Henry W. Coe State Park is California’s second largest (Anza-Borrego Desert State Park being the largest). Despite it’s 89,000 acres, the park receives only 40,000 visitors a year. It’s a small wonder, given the name of this blog, that we love this park so much. Sitting only a short drive from the populous Santa Clara Valley, it’s almost amazing that such a vast expanse of protected land is there.
Saturday, May 4th marked the first day of the season that the 7 mile Kaiser-Aetna Road opened allowing access to the Dowdy Ranch Visitor’s Center area from the Bell Station entrance. Given its relatively remote location, this area of the park receives a small fraction of the visitors. We decided to take this opportunity to spend our weekend hiking the Western areas of the park.
We arrived at Bell Station a good half hour before the scheduled 8:00 am opening and after seeing a park service vehicle go through the gate, we followed. Locked! A few minutes wait and a silver Toyota pickup pulled up behind us. The volunteer staff member was surprised to see people there at all. After figuring out the combination to the gate, she led the way down the dusty, dirt, washboard road.
Our target, a bit over 11 miles away, was Raven Pond. We started down Kaiser-Aetna and marveled at the multitude of wildflowers blooming, a small portion of the hundreds of species in the park. Turning onto the Tie Down Trail we could see just how few hikers visit the area. The trail, portions of which were formerly ranch road, was well overgrown with grasses and other plants. We had to pay attention to where we were going so as not to lose the trail.
After about 3.5 miles we returned briefly to Kaiser-Aetna Road and took refuge in the shade from the day’s mounting heat. If I were to choose two words to describe the park I would choose “hot” and “steep”. While trails in other parks are constructed so as not to exceed a 10% grade, switchbacking or going around hills, this is not the case in the Coenator. As former roads, or in cases I’m certain former game trails, the trails here tend to go directly over. Even though traveling from one point to another, you may end up at nearly the same elevation, the constant up and down quickly accumulates for high total gains. The up and down is also calf-burningly steep. Maybe this is why some stay away from the park, but in my opinion this is a big part of the park’s charm.
We needed to take the short Woodpecker Trail to County Line Road, but after our short break, we completely missed it. The area was completely overgrown and the signpost (I should say sign because a post was there) was missing. Realizing this we had to backtrack a little bit before spotting the trail bench on the side of a hill and venturing through the grasses towards it. Hint: there’s a large metal trap, presumably for wild pigs, right where the trail starts.
A loud rustling and grunt caught our attention. A large grey wild boar, unhappy with our proximity, took off down the trail to safety. Though not uncommon, this animal was still magnificent.
While fire roads make for easier travel, they do have their drawbacks. Shade is sparse and the heat unforgiving. We zigzagged between the sides of the road for brief moments of shelter from the direct sunlight. The road climbs towards Mustang Peak and as the elevation increases, the views of the vast expanses of uninhabited land become all the more breathtaking. Chaparral, forest, and rolling hills as far as the eye can see. The climactic view is to be had from the highest point along our trip, Mustang Peak. This is accessible via a use-trail, and some loose sand scrambling, from the East side. Though the map marks a trail on the West side, we never found it. The summit is marked by an iron pole with a rusty horseshoe tied to it.
From Mustang Peak it’s all downhill to Raven Pond, though this was not without challenge. We shortly came upon a gate. Locked! We consulted the map and indeed the road exits the park at this point. We contemplated what to do for a minute and “I yelled at the house ‘What gives you the right to keep me out or to keep Mother Nature in”. If only there was a house or a sign that said “anybody caught trespassing will be shot on sight” I would have felt like Les Emmerson of the Five Man Electrical Band, but alas, there wasn’t even a “NO TRESPASSING” sign. There was a sign on the other side warning of the park boundary.
Hiking a bit further we ran into a couple of mountain bikers, bikers that arrived at the park shortly after we did. They too decided to hop the gate and told us there were a few more locked ones further down the road; past where we were going. Chatting for a while we continued and arrived at another gate at the park boundary. This one, unlike the other, was not locked. I imagine the previous one was a goof up on somebody’s part, rather than actually meant to keep anyone out, though this area of the park is inaccessible form any other direction.
The final half mile consisted of another obscure trail leading down to Raven Pond. Hint: about 0.1 mile in there’s a small cairn and some purple ribbon tied to sagebrush. Bear left here or you’ll have to push your way through the brush.
The water level in the pond was very low which made walking to its far end much easier. The Northern end is fairly exposed and wouldn’t have made for good camping. The South side on the other hand is surrounded by conifers. We went up a short slope on the East side to the nature reclaimed remnants of another ranch road. The bench was smooth and made for a great tent spot in the shade.
After dinner and a rest, I walked over to the pond to take some pictures. The pond was teeming with life. An entire circle was visible. Frogs eating the various species of dragonflies. Dragonflies eating smaller insects. Sparrows eating the frogs. A water snake swam under the surface. Fish were visible. If the pond is this low, this early in the season, how does all this life survive when the pond dries out? The number of dead frogs around the banks is evidence that life here is hard. Dead frogs are easy to photograph though, unlike their living relatives which dive into the water with a loud squeak before you can get remotely close.
Waking up at 5:00am on Sunday, we got an early start, hoping to beat the heat. Back up Ravon Pond Trail and County Line Road until we came to the Dutch’s Trail junction. Heading South, Dutch’s trail follows a ridge, perched between two valleys, for a large portion. This provided for more wildflower viewing opportunities. Mostly exposed, we were very glad it was still early and the sun was hiding behind cloud cover. Yellowjacket Trail led us through an open grassland (watch for ticks), until we met up with the Tie Down Trail again.
Before crossing the North Fork of Pacheco Creek we veered East and headed down the North Fork Trail which follows, and on multiple occasions crosses, the creek. Though the water was mainly at a trickle, there were still many deeper pools along the way. The North Fork Trail ends on the South side of the creek in a large grassland and here Mack’s Corral Trail begins. The latter is likely named after the corral which can still be seen here. This must have been prime grazing land.
As we ventured into the woodland, we decided to take another break, and a bit tired at this place, plopped down on the ground. We couldn’t have picked a worst spot as this was the biggest, and first, patch of poison oak we came across. Sharon, allergic to the stuff, did get some oils on her, but luckily nothing too bad.
As we approached the parking lot we saw 3 hikers, the first since yesterday’s mountain bikers. I would say that our continuing mission to find solitude was rather successful, but again I must stress that if solitude is what you’re after, and you’re not in the mood for a longer drive, Henry Coe is the place to goe. Hmm…or maybe I should be selfish and tell you something to keep you away. There are so many rattlesnakes here that you’ll be walking on a carpet of them 🙂
For more state park adventure, visit our California State Park Guide.