The 4th of July weekend — it’s a great time to get out and enjoy nature! In the local mountains surging water fills the rivers, wildflowers clothe the hillsides, and birdsong drifts across the landscape. How could it be more perfect?
But wait, it’s also a terrible time. The Independence Day weekend, as we all know, is famous for nasty highway traffic and congestion at most of our favorite recreation sites.
So, what is one to do on one of the busiest weekends of the summer if you’re looking for a quiet, outdoor experience?
Here’s an idea. Allow me to suggest a mountain hike — not an overnighter, mind you, just a good day’s walk in a scenic locale. I can guarantee the following: lush green forests, huge sequoia trees, wildflowers and birds, and scenic vistas. I can also guarantee no significant snowbanks lingering on the trail and no nasty, snow-swollen creeks to cross. And yes, you will have this walk largely to yourself.
So where is this perfect Independence Day trail? It starts at the Atwell Mill Campground on the Mineral King Road in Sequoia National Park.
Two trails, in fact, begin at Atwell Mill Campground. The better-known route, and not the one I‘m touting in this column, runs south toward Hockett Meadow. I enjoy the Atwell-Hockett Trail every time I take it, which is about every other year these days. But if you follow it more than a few miles this weekend you’ll begin to run into big (snow-melt-filled!) streams that you have to cross by wading. And before one gets to Hockett Meadow, patchy snow will become a significant issue. If you want to go to Hockett this year, wait another month.
The other trail starting at Atwell Mill goes by the name of the Paradise Ridge Trail, and it is my recommendation for this weekend. You’ll find the trailhead on the left (north) shoulder of the Mineral King Road a hundred yards short of the entrance to the campground. A trail sign and a map exhibit mark the location. (You’ll need to park a ¼ mile farther up the Mineral King road at the hikers’ parking area.)
Why do I like this trail? The Paradise Ridge Trail offers a classic mix. It starts in mix-conifer forest, climbs through impressive stands of giant sequoia, passes through areas that burned a half dozen years ago (great for birds), and finally achieves its namesake ridge, where you’ll find expansive views both north and south.
Now, in the name of full disclosure, I should warn you that this trail climbs a pretty good hill. (You should expect that of a route that includes the word “ridge “ in its name.) In slightly less than four miles, the Paradise Ridge Trail climbs from 6,500 feet to about 8,400 feet.
The way to climb a hill that size is to take your time. Set a slow pace, and stop and look when something catches your eye. Enjoy the shade (most of the trail runs through forest) and the cool breezes that blow over the slopes of Paradise Ridge. Don’t rush.
The other bit of warning I should add is that taking this hike requires a drive up the Mineral King Road with all its narrow and blind corners and steep grades. The drive, although perfectly passable in a regular automobile, is not for everyone.
Because the trail climbs the sunnier south side of Paradise Ridge, you’ll not have to worry about snow before reaching the summit. This is not true, however, if you want to continue down the north side of Paradise Ridge, and significant snowbanks still fill the forests there. Ultimately, the trail goes all the way to Redwood Meadow (about 11 miles), but I don’t recommend that destination because it would involve crossing Cliff Creek, which is nearly impossible right now because of high water.
So, here’s my offer: If you’re willing to drive about two hours into the mountains from Visalia (with the second hour on a narrow mountain road), and then walk on a trail that goes uphill, you will be rewarded with a nearly perfect hike, even over this holiday weekend. And after you’ve finished your walk, you’re entitled to a bonus. The trailhead is only about a five-minute drive from the Silver City Resort with its famous menu of homemade pies. Climb to Paradise Ridge and you’ll have earned a big piece, with ice cream!
© Wm. Tweed