Castle Rock State Park: The Complete Guide

A view from Castle Rock State Park near the Northern California's coastal region

Frank Chen / Getty Images

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Castle Rock State Park

Address
15451 CA-35, Los Gatos, CA 95033, USA
Phone +1 408-868-9540


Castle Rock State Park is home to one of the highest ridges in the Santa Cruz Mountains. A combination of unique sandstone formations sculpted by nature and wooded forests filled with coastal redwoods, black oaks, and pines, this California park spreads across 5,200 acres ranging from 3,214 feet to 760 feet in elevation.

History

The park’s landscape was once occupied by several different Native American communities, collectively recognized as the Ohlone people, and served as a substantial source of lumber during the California gold rush years. In 1908, a Santa Clara judge purchased a 60-acre parcel on Castle Rock Ridge to open the area’s scenic views to the public while simultaneously protecting the land from rampant logging. Castle Rock was expanded and designated as an official state park in July 1968.

Things to Do

Today, the park is an important reminder of the area’s natural and cultural history, providing habitats for multiple animal species like black-tailed deer, coyotes, and red-tailed hawks that visitors regularly observe. Wildflowers like blue sky lupine and lilac are displayed during the spring months, while a blend of ridgetop grasslands, forests, and woods support various hiking trails. Bouldering and rock climbing are also popular activities, as is camping inside either of the two backcountry trail camps.

Rock climber in Castle Rock State Park

Oleg Alexandrov / CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Best Hikes & Trails

Thanks to its mountain range views and unique rock formations, visitors come from far and wide to tackle the best hikes in Castle Rock State Park. Although parts of the property can get crowded during the summer months, most of your time will be spent in the quiet solitude of nature, surrounded by forested valleys, waterfalls, and beautiful landscapes. The state park encompasses 34 miles of trails linking the Santa Clara and San Lorenzo valleys to Big Basin Redwoods State Park and the coast.

  • Castle Rock Falls: On the easier side, the hike to Castle Rock Falls takes visitors on a 1.3-mile round-trip journey from the main parking lot to the 75-foot waterfall and back. The falls are typically quite dry unless there’s been recent rain, but with an elevation gain of 320 feet, the hike’s views may just make up for it.
  • Ridge Trail Camp Loop: This moderate hike spans just over 5 miles with an elevation gain of 1,190 feet, traversing through the forest and past views of the San Lorenzo River Valley and even further into Monterey Bay on clear days.
  • Skyline to the Sea Trailhead: As the name suggests, this strenuous backpack hike requires a drop off at the main parking lot and a pickup at Waddell Beach in Big Basin Redwoods State Park over 25 miles toward the coast. Park officials recommend setting aside two to four days for backpacking and advise utilizing trail camps along the way.

Rock Climbing

Seeing as the park is mainly well known for its impressive boulders and rocks, it's no surprise that there are a lot of great climbing spots to enjoy here as well. Castle Rock State Park's famous Vaqueros sandstone is between 30 and 40 million years old, while erosional patterns known as tafoni have formed honeycomb-like pockets in the coarse grains of cemented sand. The indented patterns paired with the hard stone exterior of these massive rocks have attracted climbers to the park for nearly a century, specifically sites on Castle Rock (the park's namesake) and Goat Rock. Check park bulletin boards for notices on any closures or restrictions due to erosion or nesting wildlife.

Where to Camp

There are two backcountry trail camps inside Castle Rock State Park, including 20 primitive sites in the Castle Rock campground and six primitive sites in the Waterman Gap campground. These sites are for backpackers only and cost $15 per night with a limit of six people per site. Campers must also remain inside the campground from sunset to 6 a.m., and there is no water available at the campgrounds. Reservations are required and can be made 60 days in advance by submitting an online trail camp request form

  • Castle Rock Trail Camp: Found 2.6 miles from the main parking lot and accessible via the Saratoga Gap Trail, this ridgeside campground has trash receptacles, bathrooms, and 20 sites with picnic tables and fire rings. Remember that campfires are only permitted in designated fire rings in the Castle Rock Trail Camp during the off-wildfire season (there will be signs), and campers can only burn firewood sold from the campground itself.
  • Waterman Gap Trail Camp: The closest overnight parking to this campground is 9.3 miles away in the park's main parking lot. There are six primitive sites amongst the redwoods, and they share a single vault toilet. There are no fires allowed at any time.
Saratoga Gap Trail View of Boulder with Cavern Formation Close-up

Gerardo Martinez Cons / Getty Images

Where to Stay Nearby

Outside of camping, accommodation options near Castle Rock State Park are limited. Your best bet is nearby Los Gatos to the east of the park or the handful of lodges in Brookdale to the south—though the former will certainly offer more amenities, such as shops and restaurants.

  • Saratoga Oaks Lodge: Located in Historic Saratoga Village between the state park and Los Gatos, the Saratoga Oaks Lodge is a charming spot with large, cozy rooms and a complimentary breakfast. It features a peaceful landscaped area and is within walking distance of shops and the historic Hakone Estate 18-acre Japanese garden.
  • Hotel Los Gatos: Hotel Los Gatos is a good 30-minute drive from Castle Rock, though it is one of the more beautiful properties in the area. Mediterranean-style architecture, an onsite Greek restaurant, a pool, and a hot tub, all just 10 minutes from Old Town Los Gatos, help give this hotel added appeal.
  • Brookdale Lodge: Almost 8 miles south of the park in the sleepy (and some say haunted) town of Brookdale, the historic Brookdale Lodge offers budget-friendly prices surrounded by forests. This is an excellent option for those who want to explore the coastal side of Santa Cruz proper, found 13 miles away.

How to Get There

Castle Rock State Park is located on Highway 35, about 2.5 miles southeast of the junction with Highway 9 and 13 miles from Los Gatos in Santa Cruz County. Addressing concerns from visitors about the difficulties of navigating the old parking lot, the California Department of Parks and Recreation installed a brand new lot a few years ago, complete with several electric car chargers, solar-powered pay stations, flush toilets, a water bottle refill station, and new trailhead signs. For both the old and new lots, parking is $10.

Accessibility

The rugged, rocky terrain characterized by Castle Rock State Park doesn't leave much room for accessibility outside the 0.8-mile accessible path from the parking lot to an ADA-compliant picnic table and woodland lookout. According to the park's brochure, parking and the pit toilet at the trail's end may require assistance. 

Tips for Your Visit

  • Download offline maps of the area before arriving at the park (especially if you plan to hike) since cellular service is limited.
  • Many of the hikes are well shaded, which is excellent for sunny days but also means the trails can get chilly in the fall and winter months. Be sure to come prepared with extra layers, just in case.
  • The marbled murrelet, an endangered seabird that’s evolved to nest high in the canopies of the park’s redwood trees rather than along the coast, is greatly affected by predators lured into their habitats by food scraps and other waste left by humans. To keep these animals protected, take a few moments to throw all your crumbs into designated trash receptacles or take them with you when you exit the park.
  • Except for service animals, dogs are prohibited from all areas of the park.
  • There are no drones allowed inside the park.
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Castle Rock State Park: The Complete Guide