Entering Castle Crags Wilderness in Northern California, the trail features views of Castle Dome with Mount Shasta in the background. - Courtesy Sophie Stiles

Castles in the sky

The granite spires sparkled in the sunlight, and the color of the rocks contrasted perfectly with the blue sky.

"This can't be the middle of January," I thought as I sat on a boulder. I turned around to admire the towering rock faces behind me, structures reminding me of a great fortress or castle. That is why they're called the Castle Crags, after all.

We spent a few more moments resting on the boulder before my best friend, Kelli Alcantara, and I scrambled back to the trail leading us to Castle Dome.

Last weekend, after driving an hour and 45 minutes south on Interstate 5, we got off at exit 724, paid $8 for parking at Castle Crags State Park, and set out on a 5.5-mile roundtrip trail. With adventure as our goal, nothing could disappoint.

We didn't realize until we got there that our adventure would include a 2,200-foot elevation gain, and while it's not at all treacherous, the Castle Dome Trail (aka the Crags Trail) is not for the faint of heart. The slow and steady ascent takes about two hours, including time for pictures and water breaks. The first hour was a trek through the forest that made us wonder whether we would ever arrive at the rocks. Then a sudden break in the tree line revealed the granite towers, and the trail began following a ridge that opened up to striking views of the valley. We made it to the crags and took a small detour to do some bouldering, followed by a 15-minute pause of contemplation and admiration for the surrounding beauty.

At the crags, the trail turned into a subtle path that made it too easy to take a wrong turn. Entering into the Castle Crags Wilderness, we walked past the trail's right turn and wound up engaging in more technical bouldering. The thrill of conquering a few boulders escalated into complete awe as we stood facing a magnificent view of the castle. Even the realization this wasn't the right path couldn't take away the wonder. The detour had merely fanned the flame of our adventure.

The last stretch of the Crags Trail was undeniably rewarding. We walked the final 30 minutes with our destination in sight— an enormous rounded rock tower known as Castle Dome. It had an impressiveness matched only by the view of Mount Shasta in the background.

Meeting fellow travelers on the final part of the trail added to the experience. One observed that Castle Dome reminded her of Yosemite National Park's Half Dome, only on a smaller scale. We walked and talked until reaching the base of the dome. Reaching the top might require some technical bouldering, but it appeared the majority was a scramble, a term describing the intermediate between hiking and rock-climbing.

My adrenaline was pumping as I approached the great rock before me. I heard someone behind me say it wasn't smart to climb without proper equipment. Another warned not to continue any farther. But I didn't listen. I began the scramble up to the top of Castle Dome. Nearly 100 feet up, my friend was begging me to come down. She had a point, there was still a few hundred feet to go, and coming down would be risky. Frustrated, I looked up at that perfect contrast of granite and blue sky. At that moment, my body and soul craved the fulfillment of standing on top of a conquered mountain.

"Another time," I convinced myself.

The hike back took one hour, a comparatively pleasant downhill stroll. We laughed and conversed about the quirks of our adventure — a woman hiking with a baby on her back, a dog fight we encountered, two teenagers with matching red hats who threw caution to the wind in summiting the dome — and as we passed fatigued hikers on their way up, we assured them it was well worth the effort.

When I got home, I ventured to the California State Parks website and found the following message: "You can climb rocks to your heart's content around here, but use caution and don't exceed your abilities."

I couldn't help but laugh. I had used caution, but certainly not exceeded my abilities. Perhaps it was a missed opportunity. Still, I achieved the greater goal of experiencing a new adventure.

Sophie Stiles lives in Medford. She's a contributing writer for a blog called "Render the Adventure" at

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