Friday, March 26, 2010

Castle Rock Falls Loop: Castle Rock State Park

Desert Paintbrush near Goat Rock

Castle Rock State Park is probably best know for its rock climbing, which is coincidentally the best in the bay area. The park offers some great hikes as well, and is the start of the classic bay area Skyline-to-the-sea trail. For those seeking a more modest trip, the Castle Rock Falls to Goat Falls loop fits the bill. The total distance of 4.7 miles seems much longer because of the rugged and rocky terrain the trail traverses. The dry chaperall of the west facing slopes will be toasty even in the spring, so bring plenty of water and enjoy the unique park.

Small waterfall near the Saratoga Gap Trail.

The trail starts out from the main parking lot on the south end of the park just off Skyline Blvd. Parking is permitted on the ample dirt shoulder off the road just outside the main parking lot for no fee. The route is a partial loop and begins on the Saratoga Gap trail as it winds its way down a cool riparian corridor. A few mossy rocks can be found off to the side of the trail but the main climbing area is ahead, as are all the highlights of the park. The first trail junction is just a few hundred feet after the start of the trail and runs to Castle Rock proper, it would make a nice addition to this hike but I avoided it because I only packed a small amount of water.

Garter Snake along the Saratoga Gap trail near Castle Rock Falls.

After the junction the trail continued to slowly descend along the creek until the Goat Rock trail junction. This hike can be done in reverse by merely following this trail and looping around in the other direction. From this point however you can faintly hear the falls on a good day and I was excited to get to them. Sadly though the overlook provides a fairly poor vantage point for the falls and even at full roar they are fairly unimpressive.

Climber ascending the rock near Castle Rock Falls.

The trail turns to the right just after the falls and opens up to some powerful views. On a clear day all of the monterey bay is visible down to Big Sur and to the north most of the Santa Cruz mountains are laid out below with the Pacific Ocean beyond.

Exposed sections of the trail are common.

The views continue over consistent and rocky terrain which passes some excellent climbing boulders. The trail eventually comes to a junction after some gnarly terrain and impressive rocks. A right at the junction towards Goat Rock and the Interpretive Center will begin to close the loop, otherwise it is still a nice hike out to the park backpacking camp.

The trail does a little bit of climbing and covers some switchbacks as it heads uphill. The dry chaparall turns into a dry oak forest and shades the trail somewhat. The trail eventually reaches a small knob with junctions leading to the interpretive center and over to a bird viewing area in the opposite direction.

The bird viewing area is maybe worth a visit but the key attraction lies just ahead on the trail. After a couple turns in some nice shady forest the trail opens up to a large rock formation which from the top is easily climbed without climbing equipment. Once on top of Goat Rock the views are tremendous so long as you have a good purchase. A small knife edge leads out to an exposed tip of the rock that drops away about 100 feet. I stood on top of this rock watching vultures ride the thermals and pass so close I could hear their wings cut through the air. Views of most of the park are open up down below the rock and in the distance the Monterrey bay lays out again.

View from the top of Goat Rock.

Stairs leading down from Goat Rock

After getting down from the top of Goat Rock the trail wraps around the rock following some stairs down to its base. I had brought my climbing shoes so I couldn't help myself but spent some time doing a little unroped rock climbing near the base. There were lizards all over the place near the base of the rock face of the rock, in the bushes, running around on the ground. Clearly this place is like Venice Beach for the local lizard population.

After Goat Rock the trail quickly loops back around through a partially shady, but still very rocky landscape before returning to the creek crossing junction noted early in the hike. From this point it is a simple return over the forested creek trail back to the parking lot. 

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