Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Paradise Peak and Atwell Grove

Castle Rocks and the Middle Fork Kaweah River Valley
9.5 miles round trip, 3000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate, slight route-finding skills necessary
Access: Rough, narrow, windy road to trailhead, Sequoia National Park entrance fee required

One of the more overlooked trails in the already-quieter Mineral King area of California’s Sequoia National Park, the Paradise Ridge Trail climbs through a stately and calm grove of giant sequoias before a spur trail continues on to a mid-elevation summit with great views of both the Sierra foothills and the Great Western Divide. Atwell Grove is perhaps the highlight of this hike: the trail only grazes the edges of this sprawling forest of giant sequoias but hikers are treated to some lovely and impressive trees, including some of the highest elevation sequoias out there. The Paradise Peak Trail, a 1.5 mile spur off the Paradise Ridge Trail, is unmarked and covered with many downed trees but is actually fairly straightforward to follow and is a worthy final destination for this enjoyable and beautiful if not superlative hike.

Sequoia National Park, including areas around Mineral King, were devastated by the KNP Complex Fire in the autumn of 2021- one of the two blazes comprising this complex, the Paradise Fire, was actually sparked on the slopes of Paradise Peak. The area around the Paradise Ridge Trail and along the spur trail to the peak appear to have miraculously managed to escape major fire damage in the KNP Complex Fire, so this hike will hopefully reopen soon.

Mineral King Valley is more than four hours driving from either the Bay Area or the Los Angeles area, so it requires at least a full weekend commitment for most people. To reach Mineral King, I left Highway 99 in the Central Valley at exit 97 for Highway 198, which I followed east past Visalia and Three Rivers. About five miles after passing the Village Market/Pizza Factory area in Three Rivers, I made a right turn onto the Mineral King Road. I followed Mineral King Road for the next ___ miles, entering Sequoia National Park. Mineral King Road is infamous for its windiness: the road makes over 400 curves on its way up from Three Rivers into the valley of the East Fork Kaweah River. There are no lane divides along most of this road and in some areas it’s wide enough for only a single car; as the road climbs through incredibly steep terrain, there are frequently sheer drop-offs to the south side of the road. The road is paved through the Atwell Mill area and Paradise Ridge trailhead but was bumpy at times with some sizeable potholes.

At mile 19 of the Mineral King Road, I passed a trailhead sign for the Paradise Ridge Trail. The Paradise Ridge Trail left from the left (north) side of the road here, but there is no parking at the true trailhead; instead, I had to drive onwards for another quarter mile, passing the entrance to the Atwell Mill campground and then pulling into a medium-sized gravel lot to the right of the Mineral King Road at the upper end of the campground that was signed for hiker parking. There’s enough room here for perhaps 20 cars; this is the trailhead not only for the Paradise Ridge Trail, but also the Atwell-Hockett Trail that accesses the Atwell Plateau. On the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, my car was the first in the lot around 9:30 AM.

To reach the trailhead from the parking area, I followed a gravel road west from the parking lot through the Atwell Mill Campground; at the western end of the campground, I followed the Mineral King Road itself through 2 curves for about a hundred meters to reach the Paradise Ridge Trail. I crossed the road and started up this trail, which immediately embarked on a steady ascent through the forest. The forest was initially nondescript until about 2/3 of a mile, when the trail entered a burned part of Atwell Grove that had a handful of smaller sequoias with fire-scarred trunks. The trees were still quite tall but lacked the immense girth that characterize true old-growth giants. Departing this grove, the trail crossed an open, brushy slope from which I had good views of the mountains across the valley, with the rocky granite ridge leading towards Hengst Peak.

At one mile from the trailhead, the Paradise Ridge Trail turned a corner where brushy chaparral very suddenly transitioned to the impressive giant sequoias of Atwell Grove. The most scenic part of the grove came near where the trail crossed a stream: here, the wetter environs supported a greener understory and there was a higher density of sequoias. The trail ascended a bit and then doubled back into the grove at a higher elevation, passing another handful of nice sequoias.

Sequoias of Atwell Grove
Atwell Grove
Massive sequoia in Atwell Grove
At about 1.4 miles, the trail exited the grove and broke back out onto the open, brushy slope, once again delivering nice views of the East Fork Kaweah Valley and the broccoli-top sequoias deeper within Atwell Grove that lined the ridge to the west.

Looking down the East Fork Kaweah River Valley
After more, steady ascent through forest, the trail reentered Atwell Grove at 2 miles. The entrance to this section of the grove was announced by an absolutely massive sequoia just downslope of the trail that had been partially burned out by fire on its trail-facing side. This upper grove was pretty, especially at first, but lacked the lushness and majesty of the lower section of the grove.

Upper part of Atwell Grove
The trail ascended through this grove with a few switchbacks and then swung east and left this grove, as well. Over most of the next mile, the trail stayed in a nondescript forest as it climbed steadily uphill towards Paradise Ridge. Shortly before reaching the ridge, the trail broke back out into the open for some more views of rocky Hengst Peak across the valley.

View of Hengst Peak near Paradise Ridge
The trail made a final short switchback and then at just under three miles from the trailhead, I arrived at a saddle on the crest of forested Paradise Ridge. There were no views from the top of the ridge, just trees; a trail sign here indicated that the Paradise Ridge Trail would continue for another 6 miles to Redwood Meadow Grove, a remote, backcountry grove of giant sequoias in the Middle Fork Kaweah watershed.

There was no sign pointing out the route to Paradise Peak here, but it’s fairly straightforward to find the way here. The path- which in the past was a maintained trail- headed left (west) along the top of the ridge and initially required negotiating a significant amount of tree deadfall. After a stretch of flatter hiking along the ridge, the path began to ascend, sometimes steeply, along the spine of the ridge. I passed a couple outcrops that were fifty or so meters off the trail that had some decent views of Mineral King Valley and the Great Western Divide but I continued on to catch the better views at higher elevations.

Deadfall-covered trail towards Paradise Peak
I lost the trail multiple times on my way up the ridge towards Paradise Peak as the path is no longer maintained and the route required navigating past many, many fallen trees that obscured the path. The trail climbed steadily for the most part with a few steep inclines and stayed in the forest for almost the entire time. Halfway through the ascent- about 0.7 miles after leaving the Paradise Ridge Trail- the path swung by a small clearing that had a very pretty view to the east of the Great Western Divide, including Sawtooth Peak and Florence Peak. Even more notable was the broccoli top of a giant sequoia visible just below us: at 8800 feet above sea level, this old growth giant sequoia lies at the very top of Atwell Grove and forms the upper elevation limit of the giant sequoia’s range.

Great Western Divide and a high elevation old-growth sequoia
I continued uphill, negotiating more deadfall as I went; the trail faded as I approached the summit, but the ridge was well defined so this wasn’t a major issue. When I reached the true 9362-foot summit of Paradise Peak, trees lined the summit and the rocks here only provided a partial view north of the Castle Rocks, Moro Rock, the Middle Fork Kaweah Canyon, and the granite domes of Big and Little Baldies. 

Castle Rock, Moro Rock, Big and Little Baldies
I stopped to enjoy the view for a moment, but then I continued just a little further west along the ridge, descending slightly to come of the base of a massive west-facing granite outcrop. I had to do a bit of rock scrambling to reach the top of this outcrop, which hosted some transmission equipment but more importantly had astounding, airy views to the north and west.

From this enormous outcrop, I had a stunning view down into the Middle Fork Kaweah Valley. Moro Rock rose imposingly across the valley, its shoulders draped with the broccoli tops of the sequoias of Giant Forest. I could see the back side of Castle Rocks from here, although the magnificent granite cliffs of its north face were hidden from view. I could even see all the way to the gray, barren granite of Alta Peak.

Sierra foothills- the KNP Complex Fire ignited here five days after this photo
Writing this post, I feel a certain sense of loss: a mere five days after I stood atop Paradise Peak, lightning struck the lower slopes of the mountain and ignited the KNP Complex Fire, which engulfed most of Paradise Peak in flames over the course of the next month, although miraculously, just about every part of the Paradise Ridge Trail and Paradise Peak itself were spared. However, the lower slopes of Paradise Peak and many of the area’s sequoia groves did not fare so well: Castle Creek Grove on nearby Castle Rocks may have been completely incinerated and Redwood Mountain Grove in Kings Canyon National Park suffered extreme fire damage.

Atwell Grove's close call with the KNP Complex Fire is a reminder of how vulnerable and precious these giant sequoias are in the time of climate change. Hikers should come soon to see these sequoias, as the KNP Complex Fire, Castle Fire, and Windy Fire in 2020 and 2021 devastated nearly the full range of the species. This hike may not have the high alpine draw of other Mineral King destinations but is still a lovely place for enjoyable Sierra views coupled with a stunning grove of sequoias.

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