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The Way to Mineral King

The first historic trails and roads into Kaweah Country were nothing more than horse and cattle routes and primitive wagon traces. There was almost no real construction to create them. Some followed old Indian trails along the foothills and up the canyons. Others were simply the markings of hooves and wagon wheels leading from one place to another along the easiest route.

When Hale Tharp rode into the Kaweah foothills, it was a cross-country trip on horseback. Only after he and John Swanson brought a small herd of cattle and built the first log cabin and barn for their homestead did a wagon trace and trails begin to appear. The first wagon route ran from Visalia to Horse Creek, and after the rest of the Tharp family arrived in 1859, it gradually became worn into a passable roadway. In the 1860s, other families used it to settle on their own homesteads in the Three Rivers area. As these new settlers arrived, the pathway extended with branches to each inhabited property.

This early trail and wagon trace crossed the Kaweah River several times. Eventually foot bridges were built over some of the river crossings to facilitate access to each other’s homes, especially during the high water season. In 1869, an actual roadway was constructed from Lemon Cove to Three Rivers. It crossed the river at least six times. By 1873, this road had been extended by James Pogue up to what became Power House No. 1, close to what is now the entrance to the Mineral King road.

Nothing lay beyond this road except a few stock trails until silver was discovered in the Mineral King area in 1872. To facilitate the rush of miners up the East Fork canyon, a wagon road was begun by the Visalia and Inyo Wagon Road Company in 1873. It was completed as far as the Bear Ranch and over the top of Red Hill about 300 yards. In 1874, John Meadows and his crew continued the route by building a trail on up the canyon. It continued up the south side of the canyon to some point between Lake Canyon and Lookout Point. There it crossed to the north side and joined the Milk Ranch stock trail built in the 1860s by the Works brothers. John Lovelace had extended that trail from his Milk Ranch range up to Harry’s Bend and the new Meadows trail joined it somewhere around Atwell’s Mill.

Throughout the first mining rush of 1873 to 1875, this was the favored route to Mineral King. Two other trails also were built to the valley. One was via Hockett Meadows and Tar Gap. The other was from Dillon’s Mill on the North Fork of the Tule River. It ran up the Little Kern and over Farewell Gap, the route first taken by Harry O’Farrell.

It took a second mining boom in Mineral King to create a road all the way into the valley. It 1878, Tom Fowler, a rancher and politician in Tulare County, bought the Empire Mine. He created the Empire Gold and Silver Mining Company, sent a crew of men to work it, and bought a stamp mill in Grass Valley to crush the ore. He needed a way to transport that mill and other mining equipment up to the mines, and a stock trail would not do the job. The Mineral King Wagon and Toll Road Company was formed and in March of 1879, work was begun on its construction.

Once again, the route was changed. Instead of continuing up the south side of the canyon, it plunged to the East Fork River and crossed the river over a bridge. It then climbed up the north side of the canyon on the difficult River Hill Grade to Oak Grove and on up the canyon into Mineral King. Its route from Oak Grove up to the Mineral King Valley is essentially the same one used today.

The current lower route below Oak Grove was built in 1915. It was carved along the lines of John Meadows' original stock trail, but instead of continuing up the south side of the canyon to Lookout Point, it crossed the Kaweah to the north side just below Oak Grove. 

Ownership of the Mineral King Road has had a varied past. During the inception of the first trails, the stock men considered the right-of-way theirs. In 1873, permission was granted by Tulare County for construction of the privately owned Visalia and Inyo Wagon Road. In 1877, Tulare County took over the access road from Visalia to Three Rivers, but the toll road and trail on up the East Fork remained in private ownership. In 1879, a new county franchise was granted to the Mineral King Wagon and Toll Road Company to realign and complete the road into Mineral King. The roadway remained a private enterprise for five years. In 1882, Robert McKee was granted a deed to it as compensation for his unpaid salary as toll gate keeper. Two years later, McKee deeded the road to Tulare County for the sum of $1,573.

The Mineral King road remained in county hands until portions of it became part of Sequoia National Park in 1890. However, its entire length was maintained by the county for over 50 years. After Mineral King was included in Sequoia National Park in 1978, the National Park Service took over full management of the roadway from the park boundary below Lookout Point into the Mineral King Valley. 

(CREDITS: : "History of Three Rivers Roads", Mary Bronzan papers on the history of Three Rivers; "Three Rivers Historical Time Line", Tulare County Historical Library; letter to Judge Wallace from Orland Barton, Aug. 22, 1905; various papers from Tulare County files; The Way It Was by Annie Mitchell: The Silver Rush at Mineral King by Samuel Thomas Porter; Beulah: A Biography of the Mineral King Valley by Louise Jackson. Compilation by Louise Jackson. Webmaster, Jill Brown)

The Mineral King Road Corridor: Historic Points of Interest
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