Dear Family, Friends, and Diary,
It has been awhile since we did any "real" travel, meaning not associated with family or required tasks. We still don't feel comfortable leaving Fresno for the multi-week or multi-month trips we would prefer, but a few days is possible. We looked around for someplace new or different and settled on a four-day excursion to the Sierras in the southern part of Sequoia National Park.
Packing is always the first challenge. We do not travel light. For a trip up into the Sierras, I needed a few bags of camera and computer gear as well as books and assorted cool-to-warm levels of clothes. (See picture.) Marianne needed art supplies and the assorted levels of clothes.
When we pack like this, we realize that our baggage for four days or four weeks or four months is much the same. That makes us long for those months-long trips. Later.
The GPS navigator said our 100-mile Sunday drive would take about three and a half hours. The first 80%, down Highway 99 and across the valley through Visalia and up to Three Rivers would only be a third of that time. After that, the drive promised to be challenging.
We stopped for brunch at the Runway Cafe in Woodlake. There was a line for this hole-in-the-wall place, reportedly normal for a weekend.
While waiting, I walked out to look at a couple of the planes parked just feet from the restaurant. Several were very small Piper Cub-types, two small seats in tandem, in planes not much changed since the 1930s and 40s. My favorite was a "Carbon Cub", a very high tech rendition of the ancient little plane. Next to it was a "Cessna Skylane RG", looking exactly like the four-passenger plane I learned to fly a half-century ago. Cub or Skylane, I still wonder if I should have kept flying. Probably not. An expensive habit.
From Woodlake, we headed east and north through Three Rivers until we came to a barely-marked right-hand turn onto Mineral King Road. The Silver City Mountain Resort was only 22 miles away, but the trip would take about two hours.
The first part of the drive was up through Sierra foothill countryside and the road was ... OK. It was paved, albeit with plenty of rough spots, and generally wide enough, at least most of the opposing cars slowed down enough to pass at walking speed. Later on, the road got rougher, smaller, and often just wide enough for one direction. However, everyone was cautious and courteous, so pausing at good passing places became normal. A slow drive, but not threatening. (Except for one jerk in a big pickup truck who barreled through as if everyone else needed to get out of his way.)
Our one photo-opportunity stop was at the 1923 bridge over the Kaweah River. The old structure looked pretty good, for 96 years, and it offered up- and down-stream views. Taking pictures of flowing water is fun, even if I was too lazy to get out the tripod and filters necessary for better shots.
We could tell we were gaining altitude in part because we were farther and farther above the fast-flowing Kaweah River in the valley below.
When we saw our first pair of Sequoia trees, we knew we were above about 6,000 feet where the monster trees grow. By now we had crossed the border of Sequoia NP, although much of the areas we would be in was in the John Krebs Wilderness, rather than the National Park. (Neighbor Vern had told me the story of his family friend John Krebs and the fight to keep this area a wilderness instead of a winter-themed Disney resort.)
Five hours after leaving home, we arrived at the Silver City Resort. The resort has 17 cabins and chalets (=big cabins) along with a small restaurant and a tiny store. We had booked the Hockett Meadow cabin, a nice one-room place, with a gas-fired fireplace and fancy tub and shower. Some cabins have no fireplace, tub, shower, or toilet. We are definitely softer than that.
Silver City is three or four miles from the end of Mineral King Road. While we waited for our room to be available, we made a "quick" trip to the parking at the end of the road. The road turned out to be the worst we'd seen so far and took 20-minutes for the short distance. I was glad we have a four-wheel-drive Jeep with extra ground clearance.
At the parking lot, we saw cars wrapped in tarps, protection against Marmots that apparently munch on radiator and brake hoses. Great, mountain roads, leaking coolant, and failed brakes.
The meadow view around the wrapped cars was spectacular. The Sawtooth peaks stood above the northeast. At the end of the Mineral King valley, the mountains (Tulare Peak and Vandever Mountain?) could still be seen with snow. All these peaks are above 11,000 feet.
The melting snow gave me even more streams to snap. Not fancy, but nice reminders.
The Mineral King area boomed for a very short period in the mid 1870s. Miners and investors hoped for another Comstock Lode Mine, but never found gold nor enough silver. By 1880, all that remained were ruins and the rough road from Three Rivers. In 1893 the area became a federal forest preserve and in the decades following, the Forest Service leased out recreational cabin sites, many still dotting the area.
Most of the old cabins seem well maintained, although I can not imagine the work of keeping decades-old structures standing, given the heavy winter snow this area must get. I also can not imagine the attraction of so much work for such basic living. To each their own.
After returning over the rough three-mile road, we cleaned up and went to dinner at the Silver City cafe, possibly the only restaurant in the whole Mineral King valley. The menu is limited, but the food was well-prepared. My hamburger was darn good and the peach pie was a highlight.
Back at the room, we crashed early. The 7,000 foot altitude had gotten to us, I think. Sometime in the night, we woke up to look at stars. Although our deck is ringed by tall trees, the sky in between was spectacular. The center of the Milky Way was spread above us. (No pictures because I was too lazy. Maybe another night.)
Monday, a full day not-planned. I suppose we really should do more advance work, but we don't. Part of our slow travel. To warm up my clicking skills, I took a few resort shots before breakfast in the outdoor dining room.
It was probably almost noon before we finished our morning puttering, diary and pictures for me and art ("Zentangle") for Marianne. Time really does fly by when having fun, even when doing very little.
For our required hike, we chose Hockett Trail, reportedly an easy walk down to a footbridge over the East Fork of the Kawaeh River. "Easy" is relative around here where other trails run for dozens of miles, up and down thousands of feet.
Right where we parked, a sign warned us about bears. The local campers said they had not seen bears in the last couple of hours, so we would be OK on the trail. Maybe. We kept an eye out.
We walked for about an hour down the trail that ran mostly through Sierra forest land, dramatic and peaceful. No bears, but plenty of tall trees, manzanita brush, century-old stumps, and granite stones. We named this last one "brain rock".
Near the start of the trail, we ran across a skeleton of a steam engine brought here from "Erie City Iron Works", probably during the mining boom of the 1870s. An engine like this might power a sawmill making wood planks and beams for the buildings and mine shafts. Nothing else seemed to remain.
Several of the tall sequoias along the way showed heavy fire damage. One impressive example was almost completely destroyed at ground level, but continued to have new growth way up at the top.
The goal of our hike was a footbridge down on the Kawaeh River. We didn't make it, since hiking at altitude was more stressful than we expected. Our excuse anyway. The trail was well-maintained and easy, but after about an hour, we were still well above the level of the river and all we could think about was the effort of going down and then back up. Too much.
Then, we saw a small waterfall and decided our hike would indeed end at a waterfall, just not the big one. Good enough for a few pictures and a sense of accomplishment.
We turned back at the falls and took it slow. Clouds had come in, so the light wasn't as interesting as it had been earlier. Besides, I think I was tired of pictures of trees and rocks. A nice dandelion was OK, however. (Marianne had expressed an interest as a painting model. Good luck!)
Up nearer the campground, we passed more of the giant stumps. These clearly dated from the days of two- or four-man cross saws, as many still had the holes used for foot boards used to elevate the cutters above the wider tree base. It is hard to imagine the dangers of attacking these massive trees by hand, but that is how it would be done. Loggers were tougher back then.
At the end of our two-hour hike, we were glad to see our red Jeep. The couple-mile drive back to Silver City Resort was slow and bouncy, but a lot easier than any more walking. I suppose we are "wasting" all the hiking trails, but everyone does what they can. For me, driving the rough road may be enough trail work.
Our little walk had been enough to cover us in trail dirt, so some cleanup was in order. I showered and then I brought Marianne grapes and a wine for her tub soak. Our way of roughing it.
Cleaned up, we headed to the cafe for that German tradition of 4pm "Kaffe und Kuchen". Two pieces of pie worked well. Then it was an hour or so of reading before dinner.
Dinner choices were limited because it was Monday and the weekly food truck shipment only comes on Tuesday. One of the challenges of running a resort out here is that food supplier deliveries need to be picked up in Three Rivers, 27 miles away. We forgive them if they run out of salad and sourdough bread.
So, that was Monday.
Tuesday - even slower.
Breakfast at Silver City starts at 8am and we were in the first handful of customers. We each started with coffee, of course, and then added orders for stacks of the large pancakes we had seen the day before. Pancakes are not on our normal, always-careful, watch-carbs eating, but this was vacation. We used the wifi connection to read emails and, for me, to upload the first parts of this diary. And we chit-chatted with the waitress, friendly like all the other resort staff we encountered.
By about noon, we decided we HAD to do something in the wilderness we had traveled to. The easiest hike seemed to be the "Nature Trail" that ran along the Kaweah, near the Mineral King ranger station. The trail promised to be flat and short, our kind of hiking. There are dozens of difficult trails leading out of the Mineral King Valley up into the Sierras, tens of miles long and with thousands of feet in elevation change. Those hikers are good people too.
At the Mineral King Ranger Station we asked about the "marmot wrapping" we had seen on Monday. The young ranger said that yes, marmots are a problem and the only effective protection seems to be fully diapering one's car. She pointed out her own car as an example, even though she has to re-wrap the car every work day. The consequence of a marmot-eaten hose or wire is just too complicated up here at the end of a very long and slow road.
Coincidentally, a group of four hikers were just checking in at the ranger station after a three-day hike into the hinterlands. They had bought and used a large tarp and now had no further use or space for it in their small car or apartment. They offered it to us, and we gladly agreed, even though our stay would be only an hour or so. It may not look fancy, but it meant we could hike assured that our hoses and wires would be intact upon our return.
The Cold Springs Nature Trail starts at the Cold Springs campground. We headed onto the trail with no particular expectations, except getting some exercise and a few good pictures of wildflowers. Both happened, and we saw a tiny bit of wildlife and more babbling brook scenes. By theme, here is what we saw:
Flowers. All were very small and delicate. Marianne and I split the flower duty, she with an iPhone and I with a load of "big" cameras. Hers pictures were at least as good as mine, a lesson.
Water pictures are low hanging fruit for photography - and maybe for just staring at. I enjoy the process for getting the "smoothed flow" shots, even if I was again too lazy to break out filters and the tripod. Hand-held worked good enough.
Wildlife. Out in the Krebs Wilderness, one might expect wildlife*. We had heard of bears and saw a deer or two, but on this nature trail walk our hunting was for smaller game: birds and bugs. Marianne was so interested in getting good pictures, which she did, that she forgot she hates bugs. The power of photo concentration.
Scenes. For context, here is a satellite image of the Mineral King valley and the half-dozen peaks surrounding it. For today's excursion, the scenery was more humble, but interesting in its own way, green and peaceful
About an hour of walking and clicking was enough for us and we made it back to our wrapped car just as the gray skies started to drip. Good timing. We rolled up the blue tarp and returned it to the ranger station where there was a small shed devoted to collecting donated marmot car-diapers. Now we could drive back home.
All twenty-plus miles of the Mineral King Road were built in the sumer of 1879 by Tom Fowler, a state senator and brave mining entrepreneur. His silver dreams were dashed within two years, but the rough road has lasted for 140 years, more or less. It is not for the faint-hearted. Even on the short hop between the Cold Springs and Silver City, parts of the road are one-vehicle wide, notched into steep hillside, rutted, or mined with serious potholes. Ten miles-an-hour for three miles. As expected, the Jeep did well, but the driver was getting tired.
Back home, we washed off the trail dust (more from wrapping the car than walking on the nature trail), enjoyed a glass or two of wine, and headed over for dinner. The resort menu has only a dozen or so offerings, so a long stay might get boring, but what we've ordered in three days has been tasty. Maybe sitting out on the deck, under towering sequoias and pines, puts us in a receptive frame of mind.
The gray skies left no more opportunities for star gazing, but we were pretty tired from our day (or hour) on the trail, so it was early to bed.
Wednesday. After breakfast on the deck, we packed up and checked out, sorry to leave our cool mountain paradise behind. The temperature was about 60F when we left at 10:30 and Fresno was slated for triple digits. (In fact it hit 104F, with warmer weather on the way.)
But, first, we were facing the 22 mile road out to big highways. The uneven and narrow road was stressful, but now we were somewhat accustomed to it. Passing cars was easy enough, even big SUVs. Meeting the giant sewage-hauling truck around a blind curve was only a momentary fright.
There were not more than three or four places along the road where we could park to get out to see the sights. That's too bad, because there were places where the granite valley walls were pretty dramatic.
Our only stop was at a granite wall with a stream flowing over it. There were just two places cars could park and we took the downhill one. The other driver came by to chat. The couple was on their way home to Nantes, France, after a two-month, unsuccessful job search in French Polynesia. Nice to be young. They were low on gas and we assured them there was absolutely nothing available farther into the mountains.
The rest of the drive was completely uneventful. Roads got bigger and the temperature went up 30 degrees. We were missing our cool mountain wilderness before noon.
Overall Impression? This was an adventure, at least the driving to and from. The Silver City Mountain Resort could not have been better, despite the limits of the dining options and a few quirks of the room details. The staff were the highlight, friendly and willing to ask our story and even talk about themselves ("How did you end up here?") and answer any questions.
We noticed that everyone, staff or visitor, had a smile. Drivers waved. Other tourists chatted with the least invitation. All this is far from a Yosemite summer experience, for sure.
The scenery was less dramatic than other places in the Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite NPs, at least from our limited walks, but I can imagine the more ambitious trail hiking would yield scenery as good as any in the Sierras.
We will return (if the road gets worked on as promised!)
Next week we visit the Bay Area. Stay tuned.
John and Marianne
* Speaking of wildlife, three of our backyard hawks and the hummingbirds were still around. Here are evening shots, grainy because of fading light, but a reminder that wildlife is all around us. (Other example: Mosquitoes bad in Fresno or Mineral King!)