Saratoga Gap Trail-Ridge Trail Loop, Castle Rock State Park, Saratoga

Directions:: Follow highway 9 through saratoga uphill to its junction with skyline (35). make a left (south) on skyline and follow 2.5 miles to the castle rock main entrance on the right. to avoid paying the $5 parking fee, park in the pullout outside of the parking lot. or you can pay the $5 fee to support state parks.

Trail Information:: you can take saratoga gap trail (left off the restroom) up to the trail camp, or ridge trail up to the trail camp. either way you are going downhill first, then uphill on the return. i prefer saratoga gap trail first since more of a gentle descent. this is rocky, rugged somewhat technical terrain. you start out on rocky trails through second-growth redwood, doug fir, and madrone forest. lots of beautiful ferns and wild ginger in the understory. cross over king's creek and eventually into more open chaparral area. the views to the north and west are spectacular when it's clear. expect to climb over sandstone boulders which only adds to the fun and adventure. often the trail goes through giant boulders or up and over them. along the way you will see castle rock falls, where king's creek plunges 75 feet over a huge sandstone slab. you'll also see goat rock, an enormous 100-ft tall sandstone outcrop popular with climbers. part of the trail is actually steps cut into the rock. it's awesome, literally. There is also a vista point and on the other side a spur trail going uphill to an interpretive center. all along the trails you will see huge sandstone boulders with holes called tafoni. you will also run through big groves of madrones which light up the dark forest with their beautiful orange-red bark. there's many of them, they are gorgeous.

in the fall the oaks and maples lose their bright leaves which makes the trail light up. the trail runs along varian peak, another huge sandstone outcrop with amazing views. at the return point you will come to the trail camp surrounded by knobcone pines, and return via the ridge trail. the whole loop is 6.7 miles if you continue on the spur trail to the trail camp. you can make this longer by continuing on the saratoga gap trail to saratoga gap, or shorter by taking the connector trail to the ridge trail about halfway through. when you get back to the parking lot, take the little spur trail to the actual Castle Rock, the park's namesake. this is an 80 or so foot tall sandstone outcrop that is breathtaking.

Miscellaneous Information:: there is water and restrooms at the parking lot, also at the trail camp about 3 miles from the trail head. fog drip can be heavy, wear layers as the weather can change quickly here in the santa cruz mountains. get there early as this is popular route for rock climbers. no dogs or bikes (yay). i like to run these trails in the fall and winter for the beautiful colors and when castle rock falls is at its glory. wear good grippy trail runners especially in the rain. bring a trail map with you as there are several unofficial spur trails off the main loop. the main loop is easy to follow though. this is not a loop for runners interested in speed. this terrain requires some climbing and scrambling over rocky terrain, and good balance. also, if you're afraid of heights, this may not be for you either, as the trails are narrow and hug the mountainside in some places. also, stay on the trails as this is poison oak country. despite all this, it's an awesome adventure, i love it.