Castle Crags State Park
By Gary VanDeWalker
Heart of Stone
By Gary VanDeWalker
Photo: Taryn Burkleo
In the timberlands below Dunsmuir, the younger sister of Yosemite towers above the mix of a pine, cedar and fir forest. Granite pinnacles and spires loom 6,000 feet tall, polished by ancient glaciers. Native Americans referred to her as the “Castle of the Devil.” Spanish explorers called her “Castle del Diablo” (Castle of the Devil). Time has renamed her Castle Crags.
Castle Crags State Park and the adjoining Castle Crags Wilderness Area tell a tale of rich history and outdoor adventure. The park has 76 developed campsites, with 28 miles of hiking trails. Rock climbers challenge her sides. Travelers along the Pacific Crest Trail traverse her rugged slopes passing alongside the Siskiyou Trail, which brought pioneers into California more than a century and a half ago.
As the California Gold Rush commenced, miners moved into the area in great numbers. A rumor of the Lost Cabin Mine, though false, drew a frenzy of searchers looking for their fortune. There began a competition over the Castle Crags. In 1855, tension grew between settlers seeking gold and resources and the Native Americans who lived here. High above the valley floor, near Castle Lake on the saddle back called Battle Ridge, the Battle of Castle Crags raged.
The miners were merciless and their guns outmatched the bows and arrows of the natives. Legendary poet Joaquin Miller joined the miners and was injured with an arrow through his neck. Miller would recount the conflict in his book, “The Battle of Castle Crags.”
The crags span from an elevation of 2,200 feet along the swift currents of the Sacramento River to a spectacular granite dome at 6,500 feet. Formed from volcanic activity and cutting glaciers, the wind and water have produced the smooth dome and spires jutting from the green forest. For those willing to walk her trails, a majestic view of the Castle Dome and Mount Shasta adorns the landscape, instilling a sense of beauty and power matched by few vistas.
Mining threatened the grandeur of the Castle Crags. Gold, mercury and chromite miners joined loggers in taking the Castle Crags offerings for almost a century. By the 1930s, conservationists began efforts to protect the area. A system of California state parks was proposed, with the state park being formed in 1933. By the 1950s, mining ceased. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed the California Wilderness Act, adding 10,500 acres to the Castle Crags area.
Hiking trails access the history and beauty of the park. The Castle Dome Trail is the most rewarding. The area is rugged. No trail leads to the heart of the dome and spires, though the Castle Dome Trail leads to breathtaking views. The steep mountain path cuts through the forest, the trees giving the illusion of an ordinary forest, until a brush-covered saddle gives way to the dome and granite turrets of the crags, with Mount Shasta offsetting the picture with a noble visage at the base of the Castle Dome.
More than 300 species of wildflowers grow among the fauna surrounding the castle walls. A mineral springs flows at the bottom of the Crags, where trappers once found their rest and health resorts beckoned travelers.
The Castle Crags bring forth the words of John Muir, who travelled past the crags on his many journeys to Mount Shasta:
“Everybody needs beauty… places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul alike.”
Directions: Castle Crags State Park is 25 miles north of Lake Shasta off Interstate 5. Take the Castella exit and follow the signs to the park.