A Guide to Hiking and Exploring Castle Rock
What better way to start Memorial Day Weekend than to soak up the sun? I couldn’t pass up this golden opportunity to spend some time outdoors. An almost four-day weekend? 70° weather? Some relaxing time in nature (that follows social distancing regulations, of course)? Count me in!
As a South Bay resident, I was scouting out hiking trails close enough to drive to within an hour, but far enough to feel like I was escaping my daily, mundane routine for a bit. And I came across Castle Rock – a park I’ve been meaning to visit for a while.
Castle Rock State Park, located in the Santa Cruz Mountains, is a beautiful park filled with lush forests, sculpted sandstone, and panoramic views of the San Lorenzo Valley and the Pacific Ocean.
Don’t take my word for it – check out the beautiful views from Goat Rock Overlook on the Saratoga Gap Trail.
What’s in my bag?
Before going on a hike, I like to be prepared. Check out these few essentials I packed for a quick day hike!
- Water bottle
- Hand sanitizer
- Sunscreen lotion (100 SPF)
- Bug Bite Thing
- Pack of tissues
- Light windbreaker jacket
- Moisturizing lotion
Visiting The Park
A few things to note about the park:
- There is a $10 parking fee (vehicle day-use fee)
- Currently no water available – you will have to bring your own
- Plenty of clean, gender-neutral bathrooms available by the parking lot
- Poison oak is found along the trail so be careful and resist going off path
One of my favorite things about Castle Rock is that you have a good mix of trail options that can accommodate hikers of all ages and levels. With easy trails around 1.3 miles to more strenuous trails up to 16.4 miles, you can choose how long and how far you want your adventure to last.
For my hike, I opted for a 3.5 mile adventure, starting with the Saratoga Gap Trail and taking a short cut through an interconnected trail to loop back on the Ridge Trail.
The trail starts in the lush forested area following Kings Creek. There are a couple bridges you pass as you zigzag your way through the shaded forested area. After about 0.4 miles, the trail ascends quickly to the waterfall lookout where you can see Castle Rock Falls.
Unfortunately, the lookout deck area is currently closed for safety reasons related to the current pandemic, but you can still see the beautiful views of the valley. Don’t worry – you aren’t missing too much. The waterfall itself is a thin stream over water running over a sheer cliff below the platform, meaning you can’t get a great look at it anyways.
As you trek further up the Saratoga Gap Trail, you are able to see stunning views of the San Lorenzo Valley and several red-tailed hawks flying around the peaks, hunting deer mice and other small rodents scurrying about and hiding in the thick shrubs along the trails.
The park is home to a variety of wildlife including bobcats, raccoons, peregrine falcons, and more. Throughout my hike, I encountered lizards, a deer, a deer mouse, red-tailed hawks, and several other species of birds.
After you pass through the interconnecting trail and reach the Ridge Trail, you are able to see steep canyons sprinkled with unusual rock formations and boulder-dotted slopes. The park itself is named after one of these unique sandstone formations, Castle Rock, which is a very popular rock climbing area.
Besides the 32 miles of hiking and horseback riding trails, the park also has two walk-in campgrounds (first-come, first-serve), rock climbing routes, and picnic areas.
The rock climbing areas and the campgrounds are closed for now, but I’ll definitely be coming back here to experience Castle Rock at night.
In the meantime, check out some of my favorite pictures from my trip below and start planning your own adventure through this magnificent park!