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Mineral King: Tucked Away in the Sierras

IN THE August 15 ISSUE

FROM THE 2020 Articles,
andArts & Entertainment,
andJim Mulligan
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by Jim Mulligan

I’m always a little taken aback when I learn that someone who lives in the Central Valley has never visited Yosemite, or has never seen, in person, the majestic Giant Sequoias that have grown in the Sierras so near to us for over 3,000 years. Of course, people actually flock from all corners of the Earth to visit these natural wonders. All the more reason to question why us local residents wouldn’t take advantage of a quick trip to enjoy these amazing locations right in our backyard. I guess sometimes it’s just hard to see the forest for the trees. What I mean in this case is, there is so much nature to explore so near to us, sometimes we just don’t notice what we might be missing.

My wife and I have always been pretty outdoorsy. This summer, in order to comply with social distancing, and to try to stay as safe as possible, enjoying the outdoors of the Sierras has been our go-to activity. We’ve hiked up and down a few thousand feet of Alpine-like inclines and traversed a little over 100 miles on foot, taking in some views that you’ll never see from your car. We’ve visited places we love and we’ve seen places for the first time. It was at the end of a June hike to Mitchell Peak in the Sierra National Forest, between Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, that we struck up a conversation with some fellow hikers. “Have you hiked Mineral King yet this year?” they asked. My wife and I both looked at each other. “Mineral King?” we mumbled to ourselves. We had heard of it, but we had never been there.

This is my hiking buddy, Pedro Herrera, and me at Crystal Lake, 10,800 feet.

As we parted ways with those hikers, they shouted, “Make sure to get to Mineral King soon. The road is a bear, but so worth it. It’s like the Swiss Alps of California!”

As we hopped in our Jeep to head down the mountain, we couldn’t help but chuckle to ourselves and roll our eyes like we were teenagers being scolded by our parents, “Right, the Swiss Alps of California.” We’ve been to the Swiss Alps. While the Sierra Nevada Mountain range is majestic, beautiful and awe-inspiring, it’s not the Swiss Alps. The Sierras are beautiful, majestic and awe-inspiring in their own right. And, it’s a three-hour drive from Reedley to Mineral King. We might get there, someday.

Wait a minute! Didn’t I begin this monologue bemoaning the fact that some locals never venture to the gems that are so close to our homes? The next week, I asked my wife if we should try the twisting drive to Mineral King. Not having visited a locale is often the only reason we travel, so, we were off on a day drive to explore the unknown. Whether it would live up to the lofty descriptions of those hikers the week prior, we would see.

Mineral King is a glacially carved valley, like its geological cousin to the north, Yosemite. It is the headwaters for the east fork of the Kaweah River. It’s about seven miles long and one mile wide. The floor of the valley rests at about 7,400 feet, quite a bit higher than Yosemite’s 4,000-foot valley floor. Like much of the Sierras, it is inhabited by Mule Deer, Black Bears, Marmots, Picas, Blue Grouse, and a myriad of other fauna that a lucky hiker might stumble upon. The Indigenous Yokut likely camped and hunted in the valley many years ago. It almost became the location for a Disney ski resort in the 1960s until conservationists won the battle to preserve it as is. It became a part of Sequoia National Park in 1978. While it is part of the park, it has its own entrance road, a road not for those prone to queasiness. It is 25 miles of slow, back and forth jarring, that slowly climbs from Three Rivers to the top; it takes about an hour and half.

Marmots abound in Mineral King, although they are shy and move quickly. They are about the size of a fat cat.

I will not mince words. When we finally broke through the trees as we reached the road’s end, we were stunned by the first views of the valley to the east, and the steep granite walls, the lower portions of which were covered in soft meadow-like greenery. Streams snaked their way through the center of the valley supporting green grasses and multitudes of wild flowers. Granite ridges high above and granite remnants scattered below provided just the right contrast to the lush greenery that abounded. Yes, it was reminiscent of the Swiss Alps, very different from the rest of the Sierras, even from the wooded area from which we had just emerged. As this was just a scouting trip, we spent about an hour admiring the beauty visible in and around where we parked, but we knew we had to come back very soon and explore by foot up into the valley and ridges beyond.

The green hillsides of Mineral King Valley are reminiscent of the Swiss Alps

The very next week we planned to meet some hiking buddies for a 10-mile round-trip journey to a high mountain lake in Mineral King. I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t hard. Every trail that leads out of the two trailheads on the valley floor ascend, and keep ascending. Our goal that day was Crystal Lake, located just five miles from our car but at an elevation of 10,800 feet, a gain of 3,400 feet. A hiker’s hard work climbing any one of the trails into the upper regions of the Sierras is soon rewarded with splendid views that many people never see in person, and are rarely captured well by a camera. This hike was one of the most strenuous I’ve ever taken, but the hills did not disappoint. Along the second half of the walk to the lake we were dazzled by the heavenly vistas all around.

Kristi, my wife, on the trail back to the valley floor, with a breathtaking view of the Sierras looking west.

Hiking in the high altitudes of the grand Sierra Nevada mountain range may not be for you; it is definitely not for everyone. But, if you have not driven over Tioga Pass in Yosemite, taken the serpentine road to Mineral King, hugged a 3,000-year-old Giant Sequoia tree, or visited any number of the many mountain gems so near to our small town, you won’t be sorry you took the time to do so.

Marmots can wreak havoc on vehicles left at the trailhead parking. They often climb under the cars and chew on anything they think might be chewable. Wrapping the car from underneath keeps them at bay.

Jim Mulligan is a 6th generation Californian, born and raised in Selma. He has been employed in Reedley on and off for the last twenty years. He married his college sweetheart, a Reedley-ite, Kristi. They now reside in Reedley with their five children. Jim loves to create Bonsai and travel as much as possible, both near and far. He is a member of the KCUSD Board of Trustees and is employed by Reedley College as the Tutorial Coordinator.

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