Castle Mountain CC
Black Mountain P1K

Fri, Nov 2, 2012
Castle Mountain
Black Mountain
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 GPX Profile

The two peaks are among the 20 highest summits in the Diablo Range, located in the southern portion of the range near the small town of Parkfield which calls itself the Earthquake Capital of the World. While the accuracy of the claim may be dubious, no one will argue that they don't get their fair share, lying directly on the San Andreas Fault. Castle Mtn is on the CC list while it's neighbor, Black Mtn, comes in as the 6th most prominent peak in the range with over 1,800ft of prominence. Neither peak is easy to reach, the combination requiring more than 20 miles roundtrip, starting from Turkey Flat Rd. This is the same road used by county highpointers to reach the similarly remote Table Mtn, the highpoint of Kings County. From San Jose it's a along drive, more than three hours each way, not the sort of hike I could do easily on a whim. I had been looking for an opportunity to climb these two around a full moon for the past six months and finally found it. My son needed a ride to Monterey on a Friday evening, so I planned to drive south to Parkfield afterwards and climb the two peaks through the night, returning early the next morning.

It was several days past a full moon, so I didn't mind getting a late start around 9:40p. The moon had just risen half an hour earlier and was not far above the eastern horizon when I started off from Turkey Flat Rd. There are only a few widely scattered homes along this road south of Parkfield and none were close to where I parked. I hopped a gate and followed a ranch road across Turkey Flat, a broad, flat valley almost five miles long and 1.5 miles wide that runs across the southwest side of the range, lying at an elevation of about 1,500ft. The land all around is primarily used for ranching. Receiving little rain, the land is not terribly productive and by this time of year Turkey Flat has been grazed bare to the ground, almost as though swept by fire. Unable to support the animals until the next season after the winter rains begin, the cattle have been moved to other pastures or to market. I did not see or hear a single one the whole night.

After a quarter mile I hopped a second gate onto the adjacent property (I saved one gate-hop on the return by using another ranch road just west of the original one) which stretched all the way across Turkey Flat. It was very quiet without the cattle and with no water, not even the sound of a frog or cricket. The road was in good condition, wide and easy to hike along without concern for stumbling. It took about an hour to cross Turkey Flat and climb 1,700ft to Table Mtn, an eight mile-long, broad ridgeline rising above the north side of Turkey Flat. The county highpoint is at the far east end, some four miles from my nearest approach to it. It would be possible to add it to the outing, but would make it considerably longer. The well-graded road I followed continues over the ridge and into Joaquin Canyon to the north. I missed the right turn onto a poorer road that follows southeast along the ridgeline, but corrected my mistake within a few minutes. This poor road runs through some tall brush and squat junipers before petering out at a fence along a property boundary where the brush gives way to close-cropped grass slopes - the cattle have grazed this nearly bare as well.

After hopping another fence, I started north on a recently graded road running along the side of the fence. This led over the top of Table Mtn's ridgeline and started down again to Joaquin Canyon before I realized the mistake. I backtracked and found the road heading east depicted on the topo map, only it was little-used these days and hard to make out even with open moonlight. I continued southeast along Table Mtn's 3,000-foot high ridge for about a mile until the road improved and eventually joined a better one at a junction. I turned left and shortly began the next phase of climbing involving almost 1,300ft over the next three miles to Castle Mtn. About a mile into this I passed through an open gate that appears to mark the upper range of the cattle. Above this, the hillsides do not look to be grazed. I passed by what is likely a hunting cabin at an overlook, a modest two-room building with plenty of glass facing the overlook to the south. A porch surrounds most of the structure with chairs, a BBQ and an outdoor hearth found outside.

It was nearly midnight when I reached the base of the South Ridge of Castle Mountain. The road here traverses around the east side of the mountain before regaining the ridge northeast of Castle Mtn. I found a use trail (made by hunters?) running up the South Ridge and started up this. It did not climb very high on the ridge before petering out in a small clearing. I continued cross-country up the ridgeline with tall grasses and some modest bushwhacking. Upon reaching the lower south summit, I found the summit area flatter, some of it composed of large sandstone slabs that made for easy walking where they could be found. A small stack of cut wood seemed oddly out of place, but a reminder that I was hardly the first visitor here. Still a third of a mile from the highpoint to the northwest, I wandered through forest and brush, careful to pick my route (mostly on the southwest side) to avoid having to plunge into the thicker stands of brush that characterized the western half of the summit area. Some spikey patches of yucca added to the hazards to be avoided. Knowing I was not far from some of the worst places I've ever encountered ticks, I checked my pants regularly and started finding a few of the pests crawling up my clothing. I'd flick them off and continue, but from then on I was more diligent in checking - my last outing a few days earlier had netted a tick on my neck that was still itching me. At least there was no poison oak anywhere on the mountain.

It was almost 12:30a when I reached the highpoint, marked by an old concrete block placed by surveyors in some long forgotten year. Some wooden boards from a tower lay scattered about the concrete block. There was no register or anything else to suggest anyone's bothered to visit this brushy summit since the surveyors last left their mark. Trees and brush blocked views to the north, but others were available looking south and west. There were only a few isolated lights among a sea of moonlit hills fading off into the distance. A cold breeze was blowing over the summit from the north now, bringing wisps of fog and moisture with it, wetting much of the ground.

I returned to the east side of the summit plateau and started down the NE Ridge, intending to intersect the road again where it met back up with the ridgeline. The wind was stronger here and the fog grew thicker as it blew over the low saddle between Castle and Black Mtn. For a short while I could see a huge wave of fog slowly descending the south side of the ridge into Avenal Canyon, a most impressive scene lighted dimly by the moonlight, giving it at once both an eerie feeling and a serene sense of being. I soon found myself enveloped completely in the fog and trying to find my way through thick walls of chest-high brush. The bushwhacking could be minimized by taking a circuitous path to avoid the worst of it, but I found myself turned around in the fog and relying heavily on my GPS to keep me on course. Without it, I would surely have had to return to back to the summit and down the South Ridge to find the road again. The fog made the headlamp nearly useless as it did more to light up the fog in front of my face than the ground at my feet. Luckily the moon still shone through the fog which was not too thick above me. More ticks found their way to my person, offering more distractions and delays to remove them. I finally found myself peering through some brush to what appeared to be a huge drop-off below me - a cliff of perhaps 40-50ft, where I was looking down on what I thought was a top layer of fog over the ground. I stared and stared until I realized it was the dirt road I had been looking for - only ten feet below me through the brush. It is hard to describe how the brain looks for recognizable patterns in unfamiliar territory, makes something of it, only to have to reorganize the visual materials presented to make something completely different of it. It was somewhat dizzying going through this process until I recognized it for the road. And far from finding this disconcerting, it was one of the enjoyable aspects I find in these night hikes. It's a little like being on drugs only without the drugs.

Once back on the road, I still had another three miles to Black Mtn, but now the navigation difficulties were behind me. There are some undulations here as the ridgeline turns towards the east and goes through a few saddles, but the road is in good condition and the hiking is mostly easy. I was soon out of the fog which had already begun to retreat back down the north side of Black Mountain and would not make itself felt again the rest of the night. The good road ends about half a mile still from Black Mountain, though the old road (no longer traveled) continues pretty much as shown on the 7.5' topo map. A few large downfalls blocked the road in several places. It has been years since any vehicle has traversed this last bit of road. The last quarter mile up to the highpoint was navigable but very overgrown and I picked up more than a dozen ticks in this short distance before the summit. Again I paused to flick them off.

The topo map shows a radio tower on the east side of the summit but it is no longer there. Concrete slabs and little else are all that remain of the facilities that once stood here. A barbed-wire fence still encloses the area and I found myself hopping it several times as I searched out the highpoint along the summit ridge. I eventually settled on a large rock that appears to be the highest point around, though I could not say with any certainty. Trees and brush obscure a clean view, but I figured it was close enough. With more than 1,800ft of prominence, Black Mountain dominates the terrain in most directions. The next higher peaks are 30 miles to the north (San Benito Mtn), 70 miles to the southeast (Caliente), 60 miles to the west and much further to the east. In almost all directions, nothing but the softly lit hills and subranges in all directions. Some lights of the Central Valley could be seen to the east, but there is little civilization in this part of the state and no significant towns or cities could be spotted either east or west. The chill and concern for ticks kept me from relaxing or spending any significant time at the summit. It was after 2a now and time I was heading back.

What had taken 4 1/2 hrs on the ascent took me less than 2 1/2 hrs on the return. Much of this was due to not having to re-ascend Castle Mtn, now easily bypassed on the road around the east side. More time was saved by jogging much of the downhill sections, using a headlamp now to keep from tripping over a rock in the shadows and taking a nasty spill. The route I took was much the same, stopping only briefly to check out a USGS instrument setup and to take a picture of the hunting cabin I had passed on the way up. It was 4:30a when I returned to the van parked along Turkey Flat Rd, half an hour ahead of my original estimate of a 5a return time. I checked for ticks hidden in the folds of my clothing, stripped bare to see if any had gotten to my skin, then changed into some fresh, tickless clothing. I still had a long drive back to San Jose, managing to get back just before sunrise. The family was surprised to see me so soon after telling them to expect me in the afternoon. I had brought sleeping gear to nap in the van if I was tired, but I could not rest easily until I had showered and done a thorough tick check to make sure I didn't have an unwanted hitchhiker. Satisified, I slept the rest of the morning contented in my own bed...

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