The construction crane is the official bird of Minden. Minden and adjoining Gardnerville continue to experience explosive growth. These latter-day boom towns are the destination for many California ''equity refugees'' seeking larger properties and lower taxes across the state line. The population of Douglas County increased 112 percent between 1980 and 2000.

Minden is a prime example of a great town stop that is reasonably within reach of the trail (in terms of hitching miles, it's actually closer than Bridgeport), yet not on the PCT community's radar. For those of you considering taking a break or resupply from Ebbetts Pass or Carson Pass, it's a half-hour drive east across the state line to this rapidly-growing, full-service city. With a medical clinic, complete supermarket, big-box retail outlet and every other major draw, we believe Minden and its sister city Gardnerville are a viable alternative to South Lake Tahoe, with great food and better values in lodging. Try as we might, we still can't think of anything South Lake Tahoe has to offer that Minden does not -- except epic traffic jams and urban blight. Sadly, if suburban sprawl in the Carson Valley continues at the current pace, Minden will match South Lake Tahoe in those categories in a few years.

The Carson Valley Inn (1627 Hwy. 395 North, 775 782-9711), a mammoth casino/hotel/RV park facility that seems to be in a perpetual state of expansion, is one of our longstanding favorites. We strongly recommend it for value. This is the Full Nevada Touron experience -- blackjack, big cheap drinks and steak-and-egg specials at 4 a.m. There are two restaurants on the premises, an all-hours diner and a white-tablecloth dinner house. Decent food but no bargains. In the event the Inn is booked solid, as it sometimes is on weekends in the summer, there are four decent motels all on 395. Best Western Minden Inn (1795 Ironwood Dr., 775 782-7766) gets positive reviews and is priced on par with CVI, although we haven't tried it.

If you're in Minden and not eating Basque you're really depriving yourself of one of Nevada's greatest cultural treasures. Basque food -- and in Minden we're talking three died-and-gone-to-heaven restaurants -- is probably the only regional cuisine on the trail that will find PCT thru-hikers unable to clean their plates, begging for mercy and doggy bags. These are serious portions of serious food. And these restaurants are *real* bad places for vegetarians.

Our current favorite of the holy trinity: The JT Bar (1426 Main St., 775 782-2074) is right on the main drag (395) where Minden merges with Gardnerville. The JT has been doing what it does for more than 100 years, and they have this Basque thing down cold. Service is outstanding. Our old standby, the Carson Valley Country Club, (1029 Riverview Drive, 775 265-3715) is just off 395 south of Gardnerville. On weekends waits can run an hour in the bar, so take some time to get to know the locals and try the Picon punch. And finally there's the Overland Hotel (691 Main St., 775 782-2138), which is just a few yards across the main drag from the JT. Like the JT, it has been in business more than a century. While we'd give the slight edge to the JT in the cooking category right now, the truth is you'd be hard-pressed to have a bad meal in any of these three. The menus and the overall experience are virtually indistinguishable. Each of them offers extraordinary value.