19th century road to Mineral King expected for major upgrade

Federal department of transportation pledges funding to Mineral King Road renovations

SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK – The twisty-turning 1870’s wagon trail, now known as Mineral King Road that leads to the high Sierra’s Mineral King Valley is set to get a major upgrade. The federal government has agreed to fund the road almost five decades after the popular hiking destination became part of Sequoia National Park.

Work on 15.3 miles of the 25-mile partially paved road could start in 2023 and take up to five years to complete. The steep and narrow road has nearly 400 curves and climbs 6,500 feet from Three Rivers to the Switzerland-like valley once coveted by Walt Disney for a ski resort. Amazingly, Disney still owns five acres in the valley at the end of the road with no hope of ever building that ski village. The National Park Service (NPS) has been negotiating for years to acquire it.

Built by investors to carry an expected sliver bonanza down to Visalia, the road has had only a few major upgrades since, the National Park Service who announced the project this spring said. They added that they are partnering with the federal Department of Transportation. Design work is expected later this year.

The project is expected to cost around $50 million by one unofficial estimate. The mountain road will be widened in a few places, but reinforced and paved the entire length. In their presentation to the public the NPS said portions of the highway are in danger of “catastrophic failure.”

Add to that a parallel project is to be built: a new Mineral King bridge just upstream from the classic bridge built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) some 4 miles up from Highway 198. The old bridge may be a beauty but was found to be too far worn to reinforce. Instead, it will be retained as a pedestrian bridge offering views down into the East Fork.

County engineer Jason Vivian said that besides the $9 million bridge project the county has applied for about $17 million to repave the bottom 4 miles of the Mineral King Road from Three Rivers to the bridge. The bridge project could start construction in late 2022 and take approximately 18 months. Traffic would continue to use the existing bridge until construction is completed.

Between the two projects most of the road should be dramatically improved.

A little history

In August 1872 a large silver claim was struck on the East Fork of the Kaweah River in White Chief Valley by a prospecting company led by John Crabtree. By fall of 1872 merchants in Visalia raised $3,000 dollars to extend the county road from Three Rivers to the Mineral King Valley.

The rush was on and by 1879 there was a reported population of 3,000 people living around the Mineral King mining claims and even daily buggy service to Visalia.

The rush was over as quick as it started and today the Mineral King Valley is pretty quiet even though it is in the world-famous Sequoia National Park now.

Clearly, the one-and-a-half-hour drive from Three Rivers up the hair-raising road has and still does keep the crowds down. Don’t worry – after you enter the Mineral King Valley, the color will return to your white knuckles.

Did we mention that this old road is steep, really steep.

The posted speed limit on the road is 25 miles per hour. Author Craig Jones, who wrote the book The Mountains That Remade America writes that, “this might be the most unnecessary speed limit sign in the state of California.” He added, “you could speed if you wish but you will either soon be airborne in descent to the East Fork of the Kaweah hundreds of feet below or peering through your shattered windshield at an irate traveler whose journey you just interrupted.”

Indeed, anyone who has taken the trek can recall way too many close calls as opposing vehicles suddenly appear around a blind bend swerving to avoid you.

The only way to pass another is to just creep by each other. The NPS plans to improve the road, building up the eroding portions, replacing some 200 culverts as well as adding retaining walls to make the road safer.

When the road reaches the valley, the funding includes paving six popular hiking and backpacking parking lots, laying out new picnic areas, building a much needed horse trailer parking space and make various ADA improvements at key visitor areas. The Mineral King Road provides access to hundreds of miles of wilderness trails within Sequoia National Park used by 4,500 backpackers each year.

To pave the lot at the end of the road, where the Eagle Lake and White Chief trailheads are, the park service has to deal with Disney who still owns this property. Just last month, Disney agreed to remove an old underground gas tank that was used to fuel cars from the old Mineral King store that served summer visitors for decades. Disney will reportedly offer an easement to the park service to pave this popular lot with 45 parking places.

Jurisdiction issue

The NPS would rather own the lot at the end of the road in-part because it would settle questions of jurisdiction in disputes that arise and law enforcement issues. One park ranger said if there is a fight in the parking lot they have to call the county sheriff to settle it.

Even though as of 1978 the Valley is part of Sequoia National Park, there are a handful historic cabins still in the area, but they are not the original cabins built in the 1800s.The 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed virtually all the cabins when it triggered an avalanche of snow that destroyed the structures.

Another huge avalanche in the 1960s gave proponents of the Disney ski resort pause. At least one Disney engineer visiting the Valley then died in the avalanche.

The Sierra Club and Disney battled for decades over the proposed resort project with a local opinion divided in Tulare County. Some backed Disney’s plan anticipating the tourism and jobs it would bring with Sierra Club Go Hike to Hell bumper stickers popular.

Sierra Club won the war when locals convinced Congressman John Krebs to include Mineral King in Sequoia Park in 1978 ending Disney’s dream. It was a mighty big dream considering he envisioned the resort might get a million visitors a year.

Walt Disney himself did not see this last chapter having died after sitting with Gov. Pat Brown and other leaders at a news conference in Mineral King in 1966, his last public meeting. Brown would later oppose the project once the writing was on the wall.

Mineral King was not included earlier in Sequoia National Park because the valley itself has no Sequoia trees. There are only a few down in Attwell Mill on the Mineral King Road. Just those few groves proved to be a big issue since the road travels through the park boundary to reach Mineral King, an obstacle to Disney’s access plans, so much so that he sought out alternate routes, even a tunnel or a new road access from Farewell Gap outside the park boundary.

Now the 2023 road project will try to move asphalt away from the big trees along the route.

The project will be phased over a few years based on the season given the fact the upper portion is snow bound part of the year.

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