"Beware of marmots," read the signs. I've seen marmots before, cute furry animals about the size of a large cat. I scoff until I see the parked cars, tarped and covered with chicken wire, baling wire, duct tape, and whatever else is handy:
You think I'm kidding? The NPS explains:
In Mineral King, parking lots and cabins were built in an area occupied by marmots, creating attractants for their desire for cover and new opportunities for their chewing habits and quest for minerals. During the spring, the marmots regularly take apart the under-side of numerous vehicles to go after anti-freeze.... Several hundred marmots have been involved. Some marmots have even exited the park when vehicles were driven away with an unsuspecting marmot hidden under the hood. The distance record to date is when one marmot caught a ride to Santa Monica, CA.
Come hike with me in remote, spectacular Mineral King, high in southern Sequoia National Park.
If you wish to hike Mineral King with me, first you must travel the dreaded road to get there. Signs explain a 25 mile, winding road -- I've driven those!, with 698 turns, constructed in the 1920s and not improved much since then -- I can handle that!, not recommended for RVs and trailers -- good!, one lane, partially paved -- well, washouts happen, estimated travel time 90 minutes -- to travel 25 miles? WTF? are they serious? This road is highly recommended for certain people:
* those who own stock in DramamineAll others, beware.
* those who think San Francisco's Lombard Street and Maui's road to Hana are too tame
* those who wish to emulate the ending of Thelma & Louise
At 24.94 miles on the road, I'm at the ranger station (elevation 7800 ft) just before the Disney Bridge. Why is it called the Disney Bridge? you ask. Ah, good question. Geographically, Mineral King resembles Telluride, Colorado: a flat-bottomed box canyon hemmed in on three sides by steep, ski-slope-shaped, relatively treeless mountains. Mineral King was supposed to share Telluride's fate. The National Forest Service ("land of many uses!" signs helpfully inform me) planned to lease the entire Mineral King to a private developer for a ski resort. Walt Disney Co., the highest bidder, planned Disney's Snow Crown, the largest ski resort in California, with 2 hotels, 12 restaurants, and 27 ski lifts handling 2 million visitors each winter. Walt Disney himself traveled to Mineral King in 1966 to announce his plans. However, he ran headlong into the environmental movement, which for some bizarre reason didn't share his vision for Mineral King. In 1978 the controversy ended with most of Mineral King annexed to Sequoia National Park, but Disney still owns small parts...hence the name, Disney Bridge. Disney trivia: the Country Bear Jamboree was originally planned to entertain Mineral King guests apres ski.
At more-or-less dawn, I set out along Farewell Canyon:
Within just a few hundred yards I run into my first couple of marmots:
I try to name the wildflowers I see; summer camp, college classes, and Sierra Club hikes all blur together badly. The red ones might be shooting stars, and the blue ones (in the lower right corner of this photo) are mountain bluebells?
This is a lupin (Texas bluebonnet), with another mountain bluebell in the background. At home in Southern California, lupins bring spring, growing in glorious blue-and-gold profusion alongside California poppies. Here, it's July and they're still gorgeous:
As the sun rises above sharp peaks, well-named Crystal Creek trickles down:
The trail angles away from the river bottom and begins a steep ascent. My guidebook has helpfully informed me: "the next stretch of trail is as steep as any maintained section of trail in the park." The map notes: "there is no easy trail out of Mineral King." My legs grumble: "O RLY?" I stop to take this oddly angled photo of a tree, partly because the blue in this photo is the prettiest color in the known universe, and partly because my trail heads straight up:
Can we see the same tree from the top? Yes we can!
(Warning! Geology nerd alert!) Although the Sierras are mostly granite (igneous rock), Sequoia NP and Mineral King in particular have patches of metamorphic rock, which weather differently than granite. In this picture the dark brown crystallized rock makes a nice contrast with the gray weathered granite:
Very near the above picture is a sinkhole, or canyon with a trickling creek at the bottom, dark brown rock sides...and a resident!
A couple more blue/purple flowers
catch my eye
as I reach my goal, White Chief Canyon. Photos do not do it justice:
I'm above 10,000 feet, and the lupins growing lushly at my feet are like walking through the sky itself:
Now the trail splits into two. I can go upward along the waterfall at the end of a box canyon, but the trail is growing faint:
Or I can cross the creek to the human-made cave:
I elect the cave. As I scramble upward over loose talus, it becomes obvious to even the most casual geology observer that I am on neither dark brown rocks (bottom of picture above) nor gray granite (top of picture above), but on a layer of white marble, sparkling in the sunlight. The "cave" is actually an old marble mine; Mineral King got its name from people looking for gold, and finding other things worth mining.
I am told in emphatic terms to back off! Or we'll eat your car!
At least I think that's what it said -- I don't speak Marmot. However, as I scramble up toward the mine, I realize that the marmot was right. Soon I'm wobbling as I crawl on hands and knees on treacherous, sharp-edged scree (mine tailings?); one false move and I'll turn the white marble crimson red.
Reluctantly, carefully, I descend and retrace my footsteps.
I've hiked nearly 8 miles in 4 hours. I don't see another human, even though it's free admission to national parks this weekend, until I'm within 1 mile of the trailhead. By lunchtime, I'm back at my car, which appears unscathed by marmots. I suppose I'm lucky...hmmm, you say "stranded in Mineral King" like it's a bad thing? Later on, I lose my car keys, not that I believe in Freudian slips or anything...but that's another tale. Some day I'll post pix of my bear-encountering hike the following day, but for now, I'll link to matching mole's beautiful photographs of another part of the country, Florida: Saturday PM Exercise Adventure.
I hope you've enjoyed hiking with me despite my fair-to-mediocre photography ability; the beauty of this hike has transcended my poor skills. Although this diary is less political than some of my other Healthy Minds & Bodies diaries, I must conclude by noting that environmental activism works. I am very pleased to report that the area surrounding Mineral King (PDF map here) became the John Krebs Wilderness (named after a Park Service ranger and member of Congress who spoke out against Disney's plans) in the Public Lands Act of 2009. We, The People saved Mineral King from the Country Bear Jamboree, and We, The People can save the planet from ourselves. Hike on!