Castle Rock is one of Hamilton County’s most popular destinations, and the perfect place to enjoy fall foliage. On a clear day you can see for miles from the summit. Imagine how many brilliantly colored leaves will lie between you and the horizon! Located just past Minnowbrook Conference Center down Maple Lodge Road, the trail for Castle Rock is easy to get to, fun to hike, and provides unforgettable views. It’s a hiking leaf peepers dream come true, and it’s waiting for you to explore.
For this and any other outdoor fall excursion, proper preparation is key to a happy hiker. Be sure to wear warm socks and waterproof boots with good traction, dress in layers, and bring water, snacks, a headlamp, and a first aid kit. Weather and temperatures can change quickly in the mountains, so check the weather and bring appropriate rain, wind, and cold protection if the forecast calls for it.
Make your first stop, before you even leave the parking area, and sign in at the Trail Register. Review the trail map posted there so you can be confident of your route, and take a picture if you think you might need to refer back to it. Once you’ve signed in, continue down the private gravel road past the Conference Center until the ground turns to dirt beneath your boots. A quarter mile into your hike look for a sign indicating a righthand turn onto Forest Preserve lands. This is where the true trail begins. Start along this path and you will soon arrive at a split in the trail.
From here, you have two options. Continue over the bridge to the left and you will have chosen the one-mile direct trail to the summit of Castle Rock. While that is an excellent option for hikers short on time, it is the abridged version. For the full experience, stick to the lowlands and take the loop trail to the right, marked with yellow trail markers. Though this route is longer, totaling three miles, the more moderate grade makes it an excellent choice for families with small children, as well as beginner and senior hikers.
Before you begin to climb you’ll pass Chub Pond, a small marshy pond nestled at the base of Castle Rock. Small spur trails along the way provide scenic overlooks of the pond. To protect the soft, wet trails parallel to the pond, wooden walkways have been installed. While this will save your boots for awhile, the trail will grow increasingly muddy as you slowly ascend the mountain, while passing over several small streams as you go. To help keep the trail in the best condition possible, let your boots work for you and hike straight through mud instead of around it.
About a mile and a half into your hike, just as you’re really starting to sweat, you will see a sign indicating a left hand turn to the summit of Castle Rock. From there you have less than a half mile to go! Things will start to get a bit steeper, but stick with it – the views will be worth it! A mere tenth of a mile before the summit you will come across one last sign where the loop trail, direct trail, and the final section of trail to the top all meet. The last tenth of a mile will be even steeper and rocky, so get ready to put those glutes to work. You will notice an increase in unmarked side trails as you near the final few feet of your hike. Don’t be fooled by the misadventures of others before you. Keep an eye out for the yellow trail markers and they will guide you straight to the top.
Your hard work will pay off as soon as you crest onto the peak of Castle Rock. With stunning views of Blue Mountain Lake, Blue Mountain itself, and other mountains near and far, this hike offers some of the most diverse scenery of any hike in the region. It is the perfect vista for leaf peeping! Perched upon the summit you will have the perfect vantage point for soaking in the signs of fall. Reds, oranges, yellows, and purples set the treetops ablaze, transforming the landscape into a colorful canvas of fall. Against the blue water and the deep green of the evergreen trees, fall looks even more spectacular from this angle.
When you’re ready to leave, descend as far as the last sign you saw. Instead of returning via the trail you arrived on, take a left onto the direct trail marked with red trail markers. You will pass almost directly beneath the rocky ledge you were perched upon while enjoying the summit just moments before. Take a minute to explore the natural caves created by the rocky crevices before you continue your descent. The mile descent will go by quickly, so take your time and enjoy hiking through the forest. As the sun shines down through the multi-colored leaves, the trail glows with a golden-hour quality any time of day. It’s further proof that hiking is about more than simply reaching the summit.
When you return to the trailhead, be sure to sign out at the trail register before leaving. Then, head into downtown Blue Mountain Lake to enjoy a refreshment, browse the local shops, or simply enjoy the view from a different angle at the public beach and boat launch.
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