Henry Coe State Park Is the Bay Area’s Best-Kept Backpacking Secret
By Jason Mark
Normally, a writer writes to reach an audience. But what I'm about to tell you, I want you to keep just between us, OK? Whatever you do, don't email this article to your friends, don't share it on Facebook, and please don't post it on Twitter. Because I'm going to let you in on one of the San Francisco Bay Area's best-kept backpacking secrets, and I want to keep it that way.
The place I'm going to tell you about is big enough, and still wild enough, to accommodate a week-long backpacking trip. It's a landscape that's textbook California savanna—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.
I'm talking about Henry Coe State Park, the largest state park in Northern California. At 88,000 acres, it's about 25 percent larger than Point Reyes National Seashore, but it hosts a tiny fraction of the estimated 2.5 million visitors who travel to the national seashore every year. It's also stupid-close to the mish-mash of freeway mazes and sprawl that make up most of the Bay Area. As the crow flies, the park is a scant 35 miles from the Apple headquarters in Cupertino.
All of which makes Henry Coe the perfect escape. Once you get there, you'll feel far away—even if you're still close to home.
I should say that if you're the kind of backpacker who hungers for epic alpine vistas or the sharp beauty of the desert, you may at first be disappointed by Henry Coe. There's little grandeur there. No big peaks or stunning buttes, no rough rivers or knock-you-on-your-ass tall trees. It's a place of subtle charms. With its broad sweeps of tall grass and swooning oak trees, Henry Coe feels like it's ripped from a John Steinbeck novel, the epitome of Old California. The place is merely pretty—but after weeks stuck in the city or the 'burbs, pretty is more than enough.
At a good half mile above sea level, this northernmost outpost of the Diablo Range has a lushness unusual for Californian savanna. Gray pines are scattered among all of the oak trees. There are ponderosa, including a few giants that seem like they've been transplanted from the kneecaps of the Sierra Nevada. Coyote Creek, one of the park's main arteries, manages to flow even through the dusty days of August and September.
Then there are the flowers—my God, the flowers. My field guide, Wildflowers of Henry Coe State Park, features 67 species. If you time your visit for late winter or spring, you'll be gobsmacked by the chaos of colors: blue lupine, pink and red paintbursh, football field lengths of orange poppy, crimson columbine, yellow fiddlenecks arching their heads above the grasses like herds of giraffe. There's purple everywhere: purple owl's clover, purple shooting stars (two different types), purple clarkia.
You've got a good chance of seeing some wildlife. Henry Coe's usual critters are common: deer and coyotes, flocks of turkeys zigzagging through the understory. If you behave yourself (that is, if you're practiced at being still) you might catch something more elusive. Once, I spotted a red fox, jumping through the beam of my head lamp. On another trip, I came across a bobcat, right in the middle of the trail. During a New Year's solo trip, I saw a feral hog above Coit Lake. It was the size and color of a wine barrel, tearing up a hillside with the speed of an NFL linebacker.
If you really want to play with solitude, Henry Coe will demand some work. Anything within a day's hike of the visitor center at Coe Ranch is reliably busy with day-trippers, crews of college backpackers, and mountain bikers a'shredding. (Many of the park's trails are old ranch roads, broad and with a brutal grade, which makes them popular with the two-wheelers.) 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.
Did I mention that if you live in the Bay Area, Henry Coe is ridiculously easy to get to? The proximity is the point. Often as not, the backyard beats the bucket list destination. I've backpacked through Henry Coe nearly 10 times, and its lack of pretension has grown on me. At this point, it seems like an old friend.
I'd encourage you to start planning your route. Just remember: You didn't hear this from me.
Follow in the Writer's Footsteps
Where: Henry Coe State Park. Take California Highway 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 is the most popular season for visiting Henry Coe, on account of the explosions of wildflowers. If you want to beat the crowds, consider visiting in winter, when the grasses are typically green and lush and the temperatures still relatively mild. The park can be punishingly hot and dry in the summer, and water difficult to come by.
Backcountry Hack: Each spring, the park hosts what it calls "Backcountry Wilderness Weekend," when park staff and volunteers from 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, affording hikers and equestrians easy access to the Orestimba Wilderness. Downside: The typically quite-far reaches of the park become packed with people. Upside: It's a good way for families to get to places like the Rooster Comb, which requires at least two 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.
Pro-tip—Brave the Narrows: 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.
More Information: The Pine Ridge Association website offers more detailed visitor information than the official park site.
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
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1. Stay Informed<p>A first order of business in pet evacuation planning is to understand and be ready for the possible threats in your area. Visit <a href="https://www.ready.gov/be-informed" target="_blank">Ready.gov</a> to learn more about preparing for potential disasters such as floods, hurricanes, and wildfires. Then pay attention to related updates by tuning <a href="http://www.weather.gov/nwr/" target="_blank">NOAA Weather Radio</a> to your local emergency station or using the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/mobile-app" target="_blank">FEMA app</a> to get National Weather Service alerts.</p>
2. Ensure Your Pet is Easily Identifiable<p><span>Household pets, including indoor cats, should wear collars with ID tags that have your mobile phone number. </span><a href="https://www.avma.org/microchipping-animals-faq" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Microchipping</a><span> your pets will also improve your chances of reunion should you become separated. Be sure to add an emergency contact for friends or relatives outside your immediate area.</span></p><p>Additionally, use <a href="https://secure.aspca.org/take-action/order-your-pet-safety-pack" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">'animals inside' door/window stickers</a> to show rescue workers how many pets live there. (If you evacuate with your pets, quickly write "Evacuated" on the sticker so first responders don't waste time searching for them.)</p>
3. Make a Pet Evacuation Plan<p> "No family disaster plan is complete without including your pets and all of your animals," says veterinarian Heather Case in <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9NRJkFKAm4" target="_blank">a video</a> produced by the American Veterinary Medical Association.</p><p>It's important to determine where to take your pet in the event of an emergency.</p><p>Red Cross shelters and many other emergency shelters allow only service animals. Ask your vet, local animal shelters, and emergency management officials for information on local and regional animal sheltering options.</p><p>For those with access to the rare shelter that allows pets, CDC offers <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/emergencies/pets-in-evacuation-centers.html" target="_blank">tips on what to expect</a> there, including potential health risks and hygiene best practices.</p><p>Beyond that, talk with family or friends outside the evacuation area about potentially hosting you and/or your pet if you're comfortable doing so. Search for pet-friendly hotel or boarding options along key evacuation routes.</p><p>If you have exotic pets or a mix of large and small animals, you may need to identify multiple locations to shelter them.</p><p>For other household pets like hamsters, snakes, and fish, the SPCA recommends that if they normally live in a cage, they should be transported in that cage. If the enclosure is too big to transport, however, transfer them to a smaller container temporarily. (More on that <a href="https://www.spcai.org/take-action/emergency-preparedness/evacuation-how-to-be-pet-prepared" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">here</a>.)</p><p>For any pet, a key step is to establish who in your household will be the point person for gathering up pets and bringing their supplies. Keep in mind that you may not be home when disaster strikes, so come up with a Plan B. For example, you might form a buddy system with neighbors with pets, or coordinate with a trusted pet sitter.</p>
4. Prepare a Pet Evacuation Kit<p>Like the emergency preparedness kit you'd prepare for humans, assemble basic survival items for your pets in a sturdy, easy-to-grab container. Items should include:</p><ul><li>Water, food, and medicine to last a week or two;</li><li>Water, food bowls, and a can opener if packing wet food;</li><li>Litter supplies for cats (a shoebox lined with a plastic bag and litter may work);</li><li>Leashes, harnesses, or vehicle restraints if applicable;</li><li>A <a href="https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/emergencycare/pet-first-aid-supplies-checklist" target="_blank">pet first aid kit</a>;</li><li>A sturdy carrier or crate for each cat or dog. In addition to easing transport, these may serve as your pet's most familiar or safe space in an unfamiliar environment;</li><li>A favorite toy and/or blanket;</li><li>If your pet is prone to anxiety or stress, the American Kennel Club suggests adding <a href="https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/home-living/create-emergency-evacuation-plan-dog/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stress-relieving items</a> like an anxiety vest or calming sprays.</li></ul><p>In the not-unlikely event that you and your pet have to shelter in different places, your kit should also include:</p><ul><li>Detailed information including contact information for you, your vet, and other emergency contacts;</li><li>A list with phone numbers and addresses of potential destinations, including pet-friendly hotels and emergency boarding facilities near your planned evacuation routes, plus friends or relatives in other areas who might be willing to host you or your pet;</li><li>Medical information including vaccine records and a current rabies vaccination tag;</li><li>Feeding notes including portions and sizes in case you need to leave your pet in someone else's care;</li><li>A photo of you and your pet for identification purposes.</li></ul>
5. Be Ready to Evacuate at Any Time<p>It's always wise to be prepared, but stay especially vigilant in high-risk periods during fire or hurricane season. Practice evacuating at different times of day. Make sure your grab-and-go kit is up to date and in a convenient location, and keep leashes and carriers by the exit door. You might even stow a thick pillowcase under your bed for middle-of-the-night, dash-out emergencies when you don't have time to coax an anxious pet into a carrier. If forecasters warn of potential wildfire, a hurricane, or other dangerous conditions, bring outdoor pets inside so you can keep a close eye on them.</p><p>As with any emergency, the key is to be prepared. As the American Kennel Club points out, "If you panic, it will agitate your dog. Therefore, <a href="https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/home-living/create-emergency-evacuation-plan-dog/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pet disaster preparedness</a> will not only reduce your anxiety but will help reduce your pet's anxiety too."</p>
Evacuating Horses and Other Farm Animals<p>The same basic principles apply for evacuating horses and most other livestock. Provide each with some form of identification. Ensure that adequate food, water, and medicine are available. And develop a clear plan on where to go and how to get there.</p><p>Sheltering and transporting farm animals requires careful coordination, from identifying potential shelter space at fairgrounds, racetracks, or pastures, to ensuring enough space is available in vehicles and trailers – not to mention handlers and drivers on hand to support the effort.</p><p>For most farm animals, the Red Cross advises that you consider precautionary evacuation when a threat seems imminent but evacuation orders haven't yet been announced. The American Veterinary Medical Association has <a href="https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/emergencycare/large-animals-and-livestock-disasters" target="_blank">more information</a>.</p>
Bottom Line: If You Need to Evacuate, So Do Your Pets<p>As the Humane Society warns, pets left behind in a disaster can easily be injured, lost, or killed. Plan ahead to make sure you can safely evacuate your entire household – furry members included.</p>
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