A short hike with a huge pay-off is how I would summarize Castle Crags State Park. There are spectacular, gorgeous views and it's only five miles round trip.
We made our best efforts to get an early start so as to beat the August heat. Although it's only a 2-1/2 mile hike each way, it has a 2200 foot elevation gain. While Patty is a regular hiker, I hike only occasionally, so a cool morning climb seemed preferable. But I'm a night owl, so in spite of good intentions, we didn't arrive at the park until 9:00am... still the crack of dawn by my standards, and early enough to get one of only two parking places right at the trailhead.
The park is 40 miles north of Redding, right off Interstate 5. We could see the "crags" while driving, looming 3500-4000 feet overhead. "Look," I said to Patty. "That's where we're headed. Of course, we won't get all the way to the top." I assumed we would merely be hiking to a point that would give us a better view. Well, you know what they when you "assume,"...
We pulled up to the Ranger Station where the goofy grin of a taxidermied mountain lion greeted us through the glass.
“We’re hiking today,” I informed the ranger. “Anything we need to know?” She told us that a mama bear and two cubs had been spotted several times recently. But it shouldn’t be a problem. "Just stay out of their way if you see them,” she advised. Will do! An example of how not to store your food and ice chest in bear country was on display. Bears are common throughout forested Northern California, including right in my own home neighborhood. Nonetheless, I’d prefer not to get any closer than a good zoom lens shot.
Castle Crag State Park will officially close on November 30. A locked gate will be installed at the station. From there it is still a 2-1/2 mile drive uphill on a winding road to get to the trailhead, so while anyone who would like to walk into the park to hike will be able to do so, they will have to add this additional leg to their journey.
As I am only an occasional hiker, I was mentally bracing myself for the 2200 foot elevation gain. The hike began on a dirt trail that did not initially feel any more strenuous than hikes around my home in Pollock Pines. In fact, the path was clearer and more free of tree roots than some. A moderate uphill climb through the forest began soon into the walk, with only an occasional glimpse of the “crags” through the trees.
The granite crags were formed by volcanic activity some 200 million years ago, and for the last million years have been shaped by rain, ice, wind and a few small glaciers.
In 1855, the area below the Crags was the site of a battle between native people and settlers, chronicled by the controversial "poet of the High Sierra", Joaquin Miller. The locals, armed only with bows and arrows, were driven from the land. For the next 100 years, mining and logging were the primary industries in the area. During the 1920s and 1930s, conservationists circulated photographs of the beautiful crags and included them in their promotion of a comprehensive California state park system.
About an hour into the hike – as the trail became rockier - we rounded a bend and gasped! Suddenly we were there, right in the middle of the lower crags! It was breathtaking! We stopped here for water, a snack and photos. It seemed to be a favorite spot for hikers to take a break.
Here the hiking trail became rocky and steep, more akin to climbing stairs than hiking. I began making it a habit to stop every twenty steps or so to turn around and look at the view - and to catch my breath - as the elevation gain was significant enough in that amount of space to give the view a completely new perspective.
The trail on this perfect summer day was not overly crowded. The hikers we met ran the gamut. There were backpackers with full gear, obviously out for more than just the day. Castle Crags is part of the 2600 mile Pacific Crest Trail that runs from Southern California to Canada. It is unclear if or how the closure of the park will affect it. We ran into a solo hiker who carried nothing with him, not even water. He was a local fellow, and this was the equivalent of his daily walk. From him we learned of abuses already occurring in this under-staffed state park such as the illegal cutting of firewood and ATVs in areas where they are prohibited.
We continued our climb until both Mt. Shasta and the crags – which had both been high above our view only moments before – became closer to eye level, until finally all but the highest crags were below us. The views are nothing short of spectacular. Rising beside the spikey peaks is the rounded Castle Dome. Many mountain-eers liken it to Yosemite's Half Dome. This is the end of the trail. Rock climbing is at your own risk. Unlike Half Dome, there are no cables or other manmade means of assistance. Today there were no climbers, although a couple of hikers had “near death” stories about attempts to climb Castle Dome.
We headed back down the trail, stopping for more photos and water breaks. We arrived safely back at the trailhead after five hours. The bears had steered clear of us. Birds and an annoyed lizard were our only wildlife encounters today. Once back at the car, we took the quarter-mile walk through the campground to a lookout that is wheelchair accessible and offers very satisfying views of Mt Shasta and the Castle Crags for those who choose not to hike.
Recently I heard State Parks Director Ruth Coleman comment that putting up locked gates and giving the impression that the park is unattended is a sure fire way to attract undesirable activities such as meth labs. Yet, that was the plan du jour for Castle Crags. On the way out we stopped at the ranger station again, and complimented the park. A koi pond behind the hut seemed out of place, but was enjoyable nonetheless as it trickled into a welcome cool stream as the afternoon heat took hold.
This park has a huge pay-off for a relatively modest effort. If I – as a “once in awhile” hiker with foot problems – can do it, so can anyone in moderate shape. It’s very worthwhile, but it closes in less than two months. And, as I write this in early October, the snows are already on their way in the high country. Get there if you can. You won't regret it.
Hope to see you at the parks.