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Saratoga, California, United States

Castle Rock State Park Loop: Saratoga Gap and Ridge Trails

Great views, challenging hiking in the hills southwest of Silicon Valley.

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Difficulty: Moderate
Length: 6.5 miles / 10.5 km
Duration: Half day
Family Friendly
Overview: With lush woods, gorgeous vistas, challenging trails and remarkable stone formations, Castle Rock State Park is a highlight reel for hiking in the San Francisco Bay Area.

You'll find a fascinating mix to trees -- gnarled oaks, towering Douglas firs, bark-shedding madrones -- but the rocks steal the show. Large formations called "tafoni" (which look like the work of honeybees on steroids) formed over eons as weathering processes gradually reshaped the stone.

Castle Rock is the most notable tafoni formation, but there are many more in the park.

This hike starts from the park's main parking lot, heading first to Castle Rock, then picking up Saratoga Gap Trail, stopping at Trail Camp, and returning on the Ridge Trail. It's not a hike for beginners -- the trail is narrow and gnarly in a few places, and the ample ups and downs create a good workout.

Best time to go: Winter, when the crowds thin out (though this hike can be done all year). Note it can be quite cold here in winter -- snow may blanket the park when big minter storms blow through.

Tips: Hiking poles come in handy on this hike.

Trail Camp is popular with local Scout troops, most of whom are returning on Sunday mornings. The kids are generally well-behaved, but they can move in large packs.

A gun club about a mile up the road is most audible on the Ridge Trail -- it's best to hike this section of the trail last, so your hike does not open to the sound of gunfire.

Watch for poison oak on narrow sections of the trail.

What to bring:
Clothing in layers
Paper map (available in the parking lot kiosk if it's staffed).

Points of Interest


Castle Rock parking, trailhead

All trails start from this parking area off California Highway 35.

Start hiking on the Castle Rock Trail, a left turn from the parking lot. After a short uphill jaunt, turn right on a wide park road and head uphill further.

Castle Rock appear on the left after about a third of a mile.

Castle Rock

At Castle Rock, explore the many nooks and crannies for an up-close look at a major "tafoni" formations.

If you scramble around behind the rock you can enter a large cavern, big enough for several people.

Castle Rock Trail continues on the west side of the rock -- follow it for about a half-mile down to Saratoga Gap Trail.

Saratoga Gap Trail

Turn left here and head toward Castle Rock Falls.

This section of trail heads downhill under a thick canopy of Douglas Fir.

Ridge Trail, east end

After about a third of a mile you'll round a turn and cross a creek at this junction. You'll revisit this trail intersection when the hike's almost over.

Turn left, continuing toward Castle Rock Falls.

Castle Rock Falls

After .2 of a mile, a large wood deck appears on the left, overlooking Castle Rock Falls.

Most of the year the flow is relatively mild, but if you come in winter after several days of rain might be quite a gusher.

On clear days there's a wonderful view of the Santa Cruz Mountains southwest of the park.

Saratoga Gap Trail continues

The trail hugs a steep hillside with fantastic views of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

This two-mile stretch has lots of tricky footing -- watch your step -- but it's also the most engaging section of the hike.

Take your time and enjoy the experience. Wildflowers decorate the hillside in springtime; the blazing sun of summer will make you regret forgetting your sunscreen.

Russell Point

Just before you get here, there's a steel-cable handhold on a narrow sliver of trail above a drop-off on the hillside. Be extra careful here.

Russell Point looks westward toward neighboring Big Basin Redwoods State Park, home of some of the oldest trees in California.

The trail then curves to the right and heads toward the backpackers' campground.

Trail camp

Saratoga Gap Trail passes through Trail Camp, which has a privy and a drinking fountain.

This is a great place to take a break from the rigors of the first half of the hike.

When you're rested, go back the way you came on Saratoga Gap trail till you reach the Ridge Trail junction on your left.

Ridge Trail, west end

Turn left on Ridge Trail.

There's quite a bit of climbing along this way. Groves of shiny brown madrone trees arc to and fro across the forest along the first section of this route.

Eventually you'll pass out of the Madrone forest and into a stretch of oak woodland. After about 1.1 miles you'll reach the turn-off to Goat Rock -- a popular climbing destination and a great place to take pictures.

Turn right here to head straight to Goat Rock, or continue straight for a short jaunt to the Interpretive Shelter.

Turn-off to Goat Rock

Turn right here to head directly to Goat Rock.

If you're feeling nimble you can scramble up onto Goat Rock to take in the view. Note it's a slippery return to the trail on your way back.

Interpretive Center

Displays here describe the describing the natural features of Castle Rock -- plant life, wild animals, geological features.

Follow signs to Goat Rock and get back on the Ridge Trail there.

Goat Rock

Make sure you don't interfere with any of the climbers on Goat Rock -- some are dangling from fixed ropes on the rock as they practice their moves.

When you're done hanging out at Goat Rock, get back on Ridge Trail by taking the stone stairway downward and to the left of the rock.

Take Ridge Trail for a half-mile till you return to the intersection with Saratoga Gap Trail.

Turn left and hike the last mile back to the parking lot.
met a girl there... i was fun ;)

by inqueba on Jul 17, 2014
very nature rich... great experience

by hairtransplant on Jul 17, 2014
Beautiful hike. The rock formations and the views of the valley are excellent. The nearby gun club certainly takes away from the tranquility of your hike while hiking the Ridge Trail. I liked the different terrain and trail types encountered on this loop hike.
Visited on Apr 19, 2014

by ondmtn on Apr 19, 2014
I ditched out of work early on a Monday to head out to this hike! The view is amazing. We took the Saratoga Gap trail (~7.3 miles) up and around (clockwise). The trip took us about 2.5 hours at a moderate walk. I have been here a few times before, and will definitely be going back! But as a warning if you go on a weekend, go early, it gets pretty busy.
Visited on Jul 16, 2012

by J3alz on Jul 18, 2012
The views on this hike are amazing.
Visited on Aug 20, 2011

by Em.Knutson on Aug 24, 2011

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