Outdoorsy 1: - Mineral King, Sequoia National Park's Hidden Gem

Sep 13, 2016

Yay! You made it to Outdoorsy. This is Valley Public Radio’s new podcast, in which we explore wild places in California and interview the people who enjoy them.

We – reporters Ezra David Romero and Kerry Klein – are excited to share some of our favorite places and outdoor activities. We both consider ourselves pretty “Outdoorsy,” though we're coming at this from two different backgrounds.

Ezra’s explored the Sierra Nevada his whole life. He grew up near Fresno and his love for the outdoors started on childhood camping trips with his dad and brothers. Since then he’s camped, hiked, kayaked, and done a few survival training camps and nature scavenger hunts.

Kerry’s a backpacker and camper, too, plus she's into rock climbing and bicycling. She’s new to this area, having grown up exploring the Berkshires and White Mountains in New England. The Sierra Nevada is totally different – in a great way – and Kerry’s been looking for places to go.

Mineral King is full of beautiful views, vistas, lakes and meadows.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

Despite our separate experiences with the Sierra Nevada, we’ve both found that a lot of Californians don’t know about much about the outdoors beyond Yosemite Valley and the Giant Sequoias.

And many people don’t even go to those places, either. So we decided to make a podcast about the outdoors and the people who love them. We’ll also throw in some tips and pointers along the way, like what gear to bring and what to eat.

In this first podcast, we take you to Mineral King.

The reward at the end of a very long road

Mineral King is perhaps Sequoia National Park’s best kept secret. 

Sequoia is where the famous big trees are – but Mineral King is quite a ways south. The only way to get there is to take Highway 99 to Visalia and head east on route 198, a two-lane highway that slowly climbs into the mountains.

After a tiny town called Three Rivers, a turnoff leads onto a long, windy mountain road that’s only open when there's no snow on the ground – usually between Memorial Day and October. And when we say long, it’s really long, like 30 miles. But it’s actually quite fun. From Fresno the whole trip takes about two and half hours.

You will be totally rewarded for that long drive. Mineral King is a stunning valley at about 10,000 feet that was carved by glaciers. Picture flower-filled meadows, steep granite hillsides leading up to jagged peaks with names like "Sawtooth," and cascading lakes and waterfalls.

Franklin Lake at Mineral King, Sequoia National Park
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

Below all that, the Kaweah River cuts through the valley. This area has attracted prospectors, Native Americans and even Disney.

There's a lot to do at Mineral King. Ezra went day hiking and car camping, and Kerry went backpacking. In this show, we talk about our trips, explore the area's history, and talk with an expert about how to buy a backpack.

"At some time the whole valley became taboo"

Louise Jackson is in her 80s and she knows a lot about Mineral King. She’s a local historian and her family was one of the first pioneering families to settle in the subalpine glacial valley in the 1870s.

“My great great grandfather built the road up here,” says Jackson. “Our family considers ourselves to be very much part of Mineral King.”

This region has such a rich history and mystery. That mystery starts off with Native Americans. They used the area as a trading trail 3,000 years ago.

Louise Jackson's family history in the Mineral King area dates back to the 1940s.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

“At some time the whole valley became taboo,” Jackson explains. “The ancestors of the native people never passed on what it was exactly that said the people should no longer come in here. So when the first miners came in and the road was going to be built, the fellow who had the franchise to build the road could not get the local Indians during a really difficult drought and recession to come up here and work the road even though they were hungry. There was something that was scary, but they never revealed it.”

"Roy Disney, who ran the finances of the Disney Corporation, never did want to be here – and Walt, who was the big skier, wanted it."

In the 1870s, Mineral King wasn’t part of Sequoia National Park. Prospectors came here to mine gold and silver. Those metals didn't pan out –but what did was a mineral called galena, which contains lead.

In the 1940s, skiing became popular in America. The Forest Service opened up the area to the idea of being developed. It’s remote, but it got the attention of some really high profile people, like a Hollywood producer and actress – and even Disney.

“[Disney] did not ask the Forest Service to open it up yet, but just on the sly they began gathering property here,” Jackson adds.

One by one Disney began buying up property in the mountain valley. But that move disturbed people who cared about the region. The Sierra Club took the U.S. government to court to try and protect the land from development. That case made it all the way to the Supreme Court.

The Sierra Club lost the case. So Disney could have built here, but “Roy Disney, who ran the finances of the Disney Corporation, never did want to be here – and Walt, who was the big skier, wanted it,” says Jackson. “Walt Disney died and that took care of that as far as Roy was concerned. They put all their money in Disney World in Florida.”

But the lawsuit did something good, too.  Jackson explains, “the dissenting opinion probably set up the most succinct background and defining purpose of the environmental movement as to why the land is a proper litigant. The land could speak for itself.”

Justice William Douglas wrote that famous dissent. Click here for the full text. Mineral King became part of Sequoia National Park in 1978.

Hiking, camping and backpacking

When Ezra went to Mineral King, he and his friends hiked to a place called Franklin Lake. It's 13 miles round-trip. Back at the campground, they had a low-key night and made dinner, drank a few beers, and went to sleep.

Kerry's experience was similar, but she had to get a wilderness permit – one of the biggest differences between day hiking and backpacking at Mineral King. To get a permit, you have to show up at the ranger station – in person – and it closes at 4 p.m.

She and her friends got there at 3:50, and a smiley ranger named Alicia helped them out. She gave them her ranger spiel: pack out all trash, don’t step off trails, and keep all food and scented things in the bear canister. The usual stuff. Then she said something Kerry had heard before: that she should wrap up her car.

Rangers advise backpackers parking at Mineral King more than a few days to fend off marmots by wrapping their cars in tarps.
Credit Kerry Klein/KVPR

"Just lay the tarp down, drive over it, then if you have cord or bungees, wrap it around," she said. "Basically you want to make sure that the wheel wells are covered and the whole bottom half of the car or else they'll still be able to get in."

The “they” she’s talking about are marmots – fat rodents that look like a mix between squirrels and groundhogs. They’re notorious for sneaking into camps and stealing food – and apparently, sneaking into cars, if they’re parked there long enough, and gnawing through spark plugs and other wiring. So the parking lot is full of cars and trucks that basically look like they’re in diapers.

But Alicia points out that this kind of damage is actually quite rare. Plus, tarps are cheap, and wrapping a car is really easy.

After diapering their car, Kerry and her friends hiked a mile to Groundhog Meadow. The only campers in the meadow that night, they slept next to a waterfall and fell asleep to the sound of rushing water. After waking up with tea and oatmeal, they hiked about three miles to Monarch Lakes, where hikers were picnicking, fishing and setting up tents. Some even had a snowball fight with the one remaining patch of snow (and this was August, by the way).

Camping at Crystal Lake.
Credit Kerry Klein/KVPR

But Kerry and her friends moved on. They hiked to Crystal Lake, a gorgeous and nearly pristine lake about three miles beyond Monarch Lakes. Crystal perfectly encapsulates that Mineral King postcard of dramatic mountain peaks and colorful hillsides dotted with wildflowers and bright blue lakes. It was nearly perfect destination, but beware: the hike to get there is pretty strenuous.

Eager to get into backpacking? Start here

While Ezra hiked back to a campground each night, Kerry needed to pack everything she needed for three days in order to camp along the trail. And one of the essentials of backpacking is, of course, the backpack itself. So we've brought you a self-taught backpack expert to explain how she got started and what she looks for in a good pack.

Meet Elizabeth Fralicks, a woman with nine different backpacks. "The quest for the perfect backpack is ongoing," she laughs.

Fralicks actually has an entire room dedicated to outdoor gear, including a map on the wall of where she’s been.

"We day hike almost every weekend," she says, "and then in the summer, we backpack. Let's see...this summer, I probably did 100 miles backpacking."

Her first big hike was Half Dome. It’s a tough hike in Yosemite that involves a somewhat treacherous cable ladder.

"I made an attempt with all of my sisters on my 50th birthday," she says. "We didn’t know very much about it, and the cables weren’t up, so we got to the sub-dome and then we had to come back. But it was enough of a taste. The preparation for that is really what got me hooked."

Within no time, she had signed up for an 83-mile, 9-day trip across the Sierra to Mt. Whitney. This all after her 50th birthday. We at Outdoorsy think she's pretty badass.

"I am someone who came late to backpacking," she says, "but have developed a passion for it to kind of make up for lost time."

Naturally, when she first began backpacking, she didn’t know a lot about what gear to buy.

Elizabeth Fralicks in her gear room.
Credit Kerry Klein/KVPR

"The first backpack I bought, I made quite a few mistakes because I went all for comfort without thinking about the amount of weight I was going to carry," she says. "So I bought a really heavy backpack. It weighed six pounds. I had no scale in what my head of what that meant."

Her bag was heavy. Really heavy. When you backpack, you’re not just carrying clothes and water, but also bulky things like a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, all your food and maybe a bear canister. So aside from weight, bags that size are also measured in liters.

My daypack, my "old faithful;" I think it's a 25 liter. My multi-day pack is 60 and opens up to 65 liters," she says. But, "I think a lot of people get by with a lot less. They can carry a bear canister in a 50 liter depending on how much they want to carry on the outside of the pack."

And, Fralicks says, it’s important to make sure it fits.

"My first clue is if it's dragging on my shoulders," she says. "If it's pulling on my shoulders I've got something that's not adjusted correctly. It really is worth the time to go in and get fitted and to buy the right size to begin with."

Is there a difference between men's and women's packs? Fralicks says yes.

Fralicks: I've been using a men's pack right now, a small men's pack, and I have noticed that women's straps are cut in on a curve, and I could feel the men's pack rubbing my shoulders. So if there is a difference that might be it. Other than that I've read that they might have more padding on the hips, I read about women who have problems with blistering across their hips. [0:22]

Really, Fralicks says, there are no rules. You just have to figure out what’s right for you.

"I think that if you're going to start, you should try to borrow and get on blogs and talk to friends and find out as much as you can that way," she says. "Before you go out and invest a bunch of money. Don't be embarrassed; most backpackers are just thrilled to share their hobby with you, and if they have extra stuff they'll loan it to you. And then I'd say don't be afraid of making mistakes. Cause if you really get into backpacking, in two years you're not going to have the same stuff you started with. Just get out there and do it. "

A happy stomach for the drive home

If backpacking doesn’t really sound like your thing, there’s still something for everyone at Mineral King.

Those not quite ready to jump into the outdoors can book a cabin at Silver City Mountain Resort - the same place where hikers coming off the trail can grab a beer, a burger or – our favorite – pie. Ezra's choice: peach with a scoop of ice cream. Kerry recommends the "razzle dazzle."

Peach Pie at Silver City Mountain Resort, Sequoia National Park
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

Whichever one you get, it's sure to make the drive home a whole lot more pleasant.