Mineral King, CA: The Road Less Traveled in the Sequoias

Panoramic view of Mineral King Valley

 

 

 

Meadow accessible from Cold Springs campground trail

Mineral King, a scarcely known destination within California, is a gem to behold; it’s a destination in league with the Swiss Alps.  Arrival at such a location is not accidental though; it took our family about 3.5 hours to get from Los Angeles to Visalia.  Continuing on to the town of Three Rivers, we braved an arduous drive up the 25-mile windy Mineral King Road, this last segment taking 1.5-2 hours to complete.

 

 

 

 

The drive

This area is located inside a quiet portion of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, and it is open from May through October.  The more familiar parts of Sequoia National Park are some distance away.  In terms of the habitat, most of the terrain on the drive up was chaparral – grasses, oak trees, manzanita bushes.  A little more than an hour into our accent, we entered a coniferous forest filled with redwoods (Sequoias), firs, and Jeffrey Pines. Little was growing on the ground, other than the parts of the forest that receive enough light to allow ferns to sprout.  The eventual goal of Mineral King Valley leads visitors to a subalpine environment with sparsely planted conifers and lucious meadows with lupine and indian paintbrush blooms.

Our destination was Cold Springs Campground, 23 miles up this road.  There are only two campgrounds that are located in this area — Atwell Mill and Cold Springs campground. Both of which are operated by the National Park Service and both are first-come first-served, with no reservations possible.  There is no cell reception in the area, though there are pay phones in the campgrounds.  Atwell Mill is a dark forested area 19 miles up, with stumps of giant trees — many of which are 6-8 feet wide. The ancient kingly stumps linger there amongst newer trees. I wish I could have been there to see these wonderful trees when they were alive.

One of those beautiful stumps at Atwell Mill
Silver City Store

Higher up on the road, around mile 21, we hit Silver City Resort. In front of the resort store is an old gas pump. I remember my dad pumping gas out of this very pump, 30 years ago! Inside the store — shirts, sweatshirts, coolant hoses for your car (a subject to which I will return to later), emergency stoves, and other gifts are for sale. In the adjacent restaurant, one can get a huge cup of coffee, a glass of wine, a salad, or a hearty burger. The restaurant also sell pies — various seasonal fruit, chocolate walnut, and pecan pie. Beware: In this store — no ice or milk or other groceries are sold; or gas.   After reading online prior, we stocked up on food and topped off the gas at the base of the hills before heading up the mountain, in the town of Three Rivers.

Rock Family Cabin

At Silver City Resort, there are three types of cabins which can be reserved — historical cabins, family cabins, and deluxe cabins. The family and historical cabins have been there for some time. Rustic, they are made of unfinished wood and they have propane lamps in each room. Most of these cabins feature stoves and fridges. A few even have bathrooms. The chalets are Silver City’s newest development. They have several rooms, huge glass windows, nicely situated outdoor fire rings, and generous decks surrounding the structures. In these cabins, there is a place for everyone!

2 miles up the road, one can find the final campground (and our destination), Cold Springs campground. This campground is bigger, and has more growth than Atwell Mill. There are 40 spots, nestled amongst boulders, various pine trees and various green shrubs. About 12 of the spots have direct access to the Kaweah River.

Kaweah River access from our site at Cold Springs campground

When we were there in late June, the river was moving very swiftly. Signs around the park, as well as a personal visit from a ranger told up to not go in; the river can surprise people who fall in and and drag people along.  This mighty river drowned out most discussion and noise from our neighbors. The spots in this campground are in general large, some could fit 2-3 tents, though only 1 car is permitted per site. The sites in both campgrounds are first come, first served. During the week campers should find ample space, but on a Friday, arrive by 10 am to get a nice site.

Another fact to consider — bears! In each site there are generous-sized bear lockers that must be used. All of your shampoos, food, wipes, even toothpaste must go in there.  There are signs everywhere saying no food, coolers, or perfumed products should be left in vehicles at any time.

Continuing on towards the end of the road, one will next hit the ranger station. Check in here to get backpacking permits and maps. To backpack in the high country, hikers must get a permit.

Marmot proofing!

At the end of the paved road, travelers will see various historical cabins and several parking lots.  In the lots, another one of the of the unique curiosities of this area presents itself – marmots — super large rodents (like a big squirrels with a beaver type tail).  They can be found sunbathing on the rocks near the parking lots.  If permitted (and not prevented), they will eat hoses underneath your car.  To put a stop to this activity, one must lay out a tarp, drive over it, and wrap the bottom of their car with a tarp using rope and winding it around the top of the car.  After seeing at least half of the cars wrapped, you will want to wrap yours as well!

Petting mules at the packing station

From these lots, adventurers can access the trails — the wonderful trails!  The sculpted alpine valley contains trails leading to Mosquito Lakes, Franklin Lake, Tar Gap, Sawtooth Peak, and Eagle Lake. Most people like to get an early start. When we went hiking midweek, we only hit 2-3 parties on the trail. The area had a lovely remote feeling.

Trail to Farewell Gap/Franklin Lakes through Mineral King Valley (easy)

It is bright up there also. Bring a hat and sunscreen. Even just taking the valley trail, hikers climb to 8,500 feet. Oxygen felt a bit thin for sure

Unique Sawtooth Peak

Remote, beautiful, and untouristed, Mineral King is a treasure and worthy of the long trip in.

This article is related to my California history curriculum — I grew up going to many of these places year after year. I am making a practice of revisiting them as an adult, visiting one to two locations each year.  Stay tuned for more reviews!

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