We'd just taken aim on a slice of chocolate walnut pie a la mode when someone sounded the alarm: "BEAR!"
My husband, John, and I dropped our spoons and bolted out of the Silver City restaurant, joining about a dozen other awe-struck spectators in the early summer twilight. Sure enough, there stood a young black bear--posing nonchalantly atop a nearby tree stump for a minute or two before ambling back into the tangle of white pines and incense-cedars behind him.
"Just another 'Saturday Night Live' in Mineral King," shrugged pie-maker Connie Jones, whose family has owned the Silver City restaurant, a small adjoining store and surrounding cluster of rustic cabins in the Mineral King area for six decades.
Barely 24 hours after arriving in this isolated southern swath of Sequoia National Park by way of a tortuous mountain road that made Big Sur's California 1 feel like the Santa Ana Freeway, our wildlife count was the stuff of a city slicker's dreams.
Fifteen mule deer (not including the mother and newborn fawn a previous guest had spotted behind our cabin a few days earlier). Several six-inch-long rainbow trout, their cinnamon-hued gills flashing in the clear, icy waters of the alpine lake we'd ridden horses to that morning. And hordes of Yellow-bellied marmots--sassy, squirrel-like creatures with a voracious and unexplained appetite for vehicle hoses, fan belts and electrical wiring. (Marmots are prolific year-round Mineral King residents, but their yen for radiator fluid apparently peaks in late spring and early summer.)
Not a bad average for two wilderness novices whose hiking boots are buried in the garage and whose idea of "camping" is a 30-foot chartered sailboat with hot shower and plenty of ice. Our three-day getaway was shaping up to be just what we'd wanted: a taste of the High Sierra, sans tents or blisters.
Perched a heart-pounding 7,800 feet above sea level at the edge of the Great Western Divide about 5 1/2 hours northeast of Los Angeles, the glacier-carved Mineral King Valley was the center of a short-lived silver mining boom in the late 1870s. But it was "white gold"--frequent, abundant snowfall--that yanked the area out of subsequent obscurity. Walt Disney's controversial plans to turn Mineral King into a major ski resort were thwarted in 1978, when the region was added to Sequoia National Park and protected from further development. Today, the saw-toothed peaks remain largely untrammeled--the summertime province of backpackers with lungs and legs sturdy enough to handle trails that climb precipitously to nearly 12,000 feet. Not all are up to the challenge: The mid-June weekend we visited, rangers were scaling back a search for a solo day hiker who'd been missing for five days. He emerged, hungry but unhurt, the day before we left.
From Los Angeles it's a pleasantly innocuous four-hour drive on California 99 and 198 to Three Rivers, a small resort town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. But those last 25 miles on Mineral King Road, a mostly paved route that dates back to the silver mining years and is closed from November to May, depending on snowfall, call for Dramamine and steely nerves. The narrow, dusty road hugs the boulder-choked East Fork of the Kaweah River most of the way, climbing steadily through a succession of chaparral, oak and pine. Fifteen m.p.h. is considered top speed, thanks to gut-wrenching potholes and a dizzying number of curves (698, for those obsessive--or frightened--enough to count).
By the time we'd arrived at Silver City, a private community of about 100 summer residents that's surrounded by national park land, we were ready to stretch our legs and take deep gulps of the cool, pine-scented air.
Our weekend base was Dale and Connie Jones' Silver City resort--the only lodging option in Mineral King, aside from wilderness camping (permits required) and a $5-per-night in one of 60 first-come, first-served spaces at two campgrounds. For $60 per night, our snug one-bedroom cabin offered bare-bones charm in a family-friendly setting. It was furnished with kerosene-fueled hurricane lamps and a wood-burning stove, plenty of wall hooks for hanging jackets and packs, a single and double bed, and a few well-placed cotton rugs that came in handy on mornings when the thermometer flirted with 40 degrees . . . especially when I realized I could see daylight between cracks in the unfinished pine walls. Men's and women's bathhouses, with toilets and hot showers, were a few yards away--next to a playground with slide, swings and a trapeze-like contraption that elicited squeals of glee from the children who congregated there.
Our cabin included a deck with charcoal barbecue and picnic table and kitchen with gas stove and cooking utensils, a setup that made us wish we'd brought along a stocked cooler (the resort doesn't supply ice). But we were happy to settle for a green salad, a bowl of Connie's beef stew and glass of jug burgundy for $9 per person, served in a dining room whose windows looked past freshly planted geraniums to mountain ridges that glinted in the setting sun.
The next morning, after wolfing down a breakfast of French toast and oatmeal, we drove another four miles to the end of Mineral King Road, where our reward was a glistening meadow with open vistas of avalanche-scoured peaks.
We would have been content to stake out a perch along the gurgling river that cut through the valley, but we were also curious about the spoke of trails that led into the mountains. So we took the "wilderness for wimps" option: a day-long, $50-per-person horseback ride from the Mineral King Pack Station to Franklin Lakes, a pair of impossibly blue bowls about 5 1/2 miles above the valley floor.
Led by an amiable singing cowboy named Kevin (whose repertoire ranged from "It's a Small World" to "Heartbreak Hotel"), we tramped through patches of snow, past lush clusters of lupine and corn lilies, and next to a waterfall so loud I mistook it for an airplane long before I spotted it. But the real payoff was the lakeside clearing where we tied the horses to a gnarled juniper tree, attacked a picnic lunch of tangelos and dried fruit we'd bought from a Central Valley roadside market the day before, and reveled in the fact that we were the only humans in sight.
Our final morning in Mineral King, we decided to work off our saddle sores with a stroll under our own power. Equipped with a map, bottled water, extra sweaters and copious quantities of trail mix we headed for a logging camp-turned-campground called Atwell Mill.
The gentle, mile-long descent from the campground to the East Fork of the Kaweah was a pleasant one, and once again we found ourselves alone on the trail. Alone, except for a solitary giant sequoia that loomed out of the surrounding forest with a palpable sense of majesty.
Tiptoeing through the underbrush, we stood for a moment in the shadow of a 20-foot-high, fire-caused gash in the sequoia's trunk. It was a fitting spot to reflect on the beauty of one of earth's oldest living things--and to congratulate ourselves on braving the road to Mineral King.
Budget for Two
Gas: $ 25.00
Lunch, Three Rivers: 17.57
Cabin, two nights: 132.00
Saturday picnic makings: 9.00
Park entrance fee: 5.00
Breakfasts and dinners, Silver City: 56.75
Day-long horseback ride: 100.00
Pocket hiking guide, map: 11.00
Sunday fast-food lunch: 8.00
FINAL TAB: $364.32
Cabin reservations: Silver City Store, P.O. Box 56, Three Rivers 93271; tel. (209) 561-3223. General information: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Three Rivers; (209) 565-3341.