The hiking book: Hiking the San Francisco Bay Area (Falcon Guides)
The distance: 6 miles
The CityGirls rating: 5

The highlights of this hike were definitely the sandstone rocks and massive boulders strewn throughout the park (didn’t see that coming, now did you?).

Sandstone rock formation, Castle Rock State Park

On one of the first nice weekends we’d had in a while, we chased the sun down the coast toward Santa Cruz, where we found sunny 70 degree weather at Castle Rock State Park.

Apparently everyone else had decided the warm weather required a trip to a state park, because the parking lot at Castle Rock was jammed with groups of yelling children, sullen teens dragged along by their overly enthusiastic parents, and climbers with crash pads strapped to their backs. So much for a quiet hike in nature…

We hit the trail just ahead of a rowdy group of seven-year-old boys and booked it the first leg to get some distance from the madhouse. The crowds thinned as we went, and we actually managed to find some quiet on the Saratoga Gap Trail as it skirted the hillside through alternating sun and shade.

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We paused to scramble up on a few of the rocks along the trail and bask in the warmth of the sun and the redolence of the Bay Laurels and Manzanitas that covered this sun-exposed face of the hill. Lunch came with a lovely view from atop a rock, looking out over layers of tree-covered hills with the ocean and Monterey Bay in the distance. A couple vultures kept us company, along with a small black bird with a bright blue underbelly that flitted through a stand of Madrones a little ways up the trail.

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The return leg of the hike started along the ridge of the hill and, with the trees letting in little more than glimpses of blue sky and shafts of piercing sunlight, it felt like the top of the world.

We stopped to explore a sandstone cave with some fun-looking formations. Erosion of the sandstone over centuries has produced a delightful variety of formations in Castle Rock State Park. The erosion process, called tafoni, elaborates on cracks and such in the rock to form these crazy shapes through the repeated applications of rain and dry heat.

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Goat Rock and Castle Rock are the main attractions of the park. At Goat Rock, the trail takes you by the shorter face of this rock set into the hillside, and you can scramble up onto its slick, slopey top. We did, after waiting for what seemed like 50 giggling, shrieking teenage girls to realize that, if they had climbed up there, they would have to climb back down. At least there was a nice view from atop the rock. The taller face of Goat Rock is technical climbing, and we saw some anchors stuck into the rock for attaching a climbing rope. It looked like it would be a fun climb, in fact.

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Castle Rock is the epicenter of bouldering, at least that we saw. Climbers had their crash pads out at the base of a number of boulders in the area around it. Castle Rock itself was completely overrun with children, so we decided to just skirt around it on the trail.

While the rocks were clearly the primary attraction of this hike, we spotted a few other cool things along the trail, like mushrooms growing out of a decomposing log, bark flaking off a piece of Madrone like a shape-shifter’s skin, and a pay phone in the middle of the woods (okay, it was at the little walk-in campground, but still, a pay phone? And you could make free calls to Chase Bank and to receive God’s blessing and daily prayer).

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HIKE NOTES
Ease of following designated hike: 8.
Our hike time: 4 hours.
Best season to hike: There are supposed to be wildflowers in the spring here, though it may get pretty hot as it moves into summer. The weather was great on a warm winter day, but we doubt there are many times when it’s actually quiet here.
Solitude: 2. The parking lot was a zoo, and the boulders were overrun with kids and climbers, but we found a bit of peace and quiet out towards the campground.