A Visual Guide to Climbing Castle Rock, a Bay Area Proving Ground
An hour south of San Francisco exists a sandstone Mecca for boulderers, loved by many and loathed by maybe more
Nic Sabo is a Reno, Nevada-based climber and photographer. Follow Nic on Instagram.
Additional photography by MAS
One of California’s most unique bouldering areas sits unassumingly tucked away in the Santa Cruz mountains. In a state best known by climbers for epic granite peaks and the towering walls of Yosemite, the sculpture-like sandstone boulders of Castle Rock State Park are truly special.
Located an hour or so south of San Francisco, Castle is well within day-trip striking distance for all of the Bay and central coast, making it a site of regular pilgrimage for generations of climbers who come to walk in the footsteps of some of climbing’s great heroes while simultaneously finding peace and respite from city life.
"Castle is either loved or loathed—loved for the technique it imparts on those willing to learn, loathed for the frustration that comes along with it."
The style of climbing movement at Castle is practically the antithesis of climbing indoors on plastic holds, making it the perfect classroom for the increasing number of climbers spawned from gyms. Subtle body english and footwork are often necessary to generate just enough friction from an otherwise blank angle of stone.
Climbers that possess the technique can still be ejected from the tops of boulders when attempting to press their way up the featureless summits, devoid of any discernible handholds. Consequently, Castle is either loved or loathed—loved for the technique it imparts on those willing to learn, loathed for the frustration that comes along with it.
Regardless of how you feel about the climbing itself, you can’t complain when surrounded by so much natural beauty. Vibrant beams of light, dappled by the madrone canopy, pattern the smooth sandstone and create a visual delight for the eye and the lens. Tafoni caves—giant caverns with honeycombs of pockets formed by a unique chemical weathering process—inspire the imagination of onlookers (climbers or otherwise). It’s no surprise that the majority of park visitors aren’t there to climb at all, simply to observe and appreciate.
"Do your pushups! You’ll need strong shoulders and triceps to press your bodyweight up the smooth, rounded tops of these boulders."
Castle rock has a legacy as a training ground for some of the most talented climbers in the region, who would go on to make an impact on the climbing world: Valley legends such as Jim Bridwell, Scott Cosgrove, and Ron Kauk left their imprint; one of the many John Yablonski “Yabo” Roofs is hosted here; most famously, Chris Sharma came up climbing at Castle, cleaning up projects left behind by the previous generation; and of course the young gym-mutants of the Bay, many of whom will one day be household names in climbing...
Do’s and Don’ts of Climbing at Castle Rock State Park
- Do bring climbing shoes with soft rubber. The sensitivity afforded by softer rubber and thinner soles will make a huge difference when finessing blank sandstone smears.
- Don’t use wire brushes. As tempting as it may be to see what holds might lie under that thick green jacket of moss, wire brushes are frowned upon at Castle for the severe damage they will rapidly inflict on the stone. Climbers at Castle have been ticketed by rangers for such behavior. Forego the metal bristles and be considerate of future climbers when cleaning boulders.
- Do your pushups! You’ll need strong shoulders and triceps to press your bodyweight up the smooth, rounded tops of these boulders.
- Don’t climb after it has rained. Sandstone is weaker when wet and will break if you don’t allow adequate time for it to dry. Even if it doesn’t appear to be wet, do as the locals do and wait three days after the last rain.
- Don't forget to bring mosquito repellent. It can make or break your day if you visit during summer.
- Do climb The Spoon. Groveling to top out of this V2 is a rite of passage for all who climb at Castle!
- Don’t be late to get a parking spot. The park’s popularity is every-increasing, meaning the limited parking regularly overflows, especially on weekends. Early bird gets the worm.
- Do remove tick marks from the rock. You should always remove tick marks no matter where you climb, and it is especially important in areas like Castle where the majority of users are non-climbers. It is simple common courtesy to reduce our visual imprint so everyone can enjoy these unique rock formations.
- Don’t relieve yourself in the woods. There’s a bathroom at the parking lot as well as Castle Rock itself. The area is very small relative to the amount of traffic it receives. Using the toilets is just one way we can minimize our impact and maintain good relations between the climbing community and the state park system.