John Salathe', who was on the second ascent, called this the best spire in California outside of Yosemite Valley.
Arguably the hardest peak in the High Sierra, Castle Rock Spire goes free at IV 5.11 by its EASIEST route. All other routes on the Spire require some amounts of direct aid.
In spite of this, many say that the approach is the crux of the climb. Several parties have wandered around in the brush for days without ever reaching the base of the spire. Many others have required visits to the hospital for systemic poison oak reactions. Ticks are abundant and hungry, especially in the lower canyons. Twice we have encountered rattlesnakes when stumbling around in the poison oak.
Since the first ascent in 1950 by Phil Bettler, Jim Wilson, Will Siri, Allen Steck and Bill Long, to date fewer than 65 parties have summited this amazing needle. The summit register reads like a who's who of climbing in the United States: Allen Steck, John Salathe, Anton Nelson, Galen Rowell, Mark Powell, Chuck Wilts. Mike Sherrick, TM Herbert, Alois Smrz, Richard Leversee... And many, many more familiar names.
The Legendary Approach
"Only from the depths of comfort do we willingly return to adversity." If this is true, the approach to Castle Rocks is designed for those who are suffocating in luxury.
DEET, tick spray, haz-mat suits, technu, and a change of clothes are but a few of the tools employed to endure the approach unscathed. Poison oak is unavoidable: many parties have found themselves literally crawling through endless thickets of it. Ticks are a certainty. To reach the base of the spire, routefinding ability, tracking, and maniacal stubborness are mandatory. Simply put, those who list this area among their favorites are quite literally insane. You have been warned.
Although the Spire and the Fin can be approached from Atwell Mills, consensus seems to be that for this part of Castle Rocks, the easier approach is from the Hospital Rock / Buckeye Flat area on the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River.
From Buckeye Campground in Sequoia National Park, follow the Paradise Creek trail for about 1.5 miles.
Where the trail crosses a steep-sided ravine, a faint, hard-to-follow bear track leaves the trail to the left then up onto a ridge, where eventually you intersect the old Castle Rocks Trail.
Follow this "trail" for about 5 miles through tangles of poison oak, burned-out hillsides, and heartbreaking deadfalls until you reach the gully below the spire. Keep a sharp eye out for ticks, rattlesnakes, and poison oak. Allow a full day for the approach.
Flagging tape makes the return journey significantly easier.
During the summer months, once you leave Paradise Creek and its awesome swimming hole, there is little or no water on the approach until you near the spire, so carry plenty.
GPS Waypoints: More fun. Due to some extremely steep-sided canyons in this area, satellite acquisition can be an issue. Best use of these waypoints is to plot their location on a topographic map prior to attempting this approach, use the GPS on the approach as well, and keep a sharp eye out for evidence of trails built by humans.
1. Kaweah Bridge 2716 ft. N36*31.199' W 118*45.733'
2. Maintained Trail 3122 ft. N36*30.944' W 118*45.512'
3. 3176 ft. N36*30.923' W118*45.542'
4. 3314 ft. N36*30.786' W118*45.474'
5. 3666 ft. N36*30.781' W118*45.472'
6. 4240 ft. N36*30.701' W118*45.115'
7. 4331 ft. N36*30.724' W118*44.919'
8. 4381 ft. N36*30.794' W118*44.948'
9. 4350 ft. N36*30.911' W118*44.817'
10. 4491 ft. N36*30.771' W118*44.702'
11. 4706 ft. N36*30.684' W118*44.772'
12. 4812 ft. N36*30.688' W118*44.710'
13. 4972 ft. N36*30.638' W118*44.568'
14. 5062 ft. N36*30.661' W118*44.463'
15. 5189 ft. N36*30.878' W118*44.181'
16. 5213 ft. N36*30.902' W118*44.108'
17. 5204 ft. N36*30.699' W118*43.769'
18. "Trail" intersects the approach gully
at N36*30.810' W118*43.535'
From the base of the approach gully, the easiest route is to wander up the hillside to the right of the gully, which leads to a flat campsite for 3 persons, with a fire ring. An old shovel blade at the campsite makes a fine fry pan for heating tortillas.
If the entrance station is manned, an entrance fee may be required for entry into Sequoia National Park.
If Buckeye Campground is closed, park at nearby Hospital Rock. If open, it is possible to take a dirt left-hand fork in the road just before reaching the campground entrance and park at a wide spot in the road just above the campground.
Wilderness permits are required and (for the Paradise Creek Trail / Middle Fork Trail) can be obtained at the Foothills Visitor Center. The daily trailhead quota is 25 persons.
For reserving permits, you can go to the park website for at http://www.nps.gov/seki/bcinfo.htm and click on the Backcountry Basics link. That will take you to a PDF version of their backcountry newspaper. You can download a Permit Reservation Application.
The Mineral King Road that goes to Atwell Mill doesn't open until Memorial Day. Permits for that trail are issued at the Mineral King Ranger Station.
Reserved permits must be picked up by 9 am on the day of departure. If you are delayed call the ranger station at 559-565-3768 or you may forfeit your reservation.
As with any backcountry climbing in California, please be careful with fire in this area, particularly during the dry summer months.
When To Climb
The spire has been climbed only one time in winter, on the first ascent of Spike Hairdoo. This was extremely hazardous due to the constant avalanche activity in the approach gully. Even in May avalanches have been observed in the approach gully.
Typical climbing season is early May through August. Water is more plentiful in early season.
Buckeye Flat Campground
This campground is conveniently located at the Paradise Creek Trailhead, the jumping-off point to approach the spire from below. There is no trailhead parking here, but Hospital Rock picnic area is a 15-minute walk away (overnight parking OK). Buckeye is open from June to early September.
In the foothills along the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River, 4 miles (6km) from Sequoia Park entrance & 12 miles (19km) from Giant Forest. $18/night, tents only, flush toilets. The campground lies at an elevation of 2,800 feet (853 m) very close to the confluence of Paradise Creek and Middle Fork Kaweah River. There are 28 sites (1 handicap site) available for tent camping only. Each site accommodates up to six people and includes a picnic table, fire pit and grill and a few bear proof food containers. Campground amenities include drinking water and flush toilets.
When Buckeye Flat is closed (or full, as often happens during summer weekends) Potwisha is the next most convenient campground, and is open all year.
On the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River, 4 miles (6.5km) from Sequoia Park entrance, under an open stand of oaks. At 2100-foot (640m) elevation (hot in summer, snow-free in winter) 12 miles (19km) from the Giant Forest sequoia grove. 43 sites, 1 handicap site, $18/night, flush toilets, RV disposal station, & pay phone
Camping is allowed throughout the area in the backcountry. The best campsite for attempting the spire is below a large boulder located just below the North Arete, to the right of the main (eastern) approach gully. Firewood is plentiful and water is usually available here well into June. Hang your food when away from camp.
Correction to guidebook
The Southern Sierra Rockclimbing, Sequoia / Kings Canyon guide by Vernon et. al. incorrectly locates the Frost route on the Northwest Face, in both text and photos. The Frost route is actually located on the Northeast face, and starts in the main (eastern) approach gully. Cinco de Mayo is located on the Northwest Face, and starts from the gully located immediately west of the Spire..
Bears and Related Issues
In addition to the poison oak, ticks, and rattlesnakes (as if that weren't enough!) bears are very active in this area during the regular climbing season.
Caches of gear (even without food!) at the boulder camp have been raided and chewed, (They seem to like ripping up ensolite, but are not above scattering bolt kits and other less palatable items) and evidence of almost daily bear traffic on the "trail" has been noted.
Several visitors to the area have developed giardiasis from drinking untreated water, these protozooans likely hitchikers from Buckeye Flat garbage raids to the base of the seemingly pristine spire in an ursine intestinal tract.. A bear was spotted nosing around our camp during the FA of Cinco de Mayo. But if you are adamant about not carrying a filter or iodine, feel free to roll the dice.
If a campground host is present at either Buckeye Flat or Potwisha campgrounds, it may be advisable to meet with them to arrange storage of any food you would otherwise leave in your vehicle. Clubbings of vehicles by bears in these areas are not unknown.
I strongly encourage all who park at either Hospital Rock or Buckeye to get a backcountry permit, the rangers check all cars parked over night and find out who's who. You can do a self permit if the station is closed, its located down behind the visitor center, next to the fire station. Don't leave ANYTHING food related in your car at all, wrappers, empty pop cans, anything! The bears, which are active now, day and night, will eat through your car seats to get underneath, or break into your trunk. This also applies for dayhikes. We used the bear boxes in Buckeye for our extra food. Also, don't leave your car alarm on when you park it.
Poison oak is currently sprouting like kudzu! Ticks are hungry!
Bears are active, and the snakes are awake! enjoy!
Visitor's Center Telephone Number: (559)565-3135.