This segment of the Bay Area Ridge Trail is on Skyline Trail just east of, and parallel to, Skyline Blvd between Sunnyvale Mountain picnic area in Sanborn County Park and the vista point at Saratoga Gap, at the intersection of CA-35 (Skyline Blvd) and CA-9. The trail is in Santa Clara County, though Skyline Blvd is the Santa Clara – Santa Cruz county line. A small portion of Castle Rock State Park is on the east side of Skyline Blvd, and the trail passes through this portion.
The length of the trail from Sunnyvale Mountain picnic area to the Saratoga Gap vista point is 6.3 miles. On this out-and-back hike I hiked directly to Saratoga Gap on the outbound leg and enjoyed several side trips on the return leg. Highlights included majestic trees, serpentine rock formations, a couple of surprise views of the South Bay Area, and (on side trips) a lovely redwood grove and views of the Pacific Ocean.
Much of Skyline Trail goes along Castle Rock Ridge. As the trail goes up and down the ridgeline, it attains the highest elevation of the entire current Bay Area Ridge Trail at just over 3100 feet. This high point is roughly across Skyline Blvd from Castle Rock (the rock, which is in the park). Unlike most other “highest points,” there isn’t a peak per se, and it’s hard to know as you hike along when you have achieved the highest point. Also, unlike other “highest points,” there isn’t what I call a distant view. The forest, however, is lovely to hike through.
The trail begins at Sunnyvale Mountain picnic area and immediately climbs and descends 100 feet or so a couple of times before getting to the higher part of Castle Rock Ridge. Because the trail runs rather close to Skyline Blvd, there are several access points along the way. I visited several on my return trip. About 1.6 miles from the start there is a junction with Sanborn Trail, which goes down the steep hillside toward the heart of Sanborn County Park. Nearby a set of stairs, the Biddle Stairs, continues the last little bit up to Skyline Blvd.
This part of the Santa Cruz Mountains is studded here and there with large rock outcroppings, like this one that just appears suddenly alongside the trail.
The forest contains many massive and majestic trees, like this Douglas fir with many branches radiating out from the trunk.
In many places the forest is quite dense, and moist. The moisture results in moss on some trees and rocks, and ferns in the understory. This forest view was quite striking, with so many tall trees of different types growing so close together.
About 2.7 miles from the trailhead, at one of the mini-summits along Castle Rock Ridge, there is a tree growing in the middle of the trail. I presume that, when the trail was built, it was deemed more sensible for the trail to split and go around the tree rather than cut it down. About 3.1 miles from the trailhead there is an access trail to Castle Rock State Park across Skyline Blvd, as well as a short side trail to Indian Rock. I visited Indian Rock on my return trip. About ¼ mile past the Indian Rock trail is the south end of Summit Rock Loop Trail. The entire loop is open, but Summit Rock itself, near the north end of the loop, is currently closed to protect sensitive habitat and threatened wildlife in the area.
About 4.3 miles from the trailhead, Skyline Trail leaves Sanborn County Park and enters the portion of Castle Rock State Park east of Skyline Blvd. About 0.4 miles later is a junction with Loughry Woods Trail, which is actually on the other side of Skyline Blvd. Just about 0.1 mile past this junction a down tree lies across the trail just before Skyline Trail splits, with a hiking-only branch and a separate multi-use (hiking / biking / equestrian) branch. As I approached the down tree I decided I would follow the hiking-only branch on my outbound trip and the other branch on my return trip. The tree, however, was just big enough that I had to pause to figure out how I was going to get over it, under it, or between the two main branches. As I paused to figure this out, I happened to look to my right and was startled to see a wonderful view across south San Jose, with the East Bay Hills in the background. The rippled peak at the right of the skyline is Mt Hamilton, some 27 miles away to the east. And the light line snaking up the hillside at the left is CA-9 climbing up to Saratoga Gap from downtown Saratoga.
The trail is split for about 0.4 mile. In this section I found the only wildflower I noticed on the entire hike. Just as I was taking some super-close-up pictures, a bee came in for a visit. Actually, it was probably a good thing that I’d stood up for a moment to make a camera adjustment, since that’s when the bee arrived. The picture is actually a little out of focus, as I didn’t quite dare to bring my camera close enough to focus properly in super-macro mode! I thought the bee’s wings are surprisingly clear in the picture.
About 0.8 mile past the end of the split trail there is another view toward the Santa Clara Valley through a small gap in the trees. This view is a bit south of east and shows a few rows of hills. I’m not sure of all of the identifications, but El Sereno Open Space Preserve, Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve, Almaden Quicksilver County Park, and Santa Teresa County Park are in this general area. I have hiked Bay Area Ridge Trail segments in several of these parks (see here and here and here), and it is always interesting to see parks from new perspectives.
Shortly after enjoying this view I exited Castle Rock State Park, just about ¼ mile before the Saratoga Gap vista point parking lot. As is often the case, especially on weekend days with nice weather, the parking lot was full. I am always surprised to remind myself that there actually aren’t any views from this parking area. It’s a bit more like a Park and Ride lot, where people meet up and set out on hiking and riding adventures. There is even a public phone.
I took a lunch break and walked across CA-9 to the trailhead for the next segment of the Bay Area Ridge Trail, which passes through portions of Saratoga Gap Open Space Preserve and Upper Stevens Creek County Park before crossing Skyline Blvd to enter Long Ridge Open Space Preserve. After my break I started back toward Sunnyvale Mountain picnic area.
As I’d planned, when I got to the trail split I took the multi-use trail. This trail section goes out to Skyline Blvd where there is an access point for Skyline Trail. Every time I got to such an access point on my return trip, I walked out to Skyline to see if I could see the Pacific Ocean. Here I was treated to a wonderful view across several rows of ridges. The typical fog bank was in place just off-shore.
When I got to the Indian Rock Trail junction, I took the side trail to see Indian Rock, a popular spot for rock climbers. It is a distinctive sandstone structure in the forest; note that there are a few backpacks with climbing equipment in the foreground. Along the access trail there were numerous interesting smaller (refrigerator-sized) rocks. I did not try to climb to the top of Indian Rock, since it appeared that climbing equipment was needed.
When I reached the Biddle Stairs, I climbed up to Skyline Blvd to check out the ocean view, and was startled to see what looked like daffodils in my peripheral view. Sure enough, they were: in the mini front yard of a house. The residents have a fantastic view!
When I reached the junction with Sanborn Trail, about 1.4 mile from the trailhead, I set off down the trail to see the Todd Creek Redwoods, about 0.3 mile away. No signage was needed to indicate that the redwoods had been reached. These wonderful trees thrive in the cool, moist shade. Some of the trunks were massive, and the bark is distinctive.
After passing the redwoods I thought I would continue to the junction with San Andreas Trail. According to the signage this junction should have been just 0.1 mile past the redwood grove. However, I discovered that the distance was more like 0.4 mile, with a total descent from Skyline of about 300 feet. In any case, I retraced my steps to Skyline Trail and continued southeast. Soon I was startled to encounter a newt crossing the trail, and I stopped to try a few pictures. The red light associated with my camera’s autofocus seemed to signal the newt to hurry up and get away, which it promptly did!
The last access point to Skyline Blvd is about 0.6 mile from the trailhead and is the location of a former homestead of the Seagraves family. The view was so beautiful that I stopped there again after I’d reached the trailhead and started my drive home. This picture was taken about a half hour before sunset.
The combination of beautiful forest, redwoods, sandstone rocks, and Bay and ocean views made this a memorable hike.