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Mineral King's beauty worth a beastly drive

After a hair-raising ride to the Sequoia park community, weary visitors encounter a breathtaking valley ringed by 11,000-foot peaks.

June 06, 2004|Vani Rangachar | Times Staff Writer

Mineral King, Calif. — For those who find comfort in numbers: There are 698 curves on the 25-mile road from Three Rivers to Mineral King in southern Sequoia National Park.

Our family clearly was flirting with danger on 1 1/2-lane-wide Mineral King Road, part paved, part potholed and more kinked than a Slinky.

By the time we completed the six-hour drive north from Los Angeles to this 7,500-foot-high mountain community last October, I was exhausted from pushing the passenger-side brake pedal.

But sometimes a place that takes some effort to reach is all the sweeter. That's what I thought when I pulled up with my husband, Barry, and my daughter, Meera, to the general store at the Silver City Mountain Resort, bedecked with an American flag and an old-fashioned gas pump in front. The sight took me back to an earlier time. My pulse slowed; my calf muscles unclenched.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 16, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
High-altitude cooking -- A June 6 Travel section Weekend Escape article about Mineral King, Calif., said water takes twice as long to boil at high altitude as at sea level. Water boils at lower temperatures at high altitudes.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 20, 2004 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Mineral King -- A June 6 Weekend Escape ["Mineral King's Beauty Worth a Beastly Drive"] incorrectly said water takes twice as long to boil at high altitude as at sea level. Water boils at lower temperatures at high altitudes.

The century-old road does its part to prevent crowds. For the few visitors who meet its challenge each year, a treat awaits: Mineral King's take-your-breath-away-gorgeous valley, sculpted into a bowl by glaciers and framed by 11,000-foot peaks. Add meadows studded with wildflowers and soaring sequoias and aspens, and bisected with clattering brooks, and it's almost fairy-tale perfect.

To get a picture of just how scenic Mineral King is, it helps to know that in the mid-'60s, Walt Disney Co. planned to put a 27-lift ski resort here. Disney did not succeed with its grandiose vision, thanks to the efforts of environmentalists and Mineral King's residents. In 1978 Mineral King was annexed to Sequoia National Park, and further private development stalled.

Boom to bust

Lucky for us, Mineral King probably looks much as it did in 1873, when Porterville farmer and prospector James Crabtree filed a mining claim among these peaks. Rumors that the ore was as abundant as Nevada's Comstock Lode sparked a silver rush. The next year 166 mining claims were filed, and the valley held 36 mill sites. But the boom turned out to be a flash in the pan, and within 10 years most mining operations had gone bust.

Soon afterward, Mineral King's potential as a vacation retreat was recognized. At the turn of the last century, Central Valley residents escaped scorching summers here, and later the area served as a hunting preserve. Many of the cabins that line Mineral King Road date to the 1920s and 1930s, and their owners have ties to the area that go back generations.

That's the case with Connie Pillsbury, who owns Silver City with her husband, Norman. Her family has owned the resort's cabins, restaurant and general store for 70 years.

They're open May 28 to Oct. 16 this year, and if you want a warm bed and citified comforts, the resort is the only choice in Mineral King. The park service runs two campgrounds that are filled first come, first served.

Scattered across the Pillsburys' 15.2 acres are 14 cabins, which range from a rustic hiker's hut with only a double bed, sink and shared showers and bathroom for $70 a night, to the three-bedroom Jungfrau Chalet with two queen beds and four twins for $275 a night.

We rented the Alpine Chalet, a small, honey-pine, Swiss-style cabin with a steeply pitched roof and a porch for $187 plus tax a night, a discounted rate offered off-season (before June 11 and after Sept. 19). With three bedrooms and a cozy, paneled living room, the tidy, clean cabin held more than enough room for three adults to spread out. The wood-burning stove came with wood, and the fully equipped kitchen included a stove and refrigerator.

For a place with no TV or telephone, there was plenty of entertainment -- of the quiet kind. An alcove held two shelves of newsmagazines, "Chicken Soup" books and a couple of John Grisham novels, plus Monopoly, Scrabble, Taboo and jigsaw puzzles.

We had to bring sheets and towels, but the beds had pillows, blankets and quilts, which we needed because the nights turned chilly fast.

We also brought groceries for one dinner and a couple of breakfasts and lunches. Silver City has a restaurant with fewer than a dozen tables, and during the summer it serves breakfast, lunch and dinner Thursdays through Mondays. But when we were there, it was open only for Saturday dinner.

So Friday night I made lamb chops and spinach in our chalet's kitchen, and we went to bed soon after the sun did, falling asleep to the murmurs of a creek.

Saturday morning we got a late start, in part because of my failure to remember elemental physics. Cooking at 7,000 feet takes more time. Even boiling water took twice as long as at sea level. So far I had accidentally overcooked lamb chops and pancakes but under-heated water for tea. At least, I figured, no thermal alchemy was needed to prepare our picnic lunch on the mountain.

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