Guide To Goat Rock
Billed as the gateway of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Castle Rock State Park earns that title in spectacular fashion. A great staging ground for a number of adventures, from bouldering to rock climbing, day hiking to backpacking, and even birding. The crown jewel, Goat Rock, is a limestone formation that is typical of the park’s geology and the splendid vistas boast one of the absolute best views of the Santa Cruz Mountains.
What To Do
There are two options for this adventure: the direct out-and-back option along the Ridge Trail, or a loop incorporating the Saratoga Gap Trail.
Out-and-back: This is the quick version, only about two miles total, great if you want to quickly catch the view or are hauling rock climbing gear. Getting to Goat Rock can be fairly quick; the first half of the hike from the parking lot is decidedly downhill and allows for a brisk pace. Keep that in mind for the return trip, as you will be climbing steadily from the junction of the Ridge and Saratoga Gap trails back up to the parking lot, about a half mile. Goat Rock is along the Ridge Trail, about another half mile from the junction. This portion of the trail is mostly uphill and can get a little rough, make sure you’ve got solid footwear.
Loop: doing this as a loop certainly adds bonuses to the trip. The Saratoga Gap Trail is perhaps even more consistently packed with spectacular vistas than the upper Ridge Trail and includes the Castle Rock Falls viewing platform. Plus you can use the picnic tables, water fountain and trash cans at the Castle Rock Trail Camp on your lunch break. There are two options for a Goat Rock Loop, depending on how long of a hike you want. The full loop is a little less than five miles, or you can use the interconnector trail to cut it down to just under three.
When To Go
Castle Rock Falls can be quite a sight in the rainy season, and though the waterfall is only a trickle in the summer, this is when you have a chance to observe climbers scaling its face. The platform and the falls are only a few minutes’ detour down the Saratoga Gap Trail from its junction with the Ridge Trail, and so can easily be visited without hiking the full loop.
Goat Rock, and much of the trail to it, is along the exposed ridgeline. Hence, whatever the weather is, you will experience it fully. If sunny, there will be long patches without shade. If rainy and windy, there will be long stretches without shelter. Always make sure to check weather conditions before visiting Castle Rock State Park, especially when traveling from outside of the Santa Cruz Mountains area, and prepare for it accordingly. If it’s stormy, best take a rain check.
Like most parks, Castle Rock State Park is open from sunrise to sunset.
Where To Go
Castle Rock State Park‘s address is 15000 Skyline Blvd, Los Gatos, CA 95033, but anyone who’s driven deep in the heart of the Santa Cruz Mountains before knows GPS is not always reliable. The entrance parking lot is located 2.5 miles southeast on Highway 35 (AKA Skyline Boulevard) from the junction with Highway 9.
Parking in the dirt lot at the entrance is $8. Self-registration is available at the kiosk, parking immediately outside of the park along the roadway is free, however, be sure to obey all posted signs and get back to your vehicle by sunset or risk fines and towing. With the current limited parking situation, it’s best to go early, and if you park along the roadway watch out for others coming and going. A new parking lot is supposed to open next year that will vastly improve the parking options.
Bring water! There’s nowhere to fill up at the trailhead. There is a bathroom, but it’s just a pit toilet, so no running water. Come to think of it, bring some hand sanitizer too.
Maps are usually available at the kiosk in the parking lot, but it’s not staffed enough to be reliable throughout the year. Better to bring a copy just in case, and you can easily find printable versions online. A digital copy on your phone will work as well, but printed maps never run out of battery or short out when wet.
Watch out for the many random unmarked trails in the park, most of which are access routes to favorite climbing spots. It’s usually pretty obvious which is the official trail and which is the use trail, but this is another great reason not to get caught out on the trails after the sun goes down.