A Revamp for Castle Rock

Read on if you like Castle Rock State Park new entrance, Sempervirens Fund, California State Parks

by Brendan Bane

Dec. 18, 2013—In May 2011, forced to cut millions from the state budget, Gov. Jerry Brown decreed that 70 state parks be closed effective the following summer, including Castle Rock State Park, a sprawling 5,200-acre climbing and hiking playground in the Santa Cruz Mountains. But Californians resisted, and five months later a bill passed granting nonprofits the power to help keep parks open.

Sempervirens Fund, California's oldest environmental advocacy group, had spearheaded the effort to make Castle Rock a state park in 1968. When the closure list was announced, Sempervirens intervened immediately, donating $250,000. That was enough to delay the closure for one year. The state matched that figure, and Castle Rock's gates were secured to be open for three years.

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Now, at just past the halfway mark, Sempervirens Fund is pushing a plan to return Castle Rock to its feet and grant it the fiscal strength to stand alone.

The group intends to redesign the park entrance with new amenities, parking and energy-efficient buildings. Reed Holderman, executive director of Sempervirens Fund, hopes the additions will attract new visitors and secure consistent revenue for years to come.

“We want to make Castle Rock more sustainable, so that it’s never closed,” Holderman says. “But more importantly, let’s create a constituency for it, so no one will even think about closing it.”

Saving Castle Rock

One way to build that constituency is to make the park more accessible, and even spruce the place up a bit.

With staggering redwood and ocean views, superb rock climbing and over 30 miles of hiking and equestrian trails, Castle Rock is adored by locals and admired by more than 70,000 annual visitors. But the entrance is easy to miss. Travel along Skyline Boulevard and you may drive right past it. There’s a dirt plot in which stands a wood shed, a steel self-serve pay station and a pit toilet. That’s about it.

Holderman aims to change that. Sempervirens Fund has already invested over $1 million into conceptual planning. The first of three public hearings takes place Thursday, Dec. 19. Without interruption, construction could begin around a year from this summer. The existing structures will then be demolished. Three small solar-powered buildings will rise in their place, along with some native plant landscaping.

An amphitheater will serve as an outdoor classroom for students investigating environmental science. Employees in the visitor center will advise guests on adventure options. Hikers will be able to enjoy running water (the park has none now), flush toilets, solar-powered pay stations, picnicking areas, trailhead signs and off-street parking.

A disagreement over property boundaries, which nearly stalled the project, has since been resolved. The owners of the adjacent plot, a Christmas tree farm, were originally opposed to the revamp. But now, Holderman says, the two parties have reached an agreement.

The nonprofit hopes the new design will attract enough visitors to generate a self-sustaining income—something yet to happen at any state park. But some longtime users are hesitant to meet the change. Ann Garside, an enthusiast who has explored Castle Rock for years, expressed her preference in few words: “The less development, the better.” Garside acknowledged that the parking situation could stand to improve, though.

Flush toilets and solar pay stations aside, Holderman feels the new design will not offend fans of simplicity. “We’ll build a park that’s attractive, modest, and functional, where people can have a good experience, but also where we can show the future of living and designing with nature, not about paving it over and building something ostentatious. We’re not trying to overbuild this thing by any means.”

The first public hearing will be held Dec. 19, 1:30pm, at the Santa Cruz County Agricultural Commission offices, 1432 Freedom Blvd, Watsonville. If you would like to participate in this conversation, attend the hearings. If you would like to donate to the project, or any other state park, Sempervirens Fund accepts all private donations through its website.