Trip Report - Henry Coe State Park

Poppies (Jody Pritchard) More photos below.

By Jody Pritchard

As I wiped the tears of pain from under my sunglasses with a dusty and now muddy hand, I tried to retain some thread of the 'tough mountain chick' status Matt had jokingly given to me earlier. Too late. Sobs started to bubble from within and I was just too exhausted to care. No trail had ever brought me to tears before and my thoughts turned to the park ranger's comment, "People don't train in Coe Park for the Sierra, they train in the Sierra for Coe Park." At that moment the High Sierra seemed a cakewalk compared to Coe.

This was our second trip to Coe and our first overnight trip without snow for the 2003 season. It had been two years since our first visit and that was barely enough time to forget the unbelievably steep trails and intense wilderness experience that lives just down the street from the Bay Area. I'm sure you're thinking, "…And they went there on purpose?… Twice?!" But that's the thing - these same steep canyons that brought me to the brink are a challenge full of rewards that make the temporary misery worth it and provide an excellent spring training ground and kickoff destination for a season of backpacking.

Early spring is by far the best time to visit. We spent Memorial Day weekend of 2001 trekking through the area and it was fairly dry and very warm. This time we went in late March and were treated to an amazing array of emerald green hillsides with blazing poppies and other wildflowers. Our destination was Los Cruzeros camp, a small campground with roughly three sites 5.8 miles and all downhill from the park headquarters.

On our way we spent a mile in "The Narrows", the aptly named canyon where the East Fork of Coyote Creek meanders its way over giant boulders and loose rocks. Although the map doesn't show a trail here, it is possible to pick your way up creek, just prepare for the trip. After being warned of multiple creek crossings, I chose to put my boots in my pack and wear my Tevas. Had I to do this again, I would have kept my Gortex boots on. By the time we reached camp, my ankles were weak and wobbly numbers from supporting the awkward positions it took to scramble over the rocks with a full pack on my back.

I think my very favorite part about Henry Coe is the abundance of life. Between our two trips we've seen wild turkeys, a dead boar crawling with an entomologist's gold mine, snakes, fish, a turtle, and all the regular players, including every kind of bug one could imagine. This is definitely a location where you'll master the art (if you haven't already) of jumping into and zipping up the tent in Olympic record time. There are also a ton of different types of plants, grasses, and trees providing homes for all of these creatures. It's fascinating to just pause and pay attention to all of the things moving around you.

People don't train in Coe Park for the Sierra, they train in the Sierra for Coe Park.

Our campsite was next to the creek on a grassy flat and, up to this point, is my favorite place to stay in the park. There was shade to nap in, flat places to cook, rocks for sitting on, deep pools to wade in and our neighbors were reasonably removed allowing the sounds of the creek to fill the background noise. Although the days were warm, the nights were perfect and an especially welcome change from the snow camping we did all winter. Between the 'walk' in the narrows, the warmer temperature, and the crickets, we slept really well that night.

Since our destination was "all downhill from the park headquarters", this meant the trip back was predominately, well, uphill. In an attempt to tame the climb, we chose a route back that would keep us mainly on dirt roads with the thought that these would be gentle enough to at least accommodate a vehicle… a Hummer perhaps. The fire roads literally went straight up a hillside and tested the joints in our feet and the fit in our boots. The angle between my shin and toes was reduced to pie sliver, and my wobbly ankles from the day before screamed in indignation. Once we conquered a hillside and celebrated by enjoying the view from the shade of an Oak or Ponderosa Pine, we pushed on only to find the road take a nose dive straight down a distance equal to what we had climbed and rise again even higher. Who knew land this rugged could be so close to home?!

Between the spring sun and a trail that paralleled the Dow Jones average over the course of a century, I unknowingly was sending my body on a crash course. I drank constantly from my Camelback, but it wasn't enough. The water felt like it was souring my stomach and I took my time between sips. Between switchbacks I would pause, face downhill to rest my ankles, and charge ahead swinging my arms in exaggerated arcs in an effort to coax my feet to take another step. If only I were a puppet and they were all attached… My head started to pound and tears were welling up. I knew exactly what I had done to myself - dehydration started to take over and all I wanted was some Gatorade, juice, or anything else besides warm filtered creek water. I was sure if I kept drinking that I would be sick and lose any valuable fluid I still had left.

At the top of the last major hill, I motioned to Matt that I needed to sit and rest and we crashed under a giant oak. I tried to catch my breath and wipe the dirty tears from my hand onto my shorts without appearing too woozy to the passing day hikers. Seriously, Half Dome was easier. After we were able to rest a bit and I drank some more, we started paying attention to the tree we were sitting under. Hundreds of acorns filled the gaps between the tree bark and looked as if they had grown on the tree that way. A squirrel had made cubby holes of the trunk and branches to store its food as if the tree was a giant pantry. Check out the pictures of this tree below.

By the time we reached the Park Headquarters, I was done. I pounded some juice and slept the entire way home. The following days I was sick. Really sick. Without enough fluids, my digestive system started to shut down and I couldn't process any of the water that I needed so desperately. Lesson learned. Keep drinking no matter what, and bring flavored mixers if the water isn't too tasty.

Despite the roughness of this trip, I imagine we'll keep returning to Coe. Its ruggedness is addicting and I can't imagine a place so full of life with spring. It just makes you want to be and stay outside.

Questions or comments about this trip report? Let us know.