Henry Coe State Park is the largest State Park in Northern California (the second largest in the California Park system) just south of San Jose. With over 250 miles of trails and the nearest place to the bay area that allows dispersed camping it’s a popular destination for backpacking, particularly in the Spring, which is the best time to visit the park.
Henry Coe covers a large area of the Diablo mountain range that was previously used for ranching. A lot of the trails in the park are old farm roads and many of them are maintained as dirt roads, and the small number of lakes are all artificial. The terrain is rugged and the trails, not being designed for people, are typically steep. There is a saying that you don’t go to Coe to train for the Sierras, you go to the Sierras to train for Coe.
I’ve gone on multiple backpacking trips in Henry Coe and hiked over 100 miles of its trails. The climbs can be punishing and the heat can be brutal, but the terrain is beautiful and it’s easy to find solitude once you get away from the perimeter of the trailheads.
There are 4 trailheads at Henry Coe park, the park headquarters is located at the top of a ridge in the northwest of the park, Coyote Creek and Hunting Hollow trailheads are located along Coyote Creek in the southwest of the park, and Dowdy Ranch which is a seasonal trailhead in the south of the park.
The headquarters and Hunting Hollow are open year round for overnight parking, Dowdy Ranch is open seasonally and only at the weekends, and Coyote Creek only has limited day street parking. The headquarters is the most popular entrance to leave from and at popular times has a manned ranger station where the rangers can offer route advice and water source status in the drier months. The headquarters is at the top of the ridge so the journey home will involve a climb. Hunting Hollow is self registration and is located in a valley.
A lot of the trails in Henry Coe are old ranch roads and most of them either follow ridgelines or valleys. There are also some newer purpose-built hiking trails, like China Hole trail which switchbacks up to park headquarters. Some of the farm roads are still used as maintenance roads and some are now delegated as trails and are mostly overgrown, like Rat Spring or Live Oak Spring trails.
A lot of the trails are open to horseback riding and mountain biking and the park is popular with mountain bikers. The further from the trailheads the trails are the less travelled they are, to get deep into the park requires traversing many ridges. The trails in Orestimba Wilderness are mostly not maintained, in particular the northern section of the wilderness which is the deepest part of the park are quite overgrown and can be hard to navigate.
In the wet season you should be prepared to get your feet wet when following trails along valleys. From the Hunting Hollow trailhead the path immediately crosses a tributary to the Coyote Creek that requires wading through, and then proceeds to cross it again numerous times.
All of the lakes in Henry Coe are man-made, with dirt dams across rivers. Mississippi Lake is the largest, and one of the furthest from a trailhead. There are trails around the entire lake and to do a circuit of it is almost 2 miles. Coit Lake is the next largest lake further to the south and is a popular destination. Kelly Lake is a little smaller. Other than the lakes there are also many ponds, which are also mostly manmade.
The lakes and ponds are established into the ecosystem at this point and support the wildlife. They’re popular destinations for camping and Mississippi, Coit, and Kelly lakes all have pit toilets nearby.
I took a multi night backpacking trip into Orestimba Wilderness this spring and as I left park headquarters was teaming with backpackers heading out to the nearby sites, the ranger told me all the western sites were occupied. However after about 5 trail miles from headquarters I didn’t see another person for almost the next 50 trail miles and 3 days, not a single soul in the wilderness itself.
I entered the wilderness from north and had planned to hike up Mount Stakes, the highest point in the park, via Pinto Creek trail. The trails in the northern, most remote section, were all very overgrown and in places the levelled surface of old roads was still visible. After over an hour try to break through a steep section of Pinto Creek I gave up and turned around, instead opting to follow Robinson Creek to Orestimba Creek.
Orestimba Creek Road is obviously still used by the ranches on either side of the wilderness and defines the wilderness boundary farther to the south. As it cuts across private property Rooster Comb trail takes you around the private section, this is the best graded and maintained single track in the wilderness and is fun to hike round. The trail is clearly visible however the trails in the southern section of the wilderness are also indicated by ribbons.
Hiking through the wilderness in spring means a lot of walking through knee-high grasses and the seeds would work their way through the mesh of my shoes sticking into my socks. There’s very little wild oak in this section of the park, I suspect because it is so hot and dry much of the year, and walking through large amounts of grass I was a little concerned about ticks but in the end I only caught one or two and none got a bite of me.
If you like solitude and striking landscapes Orestimba Wilderness is a great place to visit. I imagine it will be very hot dry in the summer but in the springtime there is water in the streams, green vegetation, and pleasant weather. The trail system is not maintained, and I found it particularly overgrown in the north so have a good map (although like the rest of the park the indicated trails mostly follow ridges and valleys which make them a lot easier to find when you lose them).
There is a large amount of wildlife in Henry Coe, near the park entrance I have seen wild turkeys on multiple occasions, sometimes blocking the path. You can see throughout the park many signs on the feral pigs snouting through the dirt, in the wilderness I actually came across an adult pig exploring a valley and later on a family of pigs including piglets resting by a stream.
Crossing over the streams at one point I startled a pair of fish which proceeded to startle me as they shot away at high-speed. As I was filtering some water at a stream a coyote came bounding down the hillside out of the trees chasing a bird, unaware of my presence, before bounding back into the wooded section again. In the undergrowth a lot of small reptiles and grass snakes will rustle as you go past, and I’ve seen many rabbits, including one that came hurtling past my tent one morning as I was packing up.
Aside from the animals, in the spring there are a large variety of wildflowers that cover the hillsides and valley floors, red, yellow, orange, blue, violet, every colour. The oak trees dot the grass-covered hills, it’s a classic California landscape.
As with many parks in California you should be aware of ticks, poison oak, rattlesnakes, and mountain lions, but if you are prepared sunburn and sore legs are much more probable enemies.
Into the Wild
I’ve backpacked in Henry Coe multiple times and each time has been very rewarding; the hills are punishing but reward you with gorgeous vistas from the peaks, the sun can be brutally hot (make sure you take sunscreen!) but makes for beautiful sunsets and sunrises. The wilderness lives up to its name, it really is wild, and it’s a trek to reach, but once you get there chances are you have most of it entirely to yourself.