Castle Rock is an immensely popular park. Maybe half of the park's visitors 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.
The loop hike recommended below combines all of the park's most popular features a waterfall, tufa formations, and spectacular views over the Santa Cruz Mountains.
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 hike recommended below 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.
The gunfire comes from the Los Altos Rod and Gun Club, which is 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 (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 during most of this hike, since it's shielded by a ridge.
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 remarkably 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 can't get a really good look at it since it's almost directly 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 has a superb view over the green San Lorenzo River Basin, with hawks circling below. The prominent ridge in the distance is Empire Grade.
The trail becomes rocky, and it can be slow going. Carved into the side of a steep hill, this part is baking hot on summer afternoons. Fortunately, the trail soon dives back into the cool forest.
At the trail's only footbridge, look to your left to see the Patrick Charles Allen grove, a group of tiny redwoods lining a ravine. These are the only redwoods on this hike; at 2600 feet, they're near the upper limit of the redwoods' elevation range.
The tanoak forest briefly gives way to a patch of much more attractive and open oak forest. A cut-off trail provides the possibility of hiking a shorter, 3-mile loop; this is actually a pretty good option since it includes the best sights of the longer loop and less of the gunfire noise. On the other hand, the longer loop has more panoramic views and the crowds thin out considerably after the cut-off trail.
The trail 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 cling to.
The trail turns to the right, away from the steep hillside with its views and into the forest. The sound of gunfire from the nearby shooting range becomes audible at this point. 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 continue throughout the first mile of trail, finally ending around the Emily Smith Observation Point.
The scenery improves after this point as the trail descends past the huge and very popular Goat Rock tufa formation, offering more views of the San Lorenzo Valley. The trail becomes rough and rocky, and it's necessary 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, 2017 David Baselt