Hiking Henry W. Coe State Park, California

California's second largest park has an impressive trail system.
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California's second largest park has an impressive trail system.

Little Known Fact: Did you know you can see shooting stars on the ground? Look for the flowers blooming in the grass at Henry W. Coe State Park.

Sprawling across northern California's Diablo Range, Henry W. Coe State Park is an impressive swatch of land. Its 89,000 acres perch above the Santa Clara Valley at elevations up to 3,600 feet, offering splendid views of the surrounding peaks and valleys.

But what's really special about California's second largest state park is its 200 miles of well-kept trails, most of which are lightly used (all begin at park headquarters near the only public entrance). One particularly hiker-friendly feature here is that the trails have extensive interconnections, making it easy to put together a trip that suits your needs. Henry W. Coe can accommodate everybody from out-of-shape weekend warriors to outdoor hardbodies looking for weeklong excursions.

Falling somewhere between those two extremes, I set out across gentle, grassy ridgetops dotted with big black oaks on a 4.5-mile trail to my first campsite. Just past the trailhead I noticed a small sign planted in a patch of miner's lettuce, bearing one of the most sweeping prohibitions I'd ever seen: No Diving Within The State Park System. I decided I'd keep it in mind if I chanced across some water.

I left the open ridges and began a steep descent through mixed oak forests. Many of the trails start high and descend rapidly. The one I chose was no exception, dropping about 1,500 feet the first day. The gently rounded hilltops were separated by deep, rugged canyons, which always seemed to be at right angles to my chosen route.

I reached the canyon floor and found a number of good tent sites on the grassy flats along a small stream.

China Hole in Coyote Creek is the only good natural swimming hole within the area I had chosen to hike. I was tempted to dive in, but recalled the "no diving" edict and restrained myself. Nearby, the steep, rocky walls of The Narrows left just enough room for the stream and the surefooted. I decided to make camp and do some exploring in the morning mist.

One warning: If you don't like frog music, don't visit Henry W. Coe in the spring because the amphibians sing out all night long. Think of them as a positive link to the bustling city you left behind ~ kind of a backcountry street-corner serenade.

Contact Information:

Henry W. Coe State Park

Box 846

Morgan Hill, CA 95038

408/779-2728

Note: Henry W. Coe State Park is often confused with Henry Cowell State Park, which has no trail camping.

Location:

In northern California, Henry W. Coe State Park is off US Route 101, 20 miles southeast of San Jose and 60 miles northeast of Monterey.

Getting There:

Take the East Dunne Avenue exit off of US 101 at Morgan Hill and go east. Follow the Henry W. Coe signs for 13 miles (about 40 minutes) to park headquarters.

Seasonal Information:

The park has seasonable weather year-round, with wildflowers bursting into bloom in the late spring. April is a great month to visit -- when the temperatures are balmy and the wildflower display reaches its peak. The park's traffic increases after Memorial Day and into the summer months when the temperatures can soar into the 80s and 90s and seasonal creeks disappear under the relentless sun. Fall is also pleasant, but drier and browner.

Wildlife:

Wildlife is abundant and varied, but big-name species like mountain lions are rare. Birds are especially plentiful, including nonnative wild turkeys. Frogs make their presence known.

Insects:

Contact the park office for information.

Plant Life:

In spring, wild pansies, California poppies, and lupines scatter among the grasses. One long stretch of the trail passes through an impressive stand of manzanita, some standing 15 to 20 feet tall. Sinister-looking poison oak grows thick among the dark red trunks. Sycamores, maples, and willows grow by the water, and patches of shooting stars bloom in the grass.

Facilities:

There are a number of camping areas, operating on a first come, first served basis. There are usually sites still available on Friday, but by Saturday night the grounds are often full.

Parking:

Park at the trailhead parking lot.

Permits:

  • Register and get a permit upon arrival.
  • Drive-in campsites are $8 per vehicle per night; $5 for each additional vehicle.
  • The permit cost is $3 per person per night. There is a $5 parking fee for day visitors.
  • There is a $1 fee for each dog, although dogs are not allowed in the backcountry.

Policies:

  • Backpacking is limited to 60 parties a day, but that limit is seldom reached.
  • No diving within the state park system.
  • No firearms or dogs in the backcountry.
  • Campfires are prohibited.

Hazards:

  • The park may be closed in times of high fire danger.
  • Water isn't abundant anywhere in the park, so pack in what you'll need even in wet months (March through early June).

Leave No Trace:

All LNT guidelines apply.

Maps:

Maps are available at park headquarters or by sending $2 to the park's above address. For an additional dollar, the park will enclose a fishing booklet. You can also request information on bringing horses to the park. USGS Mt. Sizer and Mississippi Creek topo quads cover most of the park.

Other Trip Options:

In many areas in Henry W. Coe, the ridges and canyons continue on for many miles past weekend destinations. Folks with more time on their hands can explore the farthest reaches of the park, including a 22,000-acre designated wilderness area.