Bay Trippin’: Getting lost at Castle Rocks

 (Photos by Annie Sciacca, The Inquirer)

Annie Sciacca

(Photos by Annie Sciacca, The Inquirer)

Christian Villanueva

When choosing a destination for a day trip, I favor locations with few people, dramatic natural features, and enough distance to get a little breathing room for self-reflection.

Sometimes I forget to look in my own backyard, which is certainly the case with the Castle Rocks.

The high cliffs and numerous caves offer a chance to get away from it all, locally.

The sandstone outcroppings are located within Mount Diablo State Park boundaries, but are best accessed through Castle Rock Regional Recreation Area.

The steep climb, deadly heights, thick brush and risk of ticks and poison oak keep this spot relatively secluded, as photographer Annie Sciacca and I discovered on a recent Saturday.

The trail began on the Stagecoach trail with a gentle incline, but the difficulty quickly increased as we turned off the main trail onto a deer trail at the base of the rocks.

Immediately we were scrambling up slick, moist, moss-covered boulders and then working our way up the spine of one outcropping, using all fours to clutch at every hold in the smooth rock. On one side was a significant drop, and on the other, a sheer cliff.

After the challenging and at times perilous ascent, we clambered atop one of the highest outcroppings for a near 360-degree view.

We sat at the edge of a cliff watching Pine Creek snake its way out of the Mount Diablo foothills and through the green valley below. In the other direction, the view stretched all the way to the refineries of Martinez and beyond.

Four vultures circled overhead, hovering in the updrafts, seemingly waiting for us to fall. As we sat enjoying the warmth of the sun, a light breeze fanned us, the air fragrant with the scent of blossoming sage brush that wafted from the chasms below.

“Help, help, call my mom!”

Some teenagers smoking in a cave below broke the serenity of the moment.

“We’re higher than you,” they yelled from 200 feet below.

They were.

They yelled a few minutes more before falling silent.

The descent was steep, but fun. It took a mix of sliding down boulders, swinging from tree branches and skiing down sideways on mini-avalanches of loose dirt.

In the deep gullies that see the sun only a few hours a day, a dark, rich humus covered the ground, everything lush and green, the air cool and damp. Just outside of these narrow valleys, where the sun shone more, the earth was bone dry, dusty and hard, only the hardiest plants growing there.

About halfway down we came across what is unofficially known as “Bong Cave.”

The entrance, a small hole in the top of the cliff drops down about 15 feet into a large cavity that opens out the face of the precipice. Despite the poor quality of the graffiti that covers the walls, it is a beautiful spot, a great place to have lunch and look up at the rocks you spent the morning climbing.

This is a perfect time to visit. Everything is green, the weather is right and wild flowers are in bloom.

We managed to avoid both the ticks and poison oak. Sciacca, who had no previous rock-climbing experience, managed it without a problem. And while any which way up involves a serious climb, hikers can decide the level of difficulty level in the paths they choose.

There are many beautiful spots, every peak and each valley offering its own unique beauty.

Castle Rocks is free, and it is close to home. Go get lost.

Contact Christian Villanueva at [email protected]