Backpacking through the Santa Cruz Mountains – Day Two: Saratoga Gap to Portola Redwoods

At the end of day one we had our tents setup and everything had gone to plan. We stayed at Castle Rock Trail Camp which is usually first-come-first-served. It’s a great campground that’s also an easy hike to get to. The wind was gusty over night but that rarely bothers me. The only goof was that I forgot to charge my little Luci Light.  Darn. For the rest of the trip I kept it on the outside of my pack so it would charge in the sunlight.

Note: There are a few galleries of photos in this post. Click on an image to display a more attractive lightbox to view the photos.

I hunted around for an overlook first thing in the morning. It faces generally south and will provide a nice view of the Milky Way over the Santa Cruz Mountains on a future trip, so let’s call this one a quick research hike.

Morning light along the trail. Castle Rock State Park.

The spot I had in mind was just around 1/4 mile from the campsite. That would have been great, but good luck finding it in the dark. I’ll keep this in mind for my next visit here.

The sun pokes through the trees as I arrived at the overlook.
Morning views across the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Wild flowers at Castle Rock SP

We broke camp and got started. We had 10.5 miles to go today so there wasn’t a lot of time to stop for all of the flowers. I just stopped for most of them.  This cluster of flowers was just a few dozen meters out of the campground.

I kept towards the back of the group. This was mostly because I don’t want to make everybody wait for me while I’m fooling around and taking pictures. One benefit was that I’d get a pretty good description of what was being gathered for local tea later.

We paused for some bit of pine needles. It turns out that Douglas Fir can make a really tasty tea.
Douglas Fir needles.

The first two or three miles was a bit uphill through forested areas

A short portion kept close to Hwy 35. There was the occasional view of San Jose.

Some of the hike was very close to Hwy 35
San Jose as seen from apx Hwy 35

We took a break along Hwy 35. I messed around a little with speeding motorcycle riders. Kids, please don’t try this.

Don’t try this at home

The terrain changed again and the plant life was dominated by chaparral. Occasionally we would hear retorts from the gun club near Los Altos Rod and Gun Club near Castle Rock, but it was less obvious now. We could almost see our starting point from this overlook.

We emerged from the trees and the terrain changed yet again. This is what’s so amazing about this area: you can be under forest canopy for an hour, then in wide sections of rolling trails and grasslands. The wildflowers changed from the California roses to more purple vetch, poppies, and whatever these little yellow dudes are (a highly scientific term). Silly side note: we made a game out of creating “trail names” for each other. I got “Purple Vetch” but I added “The” so it sounded more like a super hero. The Purple Vetch had a nice ring to it and now I can wear a cape. We spent the next few hours crossing the Saratoga Gap trail.

A small field of flowers

The views were spectacular. You can see for miles

A hiker among the the rolling hills, grass, and trees.
Eric leading the way

Carrie took this fun picture of me trying to do something interesting with this little sunflower. Heh, that’s the funny part about my trips: I’m almost never in the pictures.

Snapshot of me photographing a little sunflower. This is a challenge with a full pack. Thanks for the picture Carrie!
My big wildlife photo for the trip.

Overloaded with photos yet? Yeah, that’s the nature of this post. There’s lots of hiking and lots to see. It was pretty warm and I absolutely loving just being out and moving.  I was hoping to see some wildlife; deer, coyotes, etc. That didn’t quite happen, but we did get a cooperative lizard and a tiny snake.

Eric found this tiny snake. My second biggest wildlife score.

The next few miles were across exposed rolling hills. Groups of poppies were easily found. There were very few other hikers but there was the occasional mountain bike rider. The Saratoga Gap Trail has to be one of the most under utilized open spaces in the Bay Area.

Time to get moving again.

There were a few flowers that I was looking for. The one I wanted to see the most was the wild orchid. I would find them occasionally here, but more frequently as we approached Portola Redwoods State Park.

Wild orchid

More flowers and views. Flowers in the foreground, Douglas Fir and hills in the background. Most of these photos have a saturated color to them. This was mostly intentional because I was using a circular polarizer filter to reduce glare. We were along the Saratoga Gap trail  in bright sunlight in the middle of the day — not exactly ideal conditions for landscape photography. But still, I wanted to convey the beauty of the place as well as I could.

More flowers and views

Things changed again as we approached Portola Redwoods State Park. The open spaces gave way to trees. The trees gave way to giant redwoods. The grass gave way to poison oak. One thing is for sure, we all got very good at identifying poison oak.

Entering Portola Redwoods

Daylight was ending with just two or three more miles to go. There were small areas of clover, flowers, towering trees, and yes poison oak. The sun was creating this orange glow between the trees. Here I was really missing my tripod, but lugging that extra 5 pounds was just not going to happen. I framed up the shot handheld, increased the ISO to provide just enough shutter speed to offset my tendency to shake the camera, and hoped. ISO 3200 is OK for telling a story and my Canon 7d mk II is very good with ISO noise, so overall I’m happy with this.

Clovers, towering trees, flowers, and warm light.
Redwood Sorrel

Once inside Portola Redwoods SP we were again among creeks, clovers, and shade. I live among redwoods so I’m almost used to these giant trees. Almost. I live in awe of them every day. Many of the trees we encountered were under 100 years old because most of them had been clearcut after the 1908 San Francisco earthquake and fires to help rebuild the city.

Just a couple more miles to go
One of several spots we crossed over small streams

We arrived at the site of Page’s Mill (yes, this is what Page Mill Road is named for) to refill water. I made some more creative photos here and shared a little Landscape Photography 101 with a friend. This is where my tiny Gorilla travel tripod came in very handy.
The photos below are available on my sales site:

Don’t just look at the forest. See into the forest. Words of wisdom from one of our guides. This photo is available at my sale site.
Young redwoods and warm light. This photograph is available on my sales site.
Long exposure at the site where Page’s Mill once stood. This photograph is available on my sale site.


Backpacking through the Santa Cruz Mountains – Day One: Castle Rock

This is Part 1 of a 3 part series.
Part 2 was posted May 27, 2017: 

Recently I had the opportunity to participate in a backpacking trip led by naturalists and made available by California State Parks. I’ve done lots of day hikes – 3 to 9 miles for the sake of photographing a special subject or scene, but this time I wanted to do something that required more effort. I hadn’t done any actual backpacking since I was in the Boy Scouts as a teenager, so this meant learning how to do this all over again. I was eager to join the “Wild Flower Special”  in late April so that meant that I had some work to do.


I gathered the gear that would be needed: tent, pack, warm sleeping bag, etc. and did some training hikes to work out the details. My friend Erin went with me on one at Wilder Ranch State Park. She helped spot the obvious problems and generally made our 7 mile training hike all kinds of fun.

DSLR selfie at Wilder Ranch. I did this as a reference to see what parts of the frame needed adjusting. Yes, that’s an old-school external frame pack. I like them.

Part of the training was to determine what needed adjusting and what I really needed to bring. This trip was going to be as much about photography as it would be about hiking, so I had to seriously consider what was absolutely necessary. I also had to find the best way to carry a camera. Usually I go with a device that clips the camera to my pack strap, but this time I experimented with a top loading case and my camera sling. Neither of those options worked, so I went back to my tried & true CapturePRO from Peak Design.  It did the job well providing access to the camera when I wanted it, and  a place to keep it ready when I didn’t.

Well of course we stopped to see the horses! Erin was a blast all day long.

Erin almost stepped on this little gopher snake. I took some snapshots with my macro lens which I decided not to bring for the next trip. I shooed him off the trail so he wouldn’t get hurt by a fast moving mountain bike.

A tiny gopher snake. He wasn’t too crazy about me being so close. Actually this was part of an exercise to choose what camera gear to bring. It helped point out that there was no need to bring this macro lens.

One more picture from the training hike. This was just too cute to pass up. Erin was a lot of help and she’s just one of the sweetest people I know. That and she’s ridiculously photogenic, so why not?

Buttercup the barnyard kitty has got to be the happiest cat I’ve ever seen. Erin fell in love with this little grrrl immediately.

The Trip: Day One – Castle Rock

The set of trails was going to take us from Castle Rock State Park, through the Saratoga Gap Open Space Preserve, and end at Portola Redwoods State Park. The terrain and biodiversity just over this 16 miles is amazing. Oaks, sandy areas, exposed grassy hills, and dense redwoods.

You can see why this place is popular with local rock climbers. These details are natural spots to hold onto.

The eight of us gathered on Friday afternoon at Castle Rock State Park , shook off the drive (just a few minutes for me, a touch longer for our friends from San Jose), and started off towards the rock formations. Castle Rock is a favorite spot for local rock climbers.

Rose encouraged us to write our thoughts occasionally.

We paused for a little while here. We got to know each other a bit and Rose, one of the naturalists encouraged us to take time to write our thoughts.  Rose spoke about this particular location, about the people who come here today, what they like to do, and about the plant life that we were likely to see today. She also lit a bundle of rosemary. We each held the aromatic, lightly burning rosemary and took turns speaking about who we are and what we were looking for on this trip.

Rose lighting a bundle of rosemary

When it was my turn I mentioned a brief interaction with G Dan Mitchell. I was asking my photographer friends on their thoughts on the Sony A7 II. Dan had the best response: “What problem are you trying to solve?” He was right. I didn’t need to solve a gear problem I was trying to solve an inspiration problem. So, let’s go get inspired.

I brought two cameras with me. For Day One I brought my little Panasonic Lumix FZ47. This is a nice, light weight JPG camera with just enough manual control. While it weighs very little, it was OK for some of these snapshots but not for much else. This was good to know and the size/weight penalty was almost nothing. I shot all day using this little camera, so while the photos are hardly “art” they were just fine for what I had planned for the first day.

Wide angle snapshot of the waterfall at Castle Rock — viewing down from the overlook.

We got started and paused frequently to talk about flowers and other points of interest. There’s a popular overlook with a small waterfall that had just enough water in it. I actually hadn’t been to this spot before, so it was a pleasant surprise.

Detail of the waterfall at Castle Rock.

We were treated to broad views and a clear sky. The amazing detail is that this terrain is formed by land pushing up from the sea floor a long, long time ago.

One of the broad views along the trail.

We stopped frequently to hear about the abundant wild flowers. Here Rose describes some of the lupins, the wild rose, and the  California wild rose.

Rose showing us the lupins, tiny wild roses, and the California wild rose

There were plenty of spots that needed our complete attention. For example climbing over this rock wasn’t especially hard, but it was narrow enough for my wider pack to be a little complicated.

Getting over the rocks
There were footbridges that were just as narrow. I had to think about how I was going to cross this. Hmmmm maybe an internal frame pack is in my future after all.

There were some surprises. For example this blooming plant is a very young oak tree. In a hundred hears or so this guy will be enormous.

Detail of a very young oak tree

One of my favorite snapshots from the first day is our group along the winding trail with this panoramic view.

We arrived at the first campsite after 3.5 miles of hiking. We setup camp, made dinner and enjoyed hearing even more from our guides. I had my heart set on photographing the Milky Way over the Santa Cruz mountains from an overlook that I knew was nearby. Plans changed because I wasn’t able to find it in the dark. I scouted around a bit for something else to catch my eye. The sun setting through the trees was warm and inviting, so that made a beautiful subject. I was missing my good tripod right about now, so I had to improvise with high ISO and a technique I call “holding really still”.

The sun sets through the trees near our campsite.

After dinner our guide Eric had a lot to say about the anthropology of the Santa Cruz Mountains. A lot of us are aware of the Ohlone tribes who frequented here, but I didn’t know that they were responsible for clearing some of the spaces. I also didn’t realize that they had a relationship with the Spanish explorers and Russian traders. I also didn’t know that they had established trade with other nearby tribes and were even a seafaring people.

Late night anthropology talk with Eric

Eric demonstrated how they made an meal from acorns using elaborate water tight bowls and hot rocks. Most local elementary school children have tried an acorn mush. My own kids certainly told me about their experience with it. Now it was my turn. It wasn’t bad!