Bay Area’s Best-Kept Backpacking Secret Spot
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The place I’m going to tell you about is big enough, and still wild enough, to accommodate a week-long backpacking trip. This place has a terrain of mammoth black oak and valley oak that, in the springtime, explodes into wildflower fireworks. And—best of all—it’s a place that you can get to in a relatively painless two-hour drive from San Francisco or Oakland.
It’s called Henry Coe State Park, the largest state park in Northern California, about 25% larger than Point Reyes National Seashore, but gets less visits compared to the estimated 2.5 million visitors who travel to Point Reyes National Seashore every year. It’s also super close to the Apple headquarters in Cupertino, only 35 miles away.
It’s the perfect escape. Once you get there, you’ll feel far away—even if you’re still close to home.
It’s a place of subtle charms. There are no epic alpine vistas, no big peaks or stunning buttes, no rough rivers or sky high giant trees, but it’s the epitome of Old California. It’s like a place in a John Steinbeck novel, set in the 1930s.
There are 67 species of flowers, giant ponderosas, a creek (Coyote Creek), and wildlife: deer, coyotes, flocks of turkeys, red fox, bobcat, feral hogs. Many of the park’s trails are old ranch roads, broad and with a brutal grade, which makes them popular with mountain bikers.
But if you go farther afield, it gets lonely quick enough. Few folks make it out to the Orestimba Wilderness, a 22,000-acre state wilderness punctuated by the impressive chert outcropping of the “Rooster Comb,” where miles-long groves of blue oak cast their candelabra arms skyward. I doubt more than a dozen people a year make it to the old corral below Bear Spring.
Henry Coe State Park. Take 101 to the city of Morgan Hill and exit at East Dunne Avenue. Follow Dunne Avenue eastward, and follow the park signs up into the hills.
Best Time to Visit:
Spring or Winter. It is too hot and dry at the park in the summer, and water difficult to come by.
The park hosts “Backcountry Wilderness Weekend” each Spring, when the Pine Ridge Association organize a shuttle system along the old ranching roads to establish a temporary trailhead on the east side of the park, making it easy for hikers and equestrians to access to the Orestimba Wilderness. It’s a good way for families to get to places like the Rooster Comb, which requires at least 2 days of hard trekking to reach.
Bring Your Fishing Pole:
If you’re an angler, consider bringing your pole. There’s good fishing—bass, crappie and sunfish—at Coit Lake and Mississippi Lake. But both lakes are fringed with thick stands of tule reeds, so getting to a good place to cast requires some bushwhacking.
Many backpackers or hikers seeking to get from the park headquarters to the eastern side of the park will avoid the narrow gulch of Coyote Creek marked on the map as “The Narrows” and will instead take the punishing ranching roads up and over the ridges. But if you’re a half-experienced trekker, you should brave the Narrows (unless it’s after a big rain). Between Poverty Flat Campground and China Hole you’ll be rewarded with a sycamore-strung single-track free of mountain bikers. In the spring, the pools between China Hole and Los Cruceros are often filled with various species of duck.