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February 25, 2021

Ghost town hike was supernatural

I came to Lee Vining on the Tuesday prior to the Mount Hoffman Challenge to spend time in the eastern Sierra, easily California’s most scenic region. I knew of an old mining town named Bennettville just east of Yosemite over Tioga Pass, but I had never been there. This was an excellent opportunity to take a look.
While Bennettville had been on my to-do list for some time, I went there almost as an afterthought, expecting little. I was surprised to find what is certainly one of the Sierra’s most spectacular day hikes.
The very thing that makes the east side of the Sierra so beautiful is also what makes it rough hiking country. The Sierra is being pushed up along a series of faults on the east side of the range. This action creates a steep eastern escarpment and a western slope that tilts gently toward the Central Valley. Anyone who has driven through Yosemite on Highway 120 knows that it takes three hours to climb to the Sierra crest (Tioga Pass) from the Central Valley and only 20 heart-pounding minutes to make the steep descent to the base of the range on the far side.
Trails into the steep eastern Sierra escarpment are steep as well. I know of very few east side trails that rise gently, but Mine Creek, the drainage that cradles Bennettville, is one of them.
Two miles east of Tioga Pass on Highway 120, I turned left onto the road to Saddlebag Lake and parked at Junction Campground. Striders laced tight, a rain slicker in my fanny pack, I started up the well-marked trail to Bennettville. It was a lovely and gentle one-mile climb along Mine Creek to the remains of the old mining town. The rippling creek, green grass and gardens of penstemon, paintbrush and delicate white rein orchids were the perfect tonic for a hiker visiting from the brown-is-the-new-green flatlands.
A restored bunkhouse and assay office are the only two buildings remaining of the original 14. Like many Sierra mining towns, Bennettville came and went in a flash. A post office opened in 1882 and a well-funded mining operation bored 1,800 feet into the mountain, but only two years later the post office closed. No ore was ever extracted from the site.
Don’t turn toward home, because here the alpine magic begins. Steps above Bennettville, the landscape opens wide and the trail relaxes into a level creekside path. Like pearls on a necklace, one lovely mountain lake, then a second, then a third are strung together along a gently drifting Mine Creek stirred by an occasional foamy riffle. Mountain gardens and meadows decorate the path. Beyond, the sheer north face of 12,057-foot White Mountain anchors the view.
The juxtaposition of the immense and rugged granite peaks rising over the warm and friendly landscape at my feet was staggering. Everything was so perfect that I wondered if the blueprints for this scene are in a file drawer somewhere in Disneyland.
As I turned toward home, black clouds began to coalesce and rumbling sounds rolled down the peaks. On with the rain slicker, and just in time. Not rain, but hail—just enough spice to make a day hike an adventure.
The rest of the week, I couldn’t shake the vision of a sunrise photograph up Mine Creek. I set my alarm for 3:45 a.m. Sunday morning and hiked in two miles by headlamp. Just before 5 a.m., under a slate-gray sky, I set up my tripod at a nice spot along the creek and waited. I was not disappointed.

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