Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A Mineral King Camping Trip

In September 2003, fresh from my "retirement," I took a week-long road trip throughout the State of California. One of my destinations was Sequoia National Park. While on CA-198 headed toward the park entrance, I passed the turnoff for Mineral King. Hey, Mineral King! I had heard about MK, but really knew very little about it. Ski resort and bears represented the sum total of my knowledge at the time. I filed the information away for later reference. While at the visitor center, I purchased a history of Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, The Challenge of the Big Trees by Lary M. Dilsaver and William C. Tweed (available for free online here). While Mineral King did not become part of Sequoia until 1978, its history is tied in with the park and so the area and its possible development as a ski resort are brought up several times.

The more I learned about Mineral King, the more intrigued I became. I also came to find out that the battle over improving the road to MK was a fundamental part of the whole ordeal (and you know me and roads!). I vowed to visit the area--sooner rather than later, preferably. And I knew just the person to act as my chauffeuer.

Bob Gurr and I share an interest in hiking and California. We went on a week-long camping trip along the San Andreas Fault in October 2004 and really had an excellent time. When I asked him if he were interested in this trip, I didn't know that he had worked on the project off-and-on for twelve years! Though he got several patents for the ski lift designs and was assigned to the road/alternative access part of the project, he had never visited Mineral King. We made our plans to visit June 30-July 2, 2005.

Since Bob had the Honda CRV (much more practical for camping than my car), he was the driver. He told me he's always enjoyed driving anyplace in the world--works for me! It allowed me to concentrate on taking photographs, anyway.

The road to Mineral King isn't too much better now than it was in the 1870s, when a toll wagon road was constructed for the mining activities occurring above the valley. The County of Tulare had long maintained it (excepting the relatively brief period it was a state highway in the 1960s), but it was by no means a high speed road. To its credit, it was mostly paved! But it winds ever higher into the Sierra, passing by the private inholding of Silver City before reaching the valley itself. We first stopped off at the campground to set up our gear. No reservations taken; first come, first served. We chose a campsite off in the back (the site, we later found out, most recently visited by a bear).

It had been a long drive and we planned to mosey around the valley, with a longer hike planned for the next day. As we drove up the road and passed one trailhead, I caught my first glimpse of the vaunted marmots of Mineral King. For whatever reason (perhaps the salt), these guys like to feast on car parts (belts, hoses) early in the summer. One recommendation to ward them off is to leave the car's hood open, but that didn't make sense to me. The thinking, I guess, is that they'd prefer to work in the dark; I think it just gives them more room to work, as seen below!

The general store in Silver City sells "fencing" to place around the base of the car, preventing marmots from getting into the car's machinery in the first place. I had informed Bob of the marmot menace prior to our trip and he brought along a large tarp; he drove onto it and we tied it securely, as so:

Since our hike planned for the next day was up to Eagle Lake on the western side of the valley, we decided on a short hike on the eastern side, as far as we felt like going. This visit followed a year of unusually heavy rains in Southern California, so even at this date the streams still exhibited considerable velocity in their flow. At the first such stream we had to cross, we stopped to survey it and determine the best place to cross. While doing so, we struck up a conversation with a friendly woman who was doing the same thing. After some talk about how this was our first visit to Mineral King, she said that she and her husband had a cabin in Mineral King. When I shared that Bob had worked on the Disney project, she gave us the cabin name and location and said her husband would really like to talk to him. We made plans to stop by at the end of our hike.

Our leisurely stroll only made it as far as Franklin Creek, which we decided would give us more problems to cross than we wanted to deal with. (Had we set our goal as Farewell Gap or points beyond, we likely would have pressed onward.)

This gave us additional time to explore the valley floor, however. While camping was formerly allowed and encouraged here (think decades ago), it has long since been pushed out of the valley proper to preserve the delicate ecosystem. After the time of the announcement of Disney's selection as the winning bidder for the ski resort (in December 1965) and before Mineral King's addition to Sequoia National Park (in 1978), the area hung in limbo. Greater crowds than ever came to see what all the fuss was about, but there were no extra facilities to handle them or additional funds to clean up after them. This is the view from the southern end of the valley:

On our way back to camp, we stopped by the cabin of the woman we had met earlier on the trail. Neither she nor her husband were there, so we continued on our way. The only thing of note from that first night that I recall is a possible historic first: Over dinner Bob and I listened to some of the "Bear Band" demos made for the proposed show for Mineral King (which became the Country Bear Jamboree). I think it's possible that this is the first time those demos were actually heard at Mineral King. We did not see any actual singing bears on this night or at any other time during our visit. (There goes Disney distorting reality again!)

The next morning during breakfast we had an unexpected visitor--the cabin owner had bicycled down to the campground and located us! He was fairly young during the time of the Mineral King development controversy, but remembers various events like a sit-in performed in the valley. Because of his personal experience, he was very interested to hear Bob's knowledge of the project. They also talked about Robert Hicks, an economist from the Stanford Research Institute hired as the project manager for Disney. I think he still owns a cabin in Mineral King, which is how our cabin friend knew him. We were offered a tour of our friend's cabin if we showed up after our hike, so we put it on our list!

Our purported goal for the day's hike was Eagle Lake, but we were willing to turn back if that seemed unobtainable. The day was much warmer than we had expected, but that made the temperature perfect. The trail gradient was excellent. I think we hardly saw anybody else on the trail (excepting a deer and her fawn, who went right down the hill on our trail). As we got into higher elevations, we started to see more patches of snow. We then encountered this magnificent site of a field of snow beneath towering granite walls:

We hiked to the top of the snow and had our lunch looking out over a gorgeous vista of Sierran peaks. The continuation of the trail was virtually indistinguishable after that point and we were satisfied with our hiking accomplishments. We got our promised tour of the cabin--constructed in 1931 on the site of an old miner's cabin--and had an enjoyable conversation with the residents. My favorite part of that was when the man said that he'd like go on a tour of Disneyland with me. "Actually," I replied, "I've co-authored two Disneyland trivia books, one of which is called 101 Things You Never Knew About Disneyland and points out things in today's Disneyland..." "I think I have that book!" his wife exclaimed. That's still the only "stranger" I've encountered to have one of my books! The sleeping arrangement of the kids outside on the deck reminded Bob of spending time at a family cabin in Idyllwild. Also on the way out from the hike I got my favorite photograph of the Mineral King valley, looking south toward Farewell Gap:

The next morning we drove up to the valley one more time for some last looks and photos (the marmots were out sunning themselves) and then made the long, winding trek back down the Mineral King road. On the way out we followed a car with a "Save Disney" bumper sticker--a sentiment I found terrifically ironic in Mineral King.

More photos are available from June 30, July 1, and July 2.

I'll have more reports on Mineral King in the future. I've done extensive research on the project and collected quite a few sources--it was a very long, very public effort to develop the Mineral King valley for winter recreation. I'm writing about it for a research paper right now and for eventual incorporation into my master's thesis, so I hope to be able to use some of my writing for "double duty."


Vintage Disneyland Tickets said...

Great Post! Bob Gurr sure seems like a nice man. I bet that was a blast hearing the "Bear Band" demos at MK, I am sure that's a first!

I can't wait to hear more about MK, there is very little out there on the subject.

Hey, your "101 Things" book is fascinating. Disneyland freak that I am, I actually learned a few things!

Thanks for sharing.

mistryl said...

Wow, it's really beautiful up there. Awesome photos!

I know you've gone camping with Bob quite a few times, but I've never really heard any details about any of the trips, so that was cool.

Aw, marmots are cute. I had no idea they were such pests!

Haha, someone from IRC (remember Liz?) saw Quizdom on the desk of one of her co-workers. She was like "omg, I KNOW those people." Heh.

Anonymous said...

I remember a scene from a Wonderful World of Color program where Mickey Mouse is throwing fake snow over a model of Mineral King. Do you know what show that was?

Jason Schultz said...

Sundaynight, I'm only familiar with the Disney anthology shows that are focused on Disneyland, so I do not know which episode that might have been--but it sounds intriguing!

Anonymous said...

This is in reference to an item from a few posts ago. You mentioned a story about Van France bribing construction workers w/ alcohol, but you didn't know where it was.
That story is actually from the same book you quoted, "Window on Main Street." It's only a few pages later, on page 30, second paragraph from the top in the paperback edition.

Jason Schultz said...

Thanks Matthew!

Kim said...

I love that photo (You know the one)... :P

Anonymous said...

This is a beautiful area!! I have to admit I have not heard of it, but I will be adding it to my travel list that I plan on ticking off travels from next summer. I can't retire, but I will be able to work from wherever then.