite Valley
Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park (H. Basagic, 2004)


Glacier Extent


Glacial History

Glaciers have long played a role in the geologic history of California. In the past,  glaciers were active in several areas of California leaving behind geologic evidence such as glacial deposits, mountain cirques, and glacial striations. In northern California, evidence from glaciers during the Pleistocene is found at Mount Shasta, Lassen Volcano, and throughout the Klamath Mountains, Medicine Lake Volcano, Salmon Mountains, Warner Mountains, and some in the Coast ranges. In central California evidence from glaciers can be found in the Sierra Nevada, White Mountains, and in the Sweetwater Range. The only evidence in southern California has been found in the  San Bernardino Mountains (Sharp at al, 1959). 

During the cold Pleistocene epoch (Ice Age), which lasted between 1.8 million years ago to 10,000 years ago, glaciers fluctuated in size.  Geologic evidence in the Sierra Nevada suggests at least five major glacial periods: McGee, Sherwin, Tahoe,
Tioga, and Recess Peak (Blackwelder, 1931; Bailey et al., 1990; and Clark and Gillespie, 1997).  Similar evidence of glacier fluctuation is found in other regions in California.  The Holocene followed the Pleistocene epoch. The climate began to cool around 1350 AD, during which time glaciers began to grow. This cool period, referred to as the Little Ice Age, persisted roughly through 1850 AD when glaciers are thought to have reached their maximum extent for the Little Ice Age (Matthes, 1940). Since that time mountain glaciers in California and throughout most of the world have showed signs of overall recession during the past century.

Early Exploration
Glaciers were first "discovered" in the United States in California on Mount Shasta. Clarence King is accredited as the first person to publish a scientific account of the glaciers of Mount Shasta based on his visit in September 11, 1870 (King, 1871). The existence of glaciers in the Sierra Nevada were identified shortly after in October, 1871 by the well-known naturalist John Muir (Muir, 1873).  Muir had been tracing the routes of ancient glaciers in Yosemite National Park  when he reached a cirque and proclaimed that he had found a "living glacier". Muir went on to count many more glaciers in his travels in the Sierra Nevada. One summer,
Muir conducted glacier motion experiments on Maclure Glacier, also in Yosemite National Park, by placing stakes into the ice.  Through these measurements Muir confirmed that these ice bodies were indeed moving and therefore could be considered true glaciers (Muir, 1873). An expedition led by I.C. Russell, of the USGS produced photographs of Sierra glaciers in 1883 (Russell, 1885) as well as the first map of Lyell Glacier. Russell's 1885 report also contained a map of the glaciers of Mount Shasta created by Gilbert Thompson. John Muir

John Muir (Bancroft Library)

Lyell Glacier 1883
An early photograph of Lyell Glacier in 1883 (I.C. Russell, 1885)
Lyell Glacier Map 1883
Map of Lyell Glacier in 1883 (I.C. Russell, 1885)

Whitney Glacier
A photograph of Whitney Glacier  taken during the 1876 King Survey
 (C.E. Watkins, 1876 )

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Glacier Regions in California

Mount Shasta
Trinity Alps
Mount Lassen
Sierra Nevada

Mount Shasta

Mount Shasta is a strato volcano located in northern California. There are 7 glaciers on the 4,317m (14,162 ft) peak and include Whitney, Bolam, Hotlum, Korwakiton, Watkins, Mud Creek, and Wintun glaciers. Mount Shasta glaciers have a total area of  4.9 km2. Mount Shasta
The north side of Mount Shasta (H. Basagic, June 2005)

The Whitney Glacier, located on the north side of Mount Shasta, is the longest glacier in California, and is over 3 km long with an area of 1.3 km2. In general, the glaciers on the north side of Mount Shasta are much larger than those on the south side.

Below is a map of Mount Shasta's glaciers. Click the map to enlarge the image.

Mount Shasta Glaciers Map
Map of  Mount Shasta glaciers (Source: USGS 7.5 topographic map, photodate: 1980)

For more information on Mount Shasta's glaciers you can visit the College of the Siskyous's Mount Shasta Companion Glacier Page.

Trinity Alps

There are several small glaciers located in cirques on the north sides of Thompson Peak (2742m, 8994 ft) and Caesar Peak (2720m, 8920 ft). The area  contains over 35 other perennial snowfields.  These perennial snowfields have a total areas of 1.9 km2. None of these features have USGS names.

Trinity Alps
The Trinity Alps viewed from the south side of Mount Shasta (H. Basagic, 2005)

Below is a map of Trinity Alp's perennial snowfields. Click the map to enlarge the image.

Trinity Alps Glacier Map
Map of glaciers and perennial ice in the Trinity Alps (Source: USGS 7.5 topographic map, photodate: 1974)

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Mount Lassen

Mount Lassen has 14 small snow and ice bodies.  These features have a total area of ~0.2km2. The mountain does not contain any named glaciers. Mount Lassen
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Sierra Nevada

This mountain range spans over 600 kilometers along the eastern California border. Glaciers are located in the central and southern portions of the Sierra Nevada. The USGS mapped over 800 small mountain glaciers and perennial ice fields with areas over 0.01km2, of which 13 are named. These small glaciers are located at high elevations on the north and northeast sides of mountain cirques at elevations above 3050m. The Palisade Glacier is the largest glacier in the Sierra Nevada., with an area of 0.8 km2.  In contrast, the smallest named glacier is Lilliput Glacier, 0.05km2.

Evolution Valley
The view from Mount Darwin looking south at ice filled cirques in the Sierra Nevada (H. Basagic, 2003)

Palisade Glacier (right) is located on the east side of the Sierra crest. Glacier ice is indicated in light blue and the moraine-dammed lake is displayed in dark blue.  Moraines, shown in brown,  consist of rock material that have been transported to the glacier's edge through glacial movement. The glacier is about 1.3 kilometers in length, which terminates in the lake.

Click the map to enlarge the image.

Palisade Glacier Map

Map of Palisade Glacier, Sierra Nevada (Source: USGS 7.5 topographic map, 1976

Additional information
glacier change in the Sierra Nevada  can be found here.

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Fun Facts

- California's state fossil is the sabertooth tiger (Smilodon fatalis).

- The state insect is the California dog-face butterfly (
Zerene eurydice).


Bailey, R.A., Huber, N.K., and Curry, R.C., 1990. The diamicton at Deadman Pass, central Sierra Nevada,
California: A residual lag and colluvial deposit, not a 3 Ma glacial till. Geologic Society of American
Bulletin, 102, 1165 - 1173

Blackwelder, E., 1931. Pleistocene glaciation in the Sierra Nevada in the Sierra Nevada and Basin Ranges. Geologic Society of American Bulletin, 42, 865 - 922.

Clark, D.H. and Gillespie, A.R., 1997. Timing and significance of late-glacial and Holocene glaciation in the Sierra Nevada, California. Quaternary International, 38/39: 21-38.

Guyton, B., 1998. Glaciers of California : modern glaciers, ice age glaciers, origin of Yosemite Valley, and a glacier tour in the Sierra Nevada. California natural history guides ; 59. University of California Press, Berkeley, xvi, 197 p.

King, C. ,1871. Active Glaciers within the United States. Atlantic Monthly v 27, 8 March, 371-377.

Matthes, F.E., 1940. Committee on glaciers, 1939-1940. Transaction, American Geophysical Union,  396-406.

Muir, J., 1873. On Actual Glaciers in California. American Journal of Science and Arts, V (Third Series): 69 - 71.

Russell, I.C., 1885. Existing Glaciers of the United States. 5th Annual Report of the U.S. Geologic Survey.

Sharp R.P., Allen C.R., and Meier M.F., 1959. Pleistocene glaciers on southern California mountains. 
American Journal of Sciences, 257, 81-94

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Created by Hassan Basagic
Portland State University
Portland, Oregon
Created: 03/21/06; Last Mod: 08/02/06