The 600-km-long Sierra Nevada underwent extensive Pleistocene glaciation except for its southernmost 100 km. Presently, ∼1700 small glaciers and ice masses near the crest of the range occur above 3250 m in elevation; these covered an area of ∼50 km2 in 1972. Fourteen of the largest glaciers decreased by about one half in area during the period from 1900 to 2004.
Rock glaciers, generally glacial ice covered by 1–10 m of rockfall debris, occur in about the same span of the range as ice and permanent snowfields. They are, on average, lower by 200–300 m, apparently because of the insulating layer of rocky rubble that protects their internal ice from the sun’s heat and from wind.
The principal Pleistocene glacial stages are the Sherwin (ca. 820 ka), Tahoe (170–130 and ca. 70 ka), Tioga (14–28 ka), and Recess Peak (13 ka). Some 7040 glacial lakes, produced primarily by quarrying from bedrock, were mostly exposed after recession of the Tioga glacial stage. The lakes largely mark the area of primary snow accumulation. Below the lower limit of the lakes, ice flowed downward into river-cut canyons, forming major trunk glaciers within the zone of ablation.
The range is in general a westward-tilted block upfaulted on its east side. Therefore, the main late Pleistocene trunk glaciers (Tahoe/Tioga) west of the crest extend 25–60 km, whereas those east of the crest extend only 5–20 km. Because of higher precipitation northward, glacial features such as the toes of existing glaciers and rock glaciers, as well as the late season present-day snowline, all decrease in elevation northward. Likewise, the elevation of the lower limit of glacial lakes, an indication of the zone of snow accumulation during the late Pleistocene, decreases about the same degree. This similarity suggests that the overall climate patterns of the late Pleistocene, though cooler, were similar to those of today. The east slope glaciers show a similar northward depression, but they are ∼500–1000 m higher.
The upper part of the glacial system was erosive over a broad highland area as the evenly distributed ice in the accumulation zone moved to lower elevation. The abundant lake basins record this erosive action. The lower part of the glacier system was largely confined to major preexisting river canyons in which melting dominated. The average of rangewide estimates of the equilibrium line altitude (ELA)—the boundary between the upper snow and ice accumulation zone and the lower ablation zone—of many late Pleistocene glaciers parallels, and is only 200–300 m above, the altitude of the lower limit of the lakes. Hence, the lake zone provides a means of estimating the ELA.