At the time of Walt Disney’s death in 1966, he was leading the charge on building a world-class year-round resort in the Mineral King valley.

Published 20 December 2016, The Kaweah Commonwealth

Walt Disney at press conference displaying plans for year-round Mineral King resort.

December 15, 1966, marked an inauspicious event that had major implications for Three Rivers, Mineral King, and, ultimately, Sequoia National Park. On that day, Walt Disney died of lung cancer at the age of 65.

At the time of Disney’s death, he was leading the charge on building a world-class year-round resort in the Mineral King valley. This was going to be the ski resort that showed other ski resorts how it was done. There is no doubt that if this project would have been completed, the Winter Olympics would have been held here.

The Disney proposal eventually pitted environmentalists against developers and, in Three Rivers, neighbor against neighbor. Some residents believed the valley was best left in its current state and others envisioned the dollars that would be pumped into town by the millions of visitors heading up the mountain as well as the winter recreational opportunities that would be just an hour away via state highway.

The U.S. Forest Service, the federal agency that had jurisdiction over what was until 1978 the Mineral King National Game Refuge, was backing the Disney plan. Plans for the ski resort included a new 26-mile, all-weather state highway built from Three Rivers to Mineral King, accommodating 2.5 million visitors annually.

The proposal included a behemoth parking structure, up to 10 stories high, a few miles below the valley that would accommodate 3,600 vehicles. Visitors would access the resort and its two dozen ski lifts spanning 13,000 acres via a tramway.

The year-round “Alpine Village” in Mineral King, nicknamed “Disneyland East,” would consist of two hotels with more than 1,000 rooms, dozens of shops, movie theatre, chapel, conference center, a dozen restaurants, ice-skating rink, and  heliport, all in a space smaller than Yosemite Valley but providing an estimated 2,500 jobs.

It was back in 1949 that the U.S. Forest Service first issued a prospectus for a ski development with the blessing of the Sierra Club. But it was the lack of a highway to the area that left this project without any bidders.

That is, until Walt Disney first visited Mineral King in 1960. As of 1963, he had begun quietly yet determinedly moving forward on bringing the business of skiing to Mineral King. He hired experts to poke, prod, peruse, and even purchase the islands of private land in the Mineral King area. Over the next two years, nearly 30 acres had been purchased from 18 contingents.

In 1965, upon a request from the County of Tulare, an amendment to the California Legislature’s omnibus highway bill provided a $25 million grant to improve the Mineral King Road. This opened the floodgates, and bidders began vying for the project. The name Disney carried much clout, and in December 1965, he was the selected to be the developer of a $35 million ski resort in Mineral King (in contrast, Disneyland cost about one-third of that price). He now had three years to complete a plan.

Immediately, the snow surveys began. After all, snow was what was needed for a successful ski resort. But it was snow that also led to the demise of the Disney dream.

In September, just three months before his death, Walt Disney held a major press conference in Mineral King on a cold, blustery day. Governor Pat Brown was in attendance, among other dignitaries. 

After Disney died on December 15, 1966, Walt Disney Productions, under the direction of Walt’s brother, Roy, doubled down and continued to push forward with the project. 

The ongoing snow surveys required that mountaineers reside in the valley during the winter months. The winters of 1966 through 1969 consisted of heavy snow in the Sierra and flooding of the Kaweah River in Three Rivers on multiple occasions. 

On February 23, 1969, three avalanches struck the Mineral King valley from all sides — Empire Mountain, Miner’s Ridge, and Potato Patch Ridge, the steep, west-facing slope that towers over the pack station and East Mineral King area. It was the latter avalanche that slammed into the Mineral King Store and the resort cabins where two ski mountaineers, Wally Ballenger and Randy Kletka were housed. Tragically, Kletka, 26, was killed.

The battle for conservation vs. development in Mineral King was fought all the way to the Supreme Court. The Sierra Club, which had initially been in favor of the project, was the plaintiff in the case against the federal government. Ironically, Walt Disney was an honorary life member of the Sierra Club, bestowed with that distinction in 1955 in recognition of Disney’s nature films.

The Sierra Club ultimately lost the case, but the State of California also withdrew its funding for the highway, so the proposal simmered. (There is so much more to this court battle and highway sage that will have to be saved for a future article.) 

Down in Three Rivers, there continued to be two factions, for and against the proposed development. Three Rivers had been without a newspaper since 1956 when, in 1972, Jack and Virginia Albee moved to town and founded the Sequoia Sentinel. 

The couple was outspoken in their support of the development in Mineral King. As late as August 1976, they published a two-part article submitted by Robert Hicks, a Disney agent for the Mineral King land purchases. The front-page, above-the-fold, headline exclaimed “Disney dream can still be reality …Says Men who should know!” the first week and “Mineral King Myths” the next, disputing a whopping 47 “myths.”

Here is the editor’s note summarizing the article: 

The following material on Mineral King was furnished to ‘The Sentinel’ by Robert Hicks of ‘WED Enterprises’ [the private family holding company of Walt Disney] with the cooperation of the Far West Ski Association. It is a factual update of the whole proposal clearly indicating that Disney interests still, to use the venacular [sic], ARE ‘hot to trot’. In short, they would welcome any changes in both Washington, D.C. and Sacramento that would bring about realization of the fascinating dream of the late Walt Disney, who had such a personal viable interest in the whole affair.

These articles were a last-ditch effort to garner public support for the development after it was proposed that Mineral King become a part of Sequoia National Park. In 1978, the legislation introduced by Congressman John Krebs to add Mineral King to Sequoia National Park was signed by President Jimmy Carter. The matter of a ski resort in Mineral King was finally settled more than a decade after Walt Disney’s death. 

While this was not to be the end of contention in Mineral King, it forever laid to rest the threat of a major development occurring in this alpine valley.


The Mineral King Room in the Three Rivers Historical Museum displays artifacts and murals that tell the history of Mineral King and the impact it has had–both locally and nationally.

This article is a compilation of two articles written by John and Sarah Elliott for 3RNews in January 2017, with editorial an editorial update in April 2021.

The Mineral King Preservation Society, a nonprofit organization founded in 1986, curates the Mineral King room, which house artifacts, documents, photographs, and so much more that relate to the fascinating, sometimes tumultuous, history of the Mineral King valley. This history had an significant impact on the region and the nation.

The Mineral King Room is located at the Three Rivers Historical Museum, 42268 Sierra Drive. When there is no pandemic or other intervening force, it is open daily from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and admission is free.

Part 1: Mineral King

Mineral King is located 25 miles and 90 minutes from Highway 198 in Three Rivers via the windy, narrow, sometimes hair-raising Mineral King Road. The road is open from the Memorial Day weekend into October. It is closed nine miles up during the winter months.

From geologic formations to indigenous peoples, mining to summer recreation, U.S. Forest Service to National Park Service, lumber industry to cattle-grazing and stock-packing, national game refuge to Walt Disney’s ski resort to John Krebs Wilderness, Mineral King has an abundance of stories to tell. And the history of Three Rivers and Mineral King is intertwined and has been for 150 years.

The first road through Three Rivers led to Mineral King. Three Rivers was a way station and stage stop for the miners and prospectors, lumbermen, stockmen, and others who were searching for riches or to simply eke out a living in the alpine valley. From here, it could take another arduous two days of travel to reach this high-country destination.

It is difficult to overstate the role of Mineral King in shaping both regional and national history.

The Mineral King mining rush was instrumental in development of the nation’s precious metal monetization policies. The mining rush orchestrators directly influenced the market value of silver at a time when the world was transitioning to the gold standard and reeling under the effects of the first global depression.

The woman’s enfranchisement movement coalesced there when women prospected and claimed mines decades before they did so elsewhere, and when woman voted in the mining district elections 35 years before gaining the right to vote in California and 44 years before gaining that right nationally. In doing so, they tested the new Mining Law of 1872 and paved the way for women to own mines throughout the United States.

The Mineral King Road provided the initial access to Sequoia National Park when it was created, and hosted the 4th Cavalry troops assigned to protect the new park from livestock. Mineral King had a substantial influence on the development of  National Forest and National Park livestock policies.

At the end of the 19th century, the waters and giant sequoias of Mineral King were harvested to provide the first electrical power to the great valley, power that was essential to irrigating crops and transporting them to market. This power helped establish the San Joaquin Valley as “the bread basket of the world.”

In the 1960s and 1970s Mineral King was the center of a battle between environmentalists and the federal government and Walt Disney Corporation, which proposed to build a year-round resort there. The legal outcomes have helped guide and motivate the forces for conservation throughout the nation and the world. 

Today, the Mineral King area includes several historic cabin communities, including Silver City and Cabin Cove. Most of the structures date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The settlements as a whole are referred to as the “Mineral King Road Cultural Landscape District,” which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.

Part 2: Mineral King Displays

Ora Kay Peterson, who was a founder in 1986 and executive director of MKPS until her death in 2010, realized the importance of collecting artifacts and archives while sharing the history of Mineral King with the public. In 1987, a MKPS display of some of its earliest museum-quality pieces became part of a display that for many years was housed in the Mineral King Ranger Station.

In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, MKPS gathered historical information relating to Mineral King and assisted the National Park Service in finding a way to preserve the cabin community and the district’s cultural resources. That landmark research and grassroots movement culminated in 2003 with the official National Register of Historic Places designation of the Mineral King Road Cultural Landscape.

The Mineral King Room features rotating displays that will highlight items from the MKPS collection that will help the public and especially those whose lives have been touched by this magical place to better understand the remarkable history and its preservation.

The displays tell the tale of prehistoric occupation, the discovery of Mineral King by pioneer settlers, the road-building, the mining, the cabins, the trails, the dams, the Disney era, and how the area became a part of Sequoia National Park. Mineral King’s historic structures and sites include mines and mills from the 1870s, a road constructed in 1879, lumbering sites (ca. 1870-1890), Mt. Whitney Power Company dams (1904-1906), and the cabins, which date from 1895 to the 1950s.

Part 3: Mineral King Room History

Participating in the ceremonial ribbon-cutting of the Mineral King Room on Sunday, Jan. 24, were (from left to right): Robert Hicks, former Mineral King manager for the Disney Company; Jim Barton, whose great-grandfather built the first cabin in Mineral King in 1873; Tom Marshall (back), president of the Three Rivers Historical Society; Kuyler Crocker, District 1 supervisor; Louise Jackson, MKPS/Mineral King Room coordinator; and Jim Ingram, MKPS vice president.

From humble beginnings more than 30 years ago, the Mineral King Room is a dream that has become a reality.

On Sunday, 22 January 2017, the Mineral King Preservation Society (MKPS) and the Three Rivers Historical Society (TRHS), along with a throng of celebrants, cut the ceremonial ribbon officially opening the Mineral King Room. The Mineral King Room, now the home for archives and artifacts that were donated to and collected by MKPS since its inception in 1986, became recently a joint undertaking of MKPS and the local Historical Society.

Key members of both historical groups were joined for the ribbon cutting by Kuyler Crocker, District 1 supervisor, and Bob Hicks, a former agent for Walt Disney, who donated his personal archives detailing the Disney Company’s unsuccessful efforts (1965-1978) to transform Mineral King from a national forest game preserve to world-class ski resort.

Louise Jackson of Three Rivers, a Crowley cabin descendant and among the founding members of MKPS, said it has been her dream for the past 16 years to see the MK Room become a reality in Three Rivers.

“Creating a place where the public could learn about the colorful history of Mineral King was a big part of why I moved to Three Rivers,” Jackson explained.

Jackson, who more than any individual is responsible for the getting the MK Room opened, said she could not have done it without the help of Tom Marshall and his vision as the president of TRHS.

“The Room is open now, although at times I seriously wondered if this project would ever get to this point,” said Louise. “For me, it is truly a labor of love, and this opening is only the beginning. There is so much more than needs to be done.”

Louise’s brother, Bruce Jackson, who donated the cost of the construction ($130,000), and a host of others who earmarked funds and labor for the building of the MK Room, were instrumental in the Three Rivers museum’s annex becoming a reality.

In October 2015, construction was started by Pete Crandall, general contractor; it was completed in the fall of 2016. Donations by Hicks and many others will make it possible to maintain the 768-square-foot room and also the rest of the MKPS collection, which is housed on the Three Rivers site in a climate-controlled storage unit.

The trail meanders along the south side of the East Fork of the Kaweah River through green high country meadows brimming with wildflowers, willows, and aspens. The destination is history.

By Sarah Elliott, 14 April 2019, 3RNews

This article was originally published July 5, 1996, in The Kaweah Commonwealth newspaper’s Hiking the Parks series.

Start here.
The iron tint from the Iron Springs.

The Nature Trail is a mile, mile-and-a-half, easy trail that takes hikers of all levels from Cold Springs Campground to the road’s end at the east end of the Mineral King Valley.

The Nature Trail, also known as the Iron Springs Trail, is an interpretive trail that offers first-time Mineral King visitors the perfect opportunity to familiarize themselves with this high country valley. It is the only trail in Mineral King that has relatively little elevation gain; about 300 feet.

Mineral King is an average of 7,800 feet in elevation. The lowest pass out of the valley is Timber Gap, 9,450 feet in elevation, and the highest is Franklin Pass at 11,760 feet.

If planning to hike up and out of Mineral King’s V-shaped valley, use the Nature Trail as a warm-up to acclimate to the thinner air. This will help avoid any altitude-related maladies that may occur in the backcountry.

Children love the Nature Trail. The interpretive signs during the first half of the walk explain the plants and trees. They even guide visitors to an old prospect hole left over from the Mineral King mining heyday of the 1870s. [2019 update: The interpretive signs have been removed.]

Did someone say nature?

If staying at Cold Springs, look for the trail at the east end of the campground near the river. The trail meanders along the south side of the East Fork of the Kaweah River through green high country meadows brimming with wildflowers, willows, and aspens.

If traveling at a leisurely pace, there are plenty of fishing holes and picnic spots in which to spend a relaxing afternoon. Currently, the river is still extremely swift, however, and will remain icy cold all season, so use extreme caution when activities take you near the water.

The trail skirts the old Sunny Point Campground, a group of walk-in campsites that has now been returned to a more natural setting. It ends just past this site at the historic main street of Beulah, also built during the 1870s mining era. Cabins from the turn-of-the-century still line the road at trail’s end.

For a fitting end to this interpretive jaunt, visit the “Honeymoon Cabin” at the east end of the parking lot that serves as the trailhead for Eagle and Mosquito Lakes and White Chief Bowl. This cabin, built in the 1920s, was restored y the Mineral King Preservation Society, a grass roots organization dedicated to preserving Mineral King’s community history. The cabin is open to the public on most weekends during the summer season. Don’t forget to sign the guest book!

Hikers can return to their starting point by taking the Nature Trail or the Mineral King Road. The Nature Trail may be shorter by 2/10s of a mile or so, but either way it’s all downhill.

The Honeymoon Cabin is a romantic stop.