A Flurry of Fun - Ashland is Base Camp - Winter '24 Issue

Friday, July 8, 2016

Northern California’s most beautiful and awe inspiring secret

Castle Crags

Northern California’s most beautiful and awe inspiring secret

Story and photography by Donald Alarie


Northern California has an abundance of amazing sights, including Mt. Shasta, the Redwoods, Burney Falls, Lake Shasta, and Mt. Lassen. However, one of the most beautiful and awe inspiring is also the least visited. The granite towers and spires of the Castle Crags sit alongside Interstate-5 near the small town of Castella, California, and are the heart of The Castle Crags State Park.

Despite being prominently displayed to the 21,000 cars that drive past the park everyday, the park only had 78,000 visitors last year. The first accounts of the Castle Crags came from the Wilkes Expedition in 1841. The U.S Navy funded this scientific survey led by Lt. Charles Wilkes. The expedition explored the West Coast, which included the Columbia River, Puget Sound, San Francisco Bay, and the Sacramento River, where they stumbled across the Castle Crags. The expedition geologist drew a picture in his journal and is thought to be the first picture of the crags.  

The Castle Crags did not gain national prominence until the 1894 publication of Joaquin Miller’s The Battle of Castle Crags. The battle took place on June 26, 1855, when a group of Shasta Indians and white settlers skirmished with a band of Upper Trinity Wintu and Modoc Indians. The battle took place between “Battle Rock” and “Left Peak,” where the sight is now a California Historical Landmark.      

In the 1920s, the introduction of the railroad to the Upper Sacramento Valley brought larger scale logging and gold mining into the valley, also bringing the granite crags into the public view. Due to a large public push in the late 1920s, the state used bonds funds and donations to buy 925 acres to build Castle Crags State Park. The park was purchased in 1933 and men from the Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Castella built the trails and roads that make the park accessible. Unfortunately, in 1959 the lovely native wood and stone buildings of the Civilian Conservation Corps were demolished to make room for Interstate-5. Today, very little of the now 4,000 acre park is accessible by road.

If one wants to experience its beauty and solitude, bring hiking boots. Abundant hiking opportunities exist throughout the park’s 30 miles of trails. The Vista Point Trail, if accessed from the Vista Point parking lot, is a short wheelchair-accessible trail that takes you to a picnic area and offers stunning views of not only the Castle Crags but also Mt. Shasta and the nearby Gray Rocks. Also accessible from the same parking lot are the Root Creek Trail (also wheelchair-accessible) and the Crags Trail. The Crags Trail is the most popular trail into the towers.

At 2.7 miles one-way and approximately 2,200 feet in elevation, the trail is steep. As the trail winds its way though the forest views of Mt. Shasta and Mt. Lassen, the walk is well worth it. The trail ends at the base of Castle Dome, the park’s most prominent rock dome. From here, you have stunning views of Mt. Hubris, Root Creek Drainage, and the Observation Deck half dome. On weekends there is a good chance one can see climbers on Mt. Hubris or Castle Dome.

If hiking is not enough of an adrenalin rush, there are hundreds of mountain climbing routes for the experienced climber. The Castle Crags may be one of climbing’s best kept secrets in California. Climbers that take their chances are treated to airy summits with spectacular views and classic climbs to talk about for years. Unlike the more famous walls in Yosemite, the Castle Crags don’t have as many places to put protection (equipment used to stop a fall). For this reason, the climbing history in the crags is full of bold men that put up “ground-up climbs with long run-outs,” meaning there’s a long fall before your protective equipment catches you. These rock climbing routes aren’t well-known because some locals don’t want the secret of their personal mini-Yosemite to get out.

The park offers two picnic areas: one at the end of Vista Point Trail and the other adjacent to the Sacramento River. There’s camping at more than 60 developed campsites that can be reserved. A separate riverside campsite has 12 first-come-first-serve sites. Anglers with a fishing license can catch and release trout in the Sacramento River and Castle Creek. The park is also home to abundant wildlife, including black bears, deer, mountain lions, bobcats, and coyotes. No matter one’s outdoor passion, these spires that majestically oversee the park hold something for everyone without the crowds, and is well worth the trip.



Wheelchair accessible updates: www.access.parks.ca.gov

Camping reservations: www.parks.ca.gov

Fishing regulation: www.dfg.ca.gov

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