Castle Rock State Park
Castle Rock is an immensely popular park. Maybe half of all visitors to the park are rock climbers, carrying big pads and other equipment, here to climb the large craggy tufa formations. The other half are hikers here to see the waterfall, although in summer it's only a trickle, and the magnificent panoramic view of the San Lorenzo River Valley from one of the highest spots in the Santa Cruz Mountains, with the fog-shrouded Pacific Ocean in the distance.
Adjacent to Castle Rock is the Los Altos Rod and Gun Club, which has three shooting ranges that are open to the public from 9 to 5 every Thursday through Sunday (9 to 4 in the winter). The nonstop sound of guns from this range disrupts the peacefulness of almost all hiking trails in the South Skyline region, as far north as Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve (at Alpine Road, above Palo Alto) and as far west as Memorial County Park. The Castle Rock campgrounds are especially badly affected during shooting hours. Surprisingly, though, the firing range can't be heard at all from the Saratoga Gap Trail, since it's shielded by a ridge.
Castle Rock doesn't have a whole lot of good hikes other than the one described below; a lot of people seem to come here just to find a spot to sit and enjoy the view. Much of the park outside the Saratoga Gap/Ridge Trail loop is covered with tanoak-dominated woods that are dry-looking and not especially interesting. What's more, the sound of gunfire makes it hard to enjoy a walk in these areas.
Castle Rock has quite a bit of poison oak.
Park in the Castle Rock lot for $8.00, or about 50 yards up the street in the Saratoga Gap lot for free. On a nice summer afternoon, you might have trouble finding parking in either lot, and "no parking" signs on the street prevent you from parking anywhere else.
From the parking lot, the worn and heavily-used trail leads downhill through tanoak forest. After half a mile, the trail crosses the creek and comes to an intersection with the Goat Rock Trail. An especially big tree grows at this intersection. Stay to the left, continuing downhill to the waterfall viewing platform. The waterfall itself is a thin stream of water that runs over a sheer cliff; you don't get a really good look at it since it's below the platform.
Past the platform, the trail continues through woods for a while before breaking out into chaparral and the first really good vistas. The trail becomes rocky for a stretch, and it can be slow going. Carved into the side of a steep hill, this part of the trail is baking hot on summer afternoons. Fortunately, the trail soon dives back into the cool forest.
The tanoak forest briefly gives way to a patch of much more attractive and open oak forest. There's a cut-off trail that you can take for a shorter loop. Most people seem to take this option, and beyond this point the crowds thin out considerably.
The trail continues through the woods for a while, but eventually breaks out into chaparral again, with more sweeping views. There's another stretch where you'll have to scramble over rocks; at one point the trail becomes a narrow ledge precariously hanging over a sheer dropoff. A cable attached to the rock face gives you something to hang on to.
The trail turns to the right, away from the steep hillside with its views and into the forest. Turn right onto the ridge trail, which climbs interminably through dull forest and thickets of poison oak on its way to Goat Rock. There are no views on this stretch of trail. The sounds of gunfire from the nearby shooting range can be heard throughout the first mile of trail, ending around the Emily Smith Bird Observation Point.
The scenery improves after this point as the trail descends past the large Goat Rock, offering more views of the San Lorenzo Valley. You have to scramble over rocks at several points. Soon the trail rejoins the Saratoga Gap Trail. Turn left to return to the parking lot.
© 2010, 2012 David Baselt