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Family-friendly Hiking in the Eastern Sierras
June, 2012 - Issue #92
"I found gold!" shouted Brooke, 5, as she crouched next to a stream of water trickling out of an abandoned mine.

Her hopes were as high as the thousands of miners who flocked to this isolated valley, just off the Tioga Road near the entrance to Yosemite National Park.

Known as Bennettville, the town was named after a mining company president and boasted 14 buildings during its heyday in the mid-1880s. The promise of a rich silver lode prompted the construction of the Tioga Road to expedite hauling supplies and equipment to expand the mine.

Today, the remains draw hikers to a stunning high-country meadow. We discovered it quite by accident during a multi-day trip to explore the Eastern Sierras.

We set up a base camp at Mono Vista RV Park in Lee Vining, near the intersection of Tioga Road and Highway 395, about 20 miles north of Mammoth. Day trips on winding two-lane roads led us into the east side of Yosemite National Park, and to less-traveled but still beautiful lakes, rivers and trails.

Our intended destination that day was Saddlebag Lake. We planned to have the water taxi drop us on the far shore for a day of hiking around remote alpine lakes. But we didn't like the look of the dark clouds blowing up over the snow-capped granite peaks.

We set off in search of another hike that could be ended with a mad dash back to the car if rain started to fall. That's when we found a historical plaque noting Bennettville's nearby location and decided to follow the easy 1-mile trail from Junction Campground. About 30 minutes of walking at 3-year-old Amber's pace led us to the town site.

We were surprised to find two intact buildings standing in the middle of a boulder-strewn clearing ringed by ponderosa pines. It seems the state and the feds reconstructed Bennettville's barn/bunkhouse and assay office in 1993.

While the barn was locked, the assay office was open. Light poked in from the gaps between the rough-hewn planks to illuminate the otherwise dim interior. No precious metals here. It was empty save for a few boards, a broken bottle top and bits of metal littering the dusty floor.

We followed the trail across bubbling Mine Creek and up the flank of the mountain to the gated mine tunnel. A stream trickled from the gated entrance and down the massive pile of tailings blasted out of the mine. Rusting, discarded equipment lay near the old rail tracks that led into the tunnel's dark interior.

Brooke, Laurel, and Amber commenced prospecting in the water flowing from the mouth of the mine. Drew found a stick (What is it with boys and sticks?) and started digging in a late-to-melt snow bank.

Everyone was soon growing hungry; we hit the trail back to the car to discover lunch.

A short drive west on Tioga Road led us into the east side of Yosemite National Park. We pulled into a turn out in Dana Meadows and found a perfect picnic spot along the Tuolumne River.

Since it was late summer, the water was low, slow and relatively warm. After lunch, I waded in with the kids. We explored the shallows and they climbed a "waterfall."

Like Brooke's gold, it wasn't what it seemed. It was actually a small boulder that created some ripples in the river. But it provided another moment of excitement in a trip full of discoveries.
Eric Harnish lives in Castaic.

Make your Own Discoveries
Bennettville Trail
The mile-long trail starts from Junction Campground at the intersection of State Route 120 (Tioga Road) at Saddlebag Lake Road (Forest Road 1N04), about 10 miles west of Lee Vining.

Mono Vista RV Park
Tent and RV Camping 760-647-6401

Yosemite National Park
209-372-0200 www.nps.gov/yose
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