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Ridge-Saratoga Gap Trail Loop

Saratoga Gap Trail to Castle Rock Trail Camp to Ridge Trail and back
5 miles; 1.5 - 2 hours; moderate

The Ridge-Saratoga Gap Trail Loop, which starts out from the park's main entrance with a shared 0.6-mile section and then splits into the Ridge and Saratoga Gap trails, offers a near-perfect day hike starring a waterfall overlook, ridge-borne ocean views and encounters with lots of climbable Vaqueros sandstone. With some minor dips and climbs but no major elevation changes, both trails meet again at ridge-nestled Castle Rock Trail Camp after skirting 2,865-foot Varian Peak.

The 1.8-mile Ridge Trail, which offers an optional 0.3-mile detour that goes by an "Interpretive Shelter" where you can read panels about the social and natural history of the park, passes by Goat Rock, where you'll see plenty of climbers doing their thing, bag some peeks of the Pacific Ocean and probably see plenty of turkey vultures and eagles soaring over the ridge. This is the more vertical of the trails, dipping about 400 feet over its course.

The 2.0-mile Saratoga Gap Trail features, about 0.2 miles from the split with the Ridge Trail, the thrilling Castle Rock Falls Overlook, where you just might see climbers scaling the sheer 80-foot waterfall cliff that connects the creek valley below to the one above. The trail stays relatively level until reaching Castle Rock Trail Camp.

An optional 0.2-mile connector trail links both trails about a mile from their split that offers an option to cut the loop's mileage down by about a third.

A few notes about Castle Rock Trail Camp. This backpacking-and-biking camp—cyclists use the Service Road, which intersects Highway 35 about 3/4 of a mile northwest of the main entrance—is one of the only, if not the only, backpacking campgrounds in the Santa Cruz Mountains that doesn't require reservations. It has 20 sites with tables and fire rings (fires are not allowed year-round, but when they are you can buy wood at the campground), plus piped drinking water and vault toilets. Spaces cost $15 per night (pay at the main entrance kiosk off Highway 35 or self-register there). Up to six campers can stay in one space. And since it's only 2.6 miles from the park entrance, almost anyone can make it.

—Paul Hagey

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