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Castle Rocks is a known for having perhaps the most difficult ascent by the easiest route of any summit in the Sierra. Secor describes Castle Rock Spire as the "most spectacular spire in California outside of Yosemite Valley," no meager description. I have often seen the Castle Rock formations while plying the High Sierra Trail out of Crescent Meadow. They can be seen for hours on end across the huge canyon formed by the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River. The difficulty of the most famous spires in Castle Rocks is well out of my league, but I'd always wanted to pay them a visit. The usual approach route via Paradise Creek to the northwest is long, brushy and legendary for having unavoidable encounters with abundant poison oak. This last was enough to dissuade me from ever trying that route. An alternative route comes from the south via the Mineral King Road near the Atwell Campground. A trail leading up to Paradise Peak offered a shorter and more importantly, poison oak-free possibility to reach Castle Rocks. This would allow me to visit the highest point of the formations, a feature known as Amphitheater Dome, reportedly class 3-4.
After my outing at Mineral King the previous day, I drove the short distance back down the Mineral King Road to the Atwell Campground, sleeping in the back of the van at the TH parking. Mine was the only vehicle there and I don't think there was anyone staying at the adjacent campground that night either. It was a decent place to sleep, relatively flat and off the road so that I wasn't disturbed by the random cars passing by in the night. I was up at 5a and off shortly thereafter. The only annoying thing I found about the Paradise Ridge Trail was that the trailhead parking was a third of mile up the road from the start of the trail. What was that about? It would have been an easy matter to make the trail end across the road from parking lot by continuing it east along the north side of the road. Perhaps they used to allow parking alongside the road at the TH, but that is all signed No Parking now.
For the most part, the trail is pretty decent, climbing almost 2,000ft in the three miles it takes to reach Paradise Ridge. The trail goes through portions of the Atwell Grove of giant sequoias, an impressive sight no matter how many times I've seen these ancient monarchs. The weather was overcast but not terribly threatening, and made for some pretty cloud coloring just before sunrise. I reached the top of Paradise Ridge at 6:40a, paused to take a few pictures looking over the north and south sides of the ridge, then turned west towards Paradise Peak. An old, unmaintained trail still shown on the topo map leads nearly to the summit along the crest of Paradise Ridge. In places could be seen lines of stones marking the old trail. Downfall has taken its toll on the trail, but enough people still use it, that there are use trails going around most of the downfall sections. There were no route-finding challenges or other difficulties, the whole route pretty much class 1-2. It was 7:30a when I reached the summit. I found a PVC tube with some loose pages filled with names going back to 2007. One of the entries mentioned the highest elevation sequoia is found just down the trail, though I don't recall having noticed it. That's pretty impressive considering the nearly 9,000-foot elevation.
The views from the summit were somewhat muted by the surrounding forest. There is a good view northeast to the Tablelands in the distance and nearer of Castle Rocks to the north. They certainly looked difficult from this vantage and I wondered if I would be able to reach the highest point. They were not all that far away at less than a mile and a half, so it was worth paying them a visit regardless. In descending the north side of Paradise Peak I intended to follow the broad, forested ridgeline connecting it to Castle Rocks. To my surprise, I came across vestiges of an old trail that followed along the upper part of this route. There was not much grading done to create the trail, but work was put in to line the route with rocks which I followed on and off as I made my way north. I never did find any sign of this trail on older maps I looked at upon my return and an internet search came up empty, too. For the most part the terrain between the two peaks was easy cross-country with little brush and gentle gradients. Following the old trail segments offered no advantage, but more of a curiosity.
It was 8:15a by the time I reached the base of the highest formation on the south side. I had not checked ahead of time to know this was called Amphitheater Dome or that there was a class 3-4 route on the SE side. Winging it, I made my way up to what looked like a possible route up the south side. A crack on the left side afforded the most promise from below, but upon reaching it I found it more difficult than I could safely manage. To the right was a potentially easier route up steeply sloping slabs with decent features for handholds, but again I backed down due to the exposure and potential consequences of a slip. I went around the east and north sides looking for easier ways up, but found only more difficulties, and more of the same looking across the Northwest Face. I retraced my route back around to the south side and then tried one more option on the Southwest corner. A staircase of sorts led very high up this side with some very exposed class 3 scrambling. But I was stymied with some more difficult class 4-5 just below the last bit to the summit and ultimately backed down once more. In all I spent about 40 minutes trying the various routes, all to no avail. With a partner and rope I'm pretty sure it would be little more than a casual rock climb, so I had to make a mental note to come back sometime in the future with both. I also checked out Castle Rock Spire, the Fin and Sleeping Beauty while I was on the north side of Amphitheater Dome. Just getting to them from where I was would be difficult, let alone actually climbing them, but it's possible this approach route is easier than the standard one from below.
Giving up on Castle Rocks, I returned to Paradise Ridge where the trail goes over it by means of a fairly direct traverse across the northeastern flank of Paradise Peak. Again, the cross-country was pretty easy and I had little trouble getting to the ridge by 10a. I met a park ranger who had hiked up for with a shovel to do some trail maintenance on the north side of the ridge somewhere. Some light sprinkles earlier in the morning had made it easy for him to follow my well-defined tracks up the trail and he had wondered who might have gotten on the trail before him. With some jogging, I was back at the parking lot 40 minutes later. It was still quite early but it would have to suffice for the day as I needed to return to San Jose for something I don't even remember. But I would be back a month later to tackle Kaweah Queen. While I don't particularly like the long drive to reach Mineral King, I very much enjoy the many climbing opportunities in the area and am always happy to have another reason to come back.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Amphitheater Dome
This page last updated: Sat Sep 13 21:20:16 2014
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