Robinson Mountain Trail could be more accurately described as a suggested route rather than a trail, but the views on the way up are really pretty. Deep into Orestimba Wilderness it’s a long walk in, and back out again, to get to this rarely walked trail.
For the second year running, I threw my backpack on the back of motorcycle, and headed down to Henry Coe to visit Orestimba Wilderness. I was a little better prepared after my experience last year and stuck to the trails I knew were easily navigable. My goal was to try to get to Robinson Mountain Peak right in the center of Orestimba Wilderness. The trail up to the peak is from the east so I had a long hike from park headquarters just to get to the base of the mountain.
I took the most direct route to get to Orestimba Wilderness from the Park HQ, heading to Mississippi Lake via Poverty Flat Road and Willow Ridge Road, and then dropping down Hartmann Trail and following the Orestimba Creek up to Rooster Comb, where I spent the night. The rivers were pretty full of water and the scenery was very green this time of year. From Rooster Comb it’s a few miles around to Robinson Mountain Trail, just past Lion Canyon.
Robinson Mountain Trail is more of a suggested route than a trail. Like many of the trails at Henry Coe, it walks straight up a ridge to a sub peak of Robinson Mountain. There was only one small section where the trail seems to have been man-made, where it tracks around a particularly steep ridge. The views over the valley on the way up are really pretty. The entire path up requires scrambling through waist to chest high coyote brush, but it’s pretty easily navigable.
After getting to the top though, it’s another story. The chaparral is really thick and has grown well past head height in places. I could see across to Robinson Peak, but there was no obvious path over without crawling through some very thick shrubbery. I was quickly approaching my turn around time, so the summit and views over the western section of the wilderness will have to wait for another year. I turned back, and retraced my steps to Mississippi Lake. The views on the way down the mountain trail were even better than on the way up.
On the way back I met two volunteers trimming and flagging Hartmann Trail, in preparation for the wilderness weekend the next week. This is where Dowdy Ranch is opened to vehicles one weekend each spring, which makes visiting Orestimba a lot more attainable. The volunteers were a couple, both around 80 years old, out maintaining one of the steepest trails in the park, I take my hat off to them.
I also got to talk to a volunteer in park HQ at the end of my trip, a guy named Ken, he explained to me that the ridge roads are actually old fire roads which is why they so strictly follow the ridge lines. Willow Ridge Road is nicknamed the rollercoaster because it goes up and down do many times as it traverses the ridge. It was another fun trip, and I suspect that I’ll be back again in the springtime next year.
A 15 mile out and back (with a small loop at the end) hike with 2,900 feet of elevation change from Long Ridge Open Space Preserve down to Portola Redwoods State Park and over a ridge to Peters Creek Loop, the route starts with views over the forested Santa Cruz mountains before descending into lush redwood groves along a year round stream.
Peters Creek Loop in Portola Redwoods State Park is one of my favourite destinations in the bay area, it’s a three-pronged loop around the intersection of Peters Creek and Bear Creek with lush coastal redwood forest floor of ferns and clover and towering trees. The route also follows along Slate Creek and the site of Page Mill (there’s nothing there now but a sign) for which Page Mill Road owes its name; William Page lumbered redwood in the 1850s, carting it over to the bay via Embarcadero.
Because Peters Creek is many miles into the park it’s not very busy although on the weekend you’re very likely to see groups of hikers walking over. On memorial day the backpackers camp at Slate Creek was full.
The trailhead for Long Ridge Open Space Preserve is just parallel parking along both sides of the road on Skyline Boulevard.
The route starts following Hickory Oaks Trail from the trailhead. This trail is well used by mountain bikers on the weekends. The trail starts off partially shaded but quickly leaves shade behind and follows the ridge around exposed grassy hills. In summer it can be blisteringly hot, the hike starts at the top of a ridge so the first few miles are mostly downhill but this means the final few miles are back up, make sure you have enough water for this last bit, particularly in the summer.
Hickory Oaks trail connects to Ward Road Trail which descends down, out of Long Ridge and turns into Slate Creek Trail as it enters Portola Redwoods State Park. As it descends it turns into single track and meanders down through the forest eventually turning once it reaches Slate Creek.
Slate Creek is also redwood lined although not quite as pretty as Peters Creek. Shortly before the intersection with Bear Creek Trail is a plaque showing the site of Page Mill. The Slate Creek backpackers camp is also located at the intersection.
Bear Creek Trail leads up and over a ridge and descends down into Peters Creek. Along the upwards trail there’s the abandoned wreckage of an old car off to the side.
Bear Creek Trail by first crossing over Bear Creek and then joining up to Peters Creek loop which crosses over Peters Creek twice. The Bear Creek crossing has a bridge but neither crossing of Peters Creek does, but the creek is usually low enough to hop over using stones. The creek is beautiful and a great stopping point for lunch.
After following Peters Creek loop retrace your steps back up to Long Ridge, there’s a lot more climbing on the way back, and the end in particular is exposed.
A 16 mile figure of 8 with around 3,500ft of climbing, starting at Stinson Beach in Marin climbing to the East Peak of Mount Tamalpais, offering great views north over Marin and south over San Francisco, the trail travels through redwood forested valleys, grassland hillsides, and manzanita scrubland.
I hiked this route on Memorial Day which meant Stinson Beach, the parking lots, and the trails were quite busy. The highlights of this route for me were the Steep Ravine Trail, which has incredibly lush redwood undergrowth, and the views from the summit of Mount Tamalpais. It was neat to check out the Mountain Theatre on the way up, and I ended the hike by grabbing some food and sitting on the warm sand of Stinson Beach looking at over the Pacific Ocean.
When I started in the morning Stinson Beach was covered with the ocean fog, but I quickly climbed out and the temperature climbed with the elevation as the trail gets more exposed. I was really rather hot by the time I reached the peak. The trail back down was actually probably slightly more exposed, but the Hoo-Koo-E-Koo Trail and Matt Davis Trail both go through more exposed and heavily shaded cool sections as they contour around the mountain. The final section of the Matt Davis Trail is also heavily shaded and the temperature dropped as it got nearer to the Pacific Ocean again, which was a very welcome break from the sun.
The trailheads are just off Highway 1 at Stinson Beach, there are three places you can park;
All of these are free, but Stinson Beach can be popular on nice weekends so the parking fills up quickly. I got to the Stinson Beach lot at 8:45am just as it opened and a large stream of cars poured into the lot on a holiday weekend.
Follow Dipsea Trail for 1.25 miles from the trailhead.
Take a right onto Steep Ravine Trail at its intersection with Dipsea Trail. Steep Ravine Trail follows Webb Creek up a steep sided valley which is lush with green vegetation and redwood trees. There are a couple of footbridges over the creek and one section with short climb up a ladder.
Steep Ravine Trail ends at a State Park parking lot at an intersection, cross Panoramic Highway and follow Old Stage Road a very short distance to Easy Grade Trail.
Follow Easy Grade Trail for 0.6 miles which takes you to the Mountain Theatre, a large open air theatre. There are water fountains at the theatre, up to this point the trail has mostly been shaded but from here the trail starts to go through more scrubland and is more exposed.
Loop around the Mountain Theatre and follow Rock Spring Trail for 1.5 miles to Old Railway Grade and West Point Inn.
Take the lower Old Railway Grade trail, which is a fireroad, for around 1 mile to Fern Creek Trail
Fern Creek Trail which follows Fern Creek up to the summit parking lot and is steep with many steps and switchbacks. Follow the for 0.75 miles to the parking lot.
From the parking lot at the top it’s around 0.25 miles up the Plank Trail to the summit where there’s a watch tower. The distance from Stinson Beach is around 7.25 miles.
From the summit retrace your steps back to the parking lot and then follow Verna Dunshee Trail clockwise around the summit, past the Gravity Car Barn which has one of the old railway carts on display, to the intersection with Temelpa Trail.
Temelpa Trail switchbacks down the side of the mountain and is quite exposed, after a mile take the Vic Haun Trail which meets the “Double Bow Knot” where Old Railway Grade switchbacks on itself twice.
Follow Old Railway Grade briefly to Hoo-Koo-E-Koo Trail which connects to the Matt Davis Trail after 1 mile.
The rest of the hike follows the Matt Davis Trail for almost its entire length back down to Stinson Beach, it first follows the contour of the mountain inclining ever so slightly up to connect back to the intersection with Panoramic Highway from the route up, here cross over Pan Toll Road and follow the trail first continuing around the contour of the mountain inclining slightly down through grassy hillsides and then the final 2 miles switchbacks down through another redwood forest following a stream to the trailhead at Stinson Beach.
Henry W. Coe State Park is rugged and Orestimba Wilderness feels remote; outside the heat of summer it’s a great destination for a short backpacking trip.
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.