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Sieging the Castle

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Hard-fought climb on the Castle Crags
Photo by Lee Juillerat Castle Dome rises above the trail toward its summit.
Photo by Lee Juillerat Hikers enjoy the view from a ledge 500 vertical below the top of Castle Dome.
Photo by Lee Juillerat A hiker takes the challenging trail to Castle Dome in Castle Crags State Park.

Laying siege to the Castle was literally and physically an uphill battle.

Our siege wasn’t in the style of Medieval warfare or a dastardly Russian invasion. Instead of armies, artillery and missiles we were armed only with hiking poles on our challenging 2.75-mile, step-by-step, 2,200-foot elevation gain hike to Castle Dome, where friends and I celebrated our personal victories from an overlook set within a confluence of geologic curiosities.

Reaching Castle Dome begins in Northern California’s Castle Crags State Park from the Vista Point Trailhead. The initial quarter-mile is deceptively easy, but a siege mentality begins soon after as the breathtaking, and breath-taking, trail winds relentlessly up and up through a forest of Douglas fir and incense cedar past junctions with the Pacific Crest Trail and Indian Springs.

Shortly after the Indian Springs junction, 1,000 feet above the trailhead and still more than a mile from Castle Dome, the struggle intensifies. What begins as a well-graded trail transforms when it enters the Shasta-Trinity National Forest’s Castle Crags Wilderness Area, where it becomes more challenging, forcing huff-n-puff Castle-sieging hikers to occasionally step or shimmy over and around rocky obstacles. At times the poorly signed trail seemingly disappears.

There are challenges, but the rewards are many. Once above tree line, the trail angles through a granite garden of erratic, sharply pitched monolithic pillars and cliffs, with enticing glimpses of Mount Shasta, Castle Dome, nearby Mount Hubris and dramatic rock formations like Six Toe Rock.

The trail end is an open area with a view, or, more correctly, views. The Dome’s 4,996-foot summit is still another 500-feet higher, a challenging Class 4-plus climbing route. Years ago, with experienced climbers, I was part of a roped trio that shimmied our way to the summit then rappelled down its face.

Not this day.

The area at trail’s end offers sumptuous views of neighboring crags and, farther off, snow-blanketed Mount Shasta. Our sieging, view-thirsty crew paused before free-climbing easy holds and cracks to a higher bench. From there, as at other viewpoints, it’s easy to see why Wintu Indians called the region the “Abode of the Devil” and Spanish explorers dubbed it “Castle del Diablo,” or “Castle of the Devil.”

Castle Crags was also celebrated by Joaquin Miller, the self-described “Poet of the Sierras,” who as a young man lived in the Shasta-Crags region. As he wrote about Castle Crags, “Great gnarled and knotty trees clung to the mountain side beyond, and a little to the left a long, thin cataract, which, from the valley far below, looked like a snowy plume, came pitching down through the tree tops. It had just been let loose from the hand of God — this sheen of shining water. Back and beyond all this, a peak of snow, a great pyramid and shining shaft of snow, with a crown of clouds, pierced heaven.”

The area’s geology is heavenly fascinating. Unlike the Cascades, which were created by volcanic and sedimentary forces, Castle Crest and the Castle Crags are granite formations that were created more than 170 million years ago and are part of the Klamath Mountains. Over millennia, exfoliation has caused the Crags to crumble and peel, creating erratic rock pillars and round-topped Castle Crest. According to geologists, the Crags took shape as granitic magma slowly cooled underground then eventually burst skyward through the surface.

Hiking to Castle Dome is an experience to be appreciated. Atop and on the way to Castle Dome our group’s collective mentality was one of wonder, delight and appreciation. It is possible to climb to a summit, but no one “conquers” a mountain.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

Getting There

To reach Castle Crags State Park from Medford, take Interstate 5 south into California, continue past Mount Shasta City and Dunsmuir to exit 724 in Castella, which is also signed for Castle Crags. Continue on to Castle Creek Road for a third of a mile to the park entrance. The cost for a day parking permit is $8 per vehicle. Once in the park, drive two miles up the narrow road past the campground to the parking area, which also accesses the half-mile roundtrip trail to Vista Point.