The roiling ghosts of mercury-tainted miners. Petrified Keebler elves. An entrance to Fingal's Cave. The One Ring. These are the sorts of magical things any sensible, perhaps slightly stoned backpacker (or Rush fan) could hope to find in a glaciated valley called Mineral King, whose jagged dogwood- and spruce-steeped slopes lie at the southern tip of Sequoia National Park, in the Sierras. Marmots drunk on antifreeze are not. Nor, surely, is a squeaky gaggle of buxom, bleached-blond suburbanite moms gathered in a spirit circle for Sunday Campfire Worship, singing "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" and wiping $10 chicken salad sandwiches off their kids' faces. Yet somehow, on a recent camping trip, the pickled vermin and swaying kumbaya-yas seemed to tie in perfectly with the region's fool's gold mythology.
The sense of accomplishment once you turn off the "main" Mineral King road and into the region itself is overwhelming. Lone, half-starved prospectors in the 1870s used to journey for weeks to reach this ore-rich spot, and you can't help admiring their greed. The valley now encompasses a loose collection of scattered campgrounds, half-constructed lodges, and broad-chested ranger stations covering 12,600 acres. The campgrounds are first-come, first pitch and, despite the torture of arrival, can fill up quickly with Gwen Stefani-blasting family reunions and that most ubiquitous of modern campground-dwellers, the Loud Nirvana Fan with Acoustic Guitar.
Hiking is the main draw of Mineral King, and the hiking bible for the area, touted at all the local bookstores, is Day Hiking Sequoia, by Steve Sorensen. Do not buy this book. Although it tells you a lot about the area's history, after five hours of wrestling with its skeletal mapping system, we eventually just gave up and got lost. (The best bet is to check in at the ranger stations and ask for more detailed directions.) We never made it to the fabled Mosquito Lakes or the treacherous Timber Gap, but we lunched under Mosquito Creek waterfalls, rolled in a zillion wildflowers, sniffed bear droppings on rounded slate outcrops, and picked up Casey, a pale monarch butterfly who hitched with us a couple miles. Most important, we went a whole day without seeing other people. It was heaven.
Silver City has also undergone a recent plague of cable-chewing marmots, addicted to antifreeze highs. Visitors everywhere are warned ("Warning: Marmots!") to check under their hoods before driving off, potentially transferring dozens of tipsy little mammals out of their natural habitat and into the wilds of Metropolitan Los Angeles. Alas, we saw no neon-lipped marmots, nor entrances to Fingal's Cave. But Mineral King was still a mythic trip.
Silver City Resort, on Mineral King Road, three miles west of the main ranger station. Open Memorial Day through October. 1-805-528-0730 www.silvercityresort.com.