Saratoga Gap and Ridge Trail Loop
Total Distance: 5.2 miles round-trip
Hiking Time: 2.5 hours
Elevation Change: 600 feet
Hello, hikers, and welcome to Swiss Cheese State Park. Oops, that's Castle Rock State Park, of course, but all those holey sandstone rocks look more like fromage than chateaus. Call it what you like, Castle Rock is one of the most surprising parks in the entire Bay Area. In five miles of hiking, you can visit a 50-foot waterfall in winter and spring, gaze at great expanses of Santa Cruz Mountains wildlands, and explore several large sandstone formations, including the local rock climbers' favorite, Goat Rock.
In recent years, Castle Rock has also become one of the most popular parks in the Bay Area. The park is used by rock climbers as well as hikers, so weekends can be very crowded. For the best experience, plan your trip for a weekday, or get an early morning start on weekends.
Take Saratoga Gap Trail from the far side of Castle Rock's parking lot, heading right. (The trail is signed To Campground.) The pleasure begins immediately as you travel downhill, walking along rocky, fern-lined Kings Creek through a mixed forest of Douglas firs, black oaks, and madrones. The seasonal stream begins as a trickle at the parking lot, then picks up flow and intensity as it heads downhill alongside the trail.
It's a mere 0.8 mile to Castle Rock Falls, which flows with vigor in the wet season. After 15 minutes on the trail, you find yourself standing on a large wooden viewing deck, perched on top of the waterfall. Because you're at its brink, the fall is a bit difficult to see. You'll be torn between searching for the best view of its 50-foot drop and admiring the miles of uninhabited Santa Cruz Mountains wildlands. It's hard to say whether this deck was built for viewing the waterfall or the canyon vista. Both are incredible.
From the viewing deck, continue on Saratoga Gap Trail for another 1.8 miles. The terrain changes quickly from a shady mixed woodland to a sunny, exposed slope with views all the way out to Monterey Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Spring and summer bring forth colorful blooms on bush monkeyflower and other sun-loving chaparral plants. As you progress, you'll notice an ever-increasing number of sandstone outcrops that have been hollowed and sculpted by wind erosion. In some places, the sandstone becomes the trail surface. You'll have to scramble over a few small boulders to continue on your way.
At 2.5 miles from its start, Saratoga Gap Trail junctions with Ridge Trail and the spur to Castle Rock Trail Camp. Pay a visit to the pleasant, forested campsites if you wish (water and picnic tables are available), or just turn sharply right on Ridge Trail, beginning the return leg of your loop. After a 0.5-mile uphill hike through a dense madrone forest, the trail emerges on an open ridge. (Ridge Trail roughly parallels Saratoga Gap Trail, but at a higher elevation.)
Another 0.5 mile of gentle ascent takes you past a connector trail to Saratoga Gap Trail. Just beyond is a short spur to the Emily Smith Bird Observation Point. This forested knoll is a good spot to look for raptors, although views are severely limited by the leafy black oaks.
Nearly four miles into the loop is the spur trail for Goat Rock. Turn right and follow it for 0.25 mile. (The left fork leads to a fascinating interpretive exhibit on the park's geology; you can also loop around to Goat Rock from there.)
You're likely to see rock climbers on the steep south side of Goat Rock, but the north side is easily accessible on two feet. Signs along the path encourage hikers to visit a neighboring overlook area instead of climbing on the 100-foot-high rock, due to its steep and potentially dangerous drop-offs. Weigh the risk for yourself and take your pick. The overlook offers a great view of the Santa Cruz Mountains parading down to the Pacific Ocean, and often more solitude than Goat Rock. If you're sure-footed and cautious, the smooth back side of Goat Rock is a great place to examine the sandstone close-up, as well as enjoy more high views.
Beyond Goat Rock, Ridge Trail continues eastward until it reconnects with Saratoga Gap Trail just above Castle Rock Falls. Turn left and make a 0.5-mile climb back up the creek canyon to the trailhead.
Don't leave the park without walking the 0.7-mile loop trail to Castle Rock, the park's namesake rock formation. A marked spur trail leads off Saratoga Gap Trail on the right, just before you return to the parking lot on the hike outlined earlier.
And in spring, the park's Summit Meadows Trail should not be missed. The trailhead is at Sempervirens Point, a drive-up overlook on the south side of Highway 9, 1.9 miles west of Skyline Boulevard. If the view of the Santa Cruz Mountains from the overlook inspires you, you'll love this two-mile flower-filled walk from the point's north end through Summit Meadows.
From Saratoga, take Highway 9 west to its junction with Skyline Boulevard (Highway 35). Turn left (south) on Skyline Boulevard and drive 2.5 miles to the Castle Rock State Park parking area on the right. The trailhead is on the west side of the parking lot, opposite the entrance.
Or, from I-280 in Palo Alto, take Page Mill Road west for 8.9 miles to Skyline Boulevard (Highway 35). Turn left (south) on Skyline Boulevard and drive 13 miles, past Highway 9, to the Castle Rock State Park parking area on the right.
Information and Contact
An $8 day-use fee is charged per vehicle. Dogs and bikes are not allowed. A park map is available for $1 at the entrance kiosk, or by free download at www.parks.ca.gov. For more information, contact Castle Rock State Park, 15000 Skyline Boulevard, Los Gatos, CA 95033, 408/867-2952, www.parks.ca.gov.
From the book Moon 101 Great Hikes of the San Francisco Bay Area by Ann Marie Brown. Excerpted by arrangement with Avalon Travel, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011. For more information, visit http://www.moon.com.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication