Saturday, February 25, 2017

Last Spring at Castle Rock State Park



Dates: May 10, 21, and 22, 2016
Place: Castle Rock State Park, Los Gatos, California
Coordinates: 37.230769, -122.095811
Length: 3 miles
Level: moderate

Important!  This post is about my hikes of last year's spring. This year has seen much storm damage in the park and nearby access roads. If you plan to visit Castle Rock State Park make sure to visit their website and get current information about access and trail conditions.



Last spring was spectacular. All predictions say that this upcoming spring will surpass that of last year. Before it pans out, however, I enjoy looking back at the photos of my 2016 spring hikes.
Last spring I've hiked at Castle Rock State Park three times: solo, and with others.
The park's parking area is small and arriving early is crucial to finding a parking space, especially on weekends.
For my solo hike, however, I was there on a mid-week morning and found parking without having to ambush for any leaving drivers.

My hike as captured by my GPS. The GPS quit on me just before completing the loop. 
The day I went on my solo hike was sunny and fabulous. It has been a while since I've last been at this park, and I was excited to be there again.
At the Saratoga Gap trailhead, May 10, 2016
The trail dips deeply down to the canyon through the shade of the forest. The shade isn't complete but dotted with small patches of sunlight. The forest undergrowth plants make the best of the light that does seep through the canopies.

Most of the undergrowth wildflowers were delicate and white. They reminded me of European forest fairy tails.
Bearberry, Actaea rubra

Early violets were still blooming throughout May, although by the time of my last hike there were very few of them left.
Pinto Violet,Viola ocellata

Thimbleberry shrubs were blooming all over the place. I noted myself to return there in a few weeks. I didn't go back there yet since, but I have enjoyed thimbleberries on other hikes.
Western Thimbleberry, Rubus parviflorus
The waterfall observation deck is only a short 15 minutes walk from the parking lot. I was surprised to see such a thin flow, since we did have a descent rainfall during the preceding winter and the rains were still coming on and off through May. I guess that the ground was so parched after the long drought that it absorbed all and left very little for surface runoff.
Castle Rock Falls
There were a bunch of people by the waterfall. On all three of my hikes. Some were just enjoying the view and were lingering before continuing on or heading back up the trail. Others, however, were there for a more extreme pleasure - they were climbing and rappelling along the sheet rock wall to the side of the water.

Never been one to enjoy crowds, I took a few quick photos of the place, then moved on down the trail.
I stopped short: a few yards down the trail there was a iris blooming. Other hikers were passing by, and I had to squeeze myself to the edge of the trail and wait for a long enough gap in the human traffic in order to get a closer view of this beauty and take a few photos.
Later I found that my efforts were needless - plenty of irises were blooming in various places along the trail. It was their peak time.
Fernald's Iris, Iris fernaldii
Not too long after seeing that iris I had to stop again. The trail had broke through the trees and I found myself at the cliff's edge with open view to the southwest.
Looking over the Saratoga Gap, May 21, 2016
The view is spectacular any day but on an overcast, storm-brewing day it carries a special air.
Raining over the Saratoga Gap, May 22, 2016
For a good distance the trail was going along the cliff edge, if not quite at the drop-off. For the most part there was thick chaparral covering the slopes on either side of the trail but in places trees emerged high over the bushes and closed over the trail with a nice, shading canopy.
Saratoga Gap Trail, May 21, 2016
Wildflowers were growing all along the sides of the trail. Very different than the flowers I've seen under the trees.
Stinging Lupine, Lupinus hirsutissimus, May 21, 2016
Most of the slope's surface was covered with vegetation. Every now and then, however, I saw exposed slide areas that were nearly bear of plants. Of the plants I did see growing there there was the Chilean trefoil, enjoying a no-competition patch of land.
Chilean Trefoil, Acmispon wrangelianus, May 21, 2016

The trail continued up along on a mild slope, curving around the hill on the outside. On parts, the path became rocky and involved some scrambling. The best part of these rocky places was the lovely rock gardens flanking them.
Saratoga Gap Tail, May 21, 2016
The wonderful view from the cliff edge was wreathed with the wonderful bloom of chaparral bushes like the yerba santa. This hardy plant I often see gray and somewhat dehydrated. On this hike, however, it was lush and happy, and wearing full colors.
Yerba Santa, Eriodictyon californicum, May 21, 2016
The chamise was also blooming, and as intensely as I've ever seen it bloom before. No doubt the chaparral was making the most of the wettest season they'd had in several years now.
Chamise, Adenostoma fasciculatum, May 22, 2016
Vining over the chaparral was the coast man root, or the local wild cucumber. This one flowers early in spring and by the time of my hike there was all heavy with its round, spiky fruits.
Coast Man-root, Marah oregana, May 22, 2016

The vegetation covered most of the ground but here and there huge holed rocks protruded out of the green. These rocks of hard sandstone are the signature formation of this side of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and after which this park was named.
May 21, 2016
Presently, the trail begun curving northward into the hillside. I turned my back to the wonderful view of the forest and entered the cover of the trees myself.
May 21, 2016
There in the trees I found the first and only bird that was willing to stay put long enough to be photographed: a Steller's jay.
Steller's Jay, May 21, 2016

Now I no longer had the sweeping view of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Instead, I was meandering in and out of tree groves. Oaks and laurel, mainly, but also others like the black elderberry, also in its happy spring bloom.
Black Elderberry, Sambucus nigra, May 22, 2016
When it comes to blooming trees, however, very few species match the California buckeye in their beauty and splendor. Its chandelier appearance is simply spectacular.
California Buckeye, Aesculus californica, May 22, 2016
There was a lot of open, grassy space between the oaks and laurels, and patches of wide clearings. The wildflowers again chained their species community and the dominant colors where cream and blue.
Variable Linanthus, Leptosiphon parviflorus, May 22, 2016

There I saw one of my favorite lilies on this area - the white globe lily, or fairy lantern. Not endemic like its Mt. Diablo relative, but very, very beautiful.
White Globe Lily, Calochortus albus, May 22, 2016
Spheres of Indian clover protruded from the low grass, swaying in the gentle breeze that followed me up the trail.
Indian Clover, Trifolium albopurpureum, May 22, 2016

It rained on and off on my last hike there, While the rain came down I had the camera stashed under my coat, and when it stopped, I popped it out and photographed the glistening drops that were left on the lupine lives.
Rain Pearls on Lupine, May 22, 2016

Some of the flowers I've seen on that trail were so tiny that I had to stoop down very low to get a decent photo.
False Babystars, Leptosiphon androsaceus, May 22, 2016
I enjoy seeing all wildflowers, but some came me especially happy, like larkspur. A few larkspur were blooming here and there under the trees. Not many, but very distinctive.
Larkspur, Delphinium sp., May 22, 2016
I came upon an interconnecting trail and had to make a decision. As much as I would have loved to continue on a greater loop, May 10th was a regular school day and I had to be out of the park on time to get my chikas from school. On the other dates I hiked with other families and other considerations lead us to the same trail choice.
And so I turned right and started ascending north on a gentle slope that was shaded almost completely by thin, starving-looking coastal live oak trees.
May 22, 2016
I came to the intersection with the ridge trail and sat down on a downed log to rest and eat my lunch. To my right, and a little bit behind, popped a lizard from under the log, climbed half way up, then noticed my presence and halted. There is stood, eyeing me cautiously, until I was done. It waited politely until I took the photo, then turned and slid back under the log.
May 22, 2016
I turned right and walked northeast on the Ridge Trail. I was walking in the forest still, but big, grassy clearings were visible from the trail. 
May 22, 2016

In the grass - baby blue eyes blooming. Small, but quite distinct on the green background.
Baby Blue Eyes, Nemophila menzuesii, May 22, 2016

The oaks in this part of the forest were bigger and more impressive, One of them in particular had grabbed my attention. It was really difficult to get it all in a single photo frame, it was so large and majestic! Certainly not a live oak, although I do not know which species it is.
May 22, 2016
I reached the trail to the famous Goat Rock and took the turn. It has been a long while since the last time i was there and I was curious to see it the the rock was still there where I had left it:-)
The trail passed through a forest clearing with bunches of mule ears, most have already gone to fruit. A few, however, were still in bloom.
Coast Range Mule Ears, Wyethia glabra, May 22, 2016
A bit off the trail, not too far from the Goat Rock, was a field of iris flowers, but right next to the trail there bloomed the summery sky lupine plants.
Sky Lupine, Lupinus nanus, May 22, 2016

The trail lead me to the top of Goat Rock. On my first hike there, there were quite a few rock climbers coming up the other side of it. On May 10th, however, it was lonely and quiet.
Goat Rock, top. May 10, 2016
Well, not quite lonely. As I approached the rock I saw young adult termites running along the rock face, consummating their nuptials.
Termites, May 10, 2016

I avoided climbing that rock. And not just because of the termites.
There is a little trail that goes down to the bottom of Goat Rock so I went down to look up at it. On the way I enjoyed the two colors of the woolly Indian paintbrush. The normal red:
Wooly Indian Paintbrush, Castilleja foliolosa, May 10, 2016

And the less common yellow: 
Wooly Indian Paintbrush, Castilleja foliolosa, May 10, 2016
And then I made it to the bottom of Goat Rock and looked up. On May 10th I was there by myself, but on the following hikes there were ropes dangling from the top of the rock, and several climbers were going up, crawling like spiders on the gray, sieve-like wall.
Goat Rock, looking up. May 10, 2016
After appreciating the Goat Rock I continued down the trail back to the Ridge Trail. An interesting pink color caught my eye - not a flower, but the new foliage of an oak.
May 10, 2016
From the Goat Rock the trail continues once more along the cliff edge, looking over the Saratoga Gap, somewhere above the Saratoga Gap Trail on which I hiked earlier that day.
Once again I see the lovely sweeping views and enjoy the bloom of the chaparral bushes, this time including the fragrant ceanothus.
Wavy leaved Ceanothus, Ceanothus foliosus, May 10, 2016

Other rocks tower over me along the trail. Not as famous as the Goat Rock, and no climber was crawling along their faces, but no less beautiful and impressive they were. I could imagine myself curling up for a nap in one of those holes, but never actually tried to go up any of them.
May 22, 2016
Sometimes the trail went right up those rocks and I had to use all my limbs to scramble up the narrow, sometimes slippery path.
More shaded and very moist, this part of the trail had many ferns growing along it. I could always take a break from my climbing to appreciate the ferns.
May 22, 2016
In these shaded spots I spotted the yerba buena - the lovely local mint that I also have growing on a rock in my yard. Makes a nice, fragrant infusion, this one.
Yerba Buena, Clinopodium douglasii, May 22, 2016

It seems like I had walked very slowly on that hike but on May 10th I was actually in a great hurry and hardly took any photos on that segment of the trail. I did compensate for that on my two later hikes, especially the rainy one.
White Pitcher Sage, Lepechinia calycina 
I saw butterflies on all of my hikes there, but on the overcast day they were also slower and easier to photograph.
Butterfly, May 22, 2016
Then the trail dipped into the woods once again, and once again I was out of the view and surrounded by trees. This time maple trees dominated the scene with their mighty trunks and big, bright-green leaves.
Maple, May 22, 2016
Honeysuckle vines climbed on bushes and rocks underneath the trees. Sometimes they just heaped upon themselves.
Southern Honeysuckle, Lonicera subspicata, May 22, 2016
There were two species of honeysuckle there. Both pretty, and very fragrant.
Pink Honeysuckle, Lonicera hispidula 
The Ridge Trail joins the Saratoga Gap Trail above the waterfall. Just before it rejoins it there is a nice rock with a large low height cavity where the children of our family hiking group loved sitting together.
On my solo hike on May 10 I saw this red larkspur blooming right by that rock. O have not seen the red canyon larkspur before and I was bummed when I got home and discovered that most of my photos of this flower didn't come out right. I took note to photograph it again on my next hike.
Canyon Larkspur, Delphinium nudicaule, May 10, 2016

On my next hikes, however, that larkspur down by the rock was already done blooming. I didn't stay disappointed for long, though, because up above the rock there were many more - all clustered together in a big, red cloud.
Canyon Larkspur, Delphinium nudicaule, May 22, 2016

And from that point it is a short hike up the Saratoga Gap Trail back to the parking lot. Short, but at the end of the loop it's also tiring. A good excuse to stop and take a breather right by the blooming wood rose.
Wood Rose, Rosa gymnocarpa, May 10, 2016
The Santa Cruz Mountains are home to some of the most beautiful forests I've been to. This year the area had taken quite a beating from winter. Many trees fell and many trails have eroded. The main access road to Castle Rock State Park is out of commission who knows for how long. It might be a while more before I visit this lovely park again. Hopefully not too long. I wouldn't want to miss this year;s spring bloom there!