The crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains
HIGHLIGHTS: At the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Castle Rock State Park is just minutes from Silicon Valley. Yet it’s a perfect place to unwind from the wired world. It’s big enough for backpackers-5,500 acres-and rich in intriguing trails, shady woods, sun-drenched chaparral and sandstone heights. The park’s 2,000 acres of coast redwoods are mostly second- and third-growth trees, but occasionally you can spot one (often with a twist or other commercial imperfection) that the loggers passed by.
ACTIVITIES: Rockclimbing, backpacking, camping, picnicking, hiking, horseback riding. No trails are open to mountain biking. There are parking spaces outside the park entrance, but visitors are encouraged to support the park by paying the $8 day-use fee to park inside.
VISITOR CENTER: No visitor center. Castle Rock is a wilderness park with almost no structures at all.
CAMPGROUNDS: The park has two backpacking trail camps. On a ridge 2.6 miles from the park’s main parking lot, Castle Rock Trail Camp has 20 first-come, first-served sites. Nine miles from the lot, Waterman Gap Trail Camp has six sites that can be reserved by calling Big Basin State Park at (831) 338-8861. (Big Basin handles reservations for all trail camps in the Santa Cruz Mountains.) No showers or RV access.
TRAILS: Castle Rock has 35 miles of trails. For views and spring wildflowers, try the 5.6-mile loop that starts at Saratoga Gap Trail, goes to Castle Rock Falls and Castle Rock Trail Camp, and returns via Ridge Trail. This route will lead you through coast redwoods growing at 2,600 feet-the species’ highest elevation in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Long-distance hikers may want to try the 30-mile-long Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail, which traverses both Castle Rock and Big Basin state parks. The starting point is at Saratoga Gap (at the intersections of Highways 9 and 35). Then you’ll head up and down, but generally down, past waterfalls and every type of habitat the range has to offer. You’ll finish by the Pacific Ocean at Waddell Beach. To plan your hike and select campsites along the way, call Big Basin State Park at (831) 338-8861.
MUST-SEE UNIQUE FEATURE OR SEASONAL HIGHLIGHT: Ranger Jason Rule recommends you come at least twice in the spring to see the succession of wildflowers, including poppies, sticky monkeyflower, wooly paintbrush, stinging lupine, baby blue eyes and Chinese houses. You might even want to make a third trip: in May and June, tall stalks of a succulent called hot rock dudleya burst with yellow-to-reddish-orange blossoms. Then there’s the fall, when bigleaf maples turn bright yellow and madrones turn a brownish hue, well matched by the resident banana slugs.
HIDDEN GEMS: The rarest habitats in the park are black oak woodlands and knobcone pine/chaparral.
FEATURES ACCESSIBLE TO PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES: 0.8-mile-long Whole Access Trail, which leads to a woodland vista and wheelchair-accessible picnic table.
DOGS: Not allowed, except for service dogs.
ENTRANCE FEE: $8 for day-use vehicle entry.
MORE INFORMATION: Go to the park’s website (external link) or call (408) 867-2952. To purchase a map-brochure –either Castle Rock Trail Map or Guide to Rocks and Climbing — send a check for $2 payable to the Portola and CR Foundation and a self-addressed #10 envelope with two first-class stamps to the park at 15000 Skyline Blvd., Los Gatos, CA 95033.
EAT: Try Silver Spur (external link) for breakfast. You can sit at the communal table and tell your fellow diners about the park!
FAVORITE HIKE: The Saratoga Trail has narrow singletrack sections with great views. The Ridge Trail is a great way to stay in the shade on a hot day.
FAVORITE PARK ATTRACTION: Castle Rock is a rock climber’s playground!
DON’T MISS: The amazing views of the Santa Cruz Mountains.
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