Henry Coe park a step back in time
Few places can get inside your mind faster and change your perspective more than Hunting Hollow at Henry W. Coe State Park.
On the drive in, within just a few turns, you leave the traffic behind. On the trail, whether on foot, mountain bike or horse, in just a few minutes you emerge on the doorstep of the park’s 87,000 acres. It’s a step back in time.
Ahead are enough roads and trails to roam for years without seeing it all. Destinations include 60 ponds and lakes, wilderness-style campsites, pretty creeks, ridge-top views and among the most abundant wildlife in foothill-type habitats anywhere.
Coyotes, wild pigs, deer, ground squirrels and red-tailed hawks are common on most visits. Those who explore the park’s interior - treks to Mississippi Lake or the Orestimba Wilderness, for instance - also might see bobcats, foxes, golden eagles and the prints of mountain lions. For those who pack in a float tube (so they don’t have to fish from shore), the bass fishing can be outstanding.
Henry W. Coe has been a favorite destination of mine for most of my life. I have hiked it, biked it, driven it (with rangers and a commercial pig trapper) and flown over it many times. This past week, amid the chaos of Bay Area holiday traffic, we bailed on the traffic and found ourselves back on the trail, hiking this time. In minutes, the transformation was complete. It felt like returning home.
This is a giant park that cannot be capsulized in a single visit. It spans roughly 375 square miles across the wild foothills, ridges and canyons east of Morgan Hill and Gilroy in southern Santa Clara County.
The best launching point is out of Hunting Hollow, the staging area and trailhead located east of Gilroy. A network of a half-dozen park roads, once routes through ranchland, provides access to the park’s interior. Several trails then break off from these roads for hiking or challenging single-track mountain biking.
This can be a great park for pond-style bass fishing, like at a private ranch. The best are Mississippi Lake, Jackrabbit Lake, Mustang Pond and Coit Lake. Tule-lined shorelines make fishing access poor. Pack an inflatable float tube or lightweight raft, then use Senkos or baby Brush Hogs, rigged Texas-style.
To make a trip here work best, plan an ambitious day on a mountain bike, or plan to camp wilderness-style. Short walks can be rewarding, especially for peace of mind. Longer trips can provide access to the distant pay-off destinations, including Mississippi Lake, Los Cruzeros (a pretty stream junction) and the Rooster Comb (a rock-ridge formation) in the remote Orestimba.
Easy first walk, Gibson Pond: From Hunting Hollow, walk on Hunting Hollow Road for 3 miles. The route follows along a creek drainage (now dry) and emerges on a valley floor with pretty views up Coon Hunter’s Gulch to Phegley Ridge. You then will reach a spur on the right for little Gibson Pond. 6-mile round trip.
Moderate first hike, Redfern Pond: This trip starts easy for 2.1 miles along Hunting Hollow Road. On the left, you’ll see the signed post for the Redfern Pond Trail. The trail then climbs 1,200 feet in 1.5 miles, with pretty valley views to your left en route to Phegley Ridge. At Phegley Ridge Road, turn left and arrive at Redfern Pond for a trail picnic. 6.9-mile round trip.
Ride to Kelly Lake: This is the most popular one-day ride in the park and brings in mountain bikers from afar. Start with a 3.2-mile ride to Wagon Road, an easy warm-up. Turn left on Wagon Ride and climb 1,770 feet over 8 miles to Crest Trail. Turn left, and in 0.3of a mile, take the spur road on the left (Kelly Lake Trail) for the 1.1-mile cruise down to pretty Kelly Lake. 25-mile round trip, with other routes available.
Ride to Coit Lake: From below the earthen dam at Kelly Lake, ride ahead a short distance to the junction with Coit Road and bear right. The road climbs about 500 feet in a mile to a crest where you then descend the other side 0.3 of a mile to Coit Lake on the left. It rivals Mississippi Lake as the prettiest lake in the park, but gets missed because many riders don’t want to add another ridge with a 500-foot climb to the trip from Kelly Lake. 27.6-mile round trip.
If you want to go
Where: Henry W. Coe State Park
Size: 87,000 acres, the largest state park in Northern California.
Location: Hunting Hollow is 10 miles east of Gilroy in southeastern Santa Clara County. The park’s headquarters is 12 miles east of Morgan Hill, via curvy East Dunne Avenue from Highway 101.
Cost: $6 per vehicle for parking at Hunting Hollow ($8 at headquarters out of Morgan Hill at Dunne Avenue).
Trail rules: After a half-inch of rain, all single-track trails close for 48 hours; roads remain open at all times. No bikes in adjoining and distant 23,000-acre Orestimba Wilderness. No dogs on trails.
Trail maps: Henry W. Coe State Park Trail and Camping Map ($9.20 plus $1.80 for shipping) can be purchased at www.coepark.net or at headquarters out of Dunne Avenue for $10. A handout sheet map is available for free at the bulletin board at Hunting Hollow park entrance; printable copies of park’s trails/road sheet maps available at www.coepark.net.
Camping: A developed campground with 19 drive-in sites is available, $20 per night. Reserve at (800) 444-7275, www.ReserveCalifornia.com. One ADA site available.
Backpacking: 60 sites available for wilderness-style camping; and hikers can camp anywhere desired in remote Orestimba Wilderness. $5 per person per night.
Horses: They are permitted on trails. Horse camp is $25 per night, includes one vehicle and two horses; $5 per additional horse per night.
Dogs: They are allowed in the main campground near park headquarters, on paved roads and on the trail from the Visitors Center to overflow parking area.
Rely on yourself: Carry map, food, drinking water, filtration/purifier. Mountain bikers should carry a tire-repair kit.
Pine Ridge Association: One of the state’s biggest and best volunteer organizations to support park operations, www.coepark.net.
Contacts: Henry W. Coe State Park, (408) 779-2728, www.parks.ca.gov.
How to get to Hunting Hollow
From San Francisco: Take U.S. 101 south 75 miles (30 miles south of San Jose) to Gilroy and Exit 360 for Masten Avenue. Take that exit 0.3 of a mile to Masten, then turn sharp left at Masten and drive 1 mile to Center Avenue. Turn right at Center and drive 0.4 of a mile to Rucker Avenue. Turn left on Rucker and drive 0.8 of a mile to New Avenue. Turn right on New and drive 1.6 miles to Roop Road. Turn left on Roop and drive 1.9 miles, turn left (still Roop) and drive 4.6 miles (becomes Gilroy Hot Springs Road) to Hunting Hollow (well signed) parking and trailhead on right.
Note: The route is easier than it might appear; it is well signed at turns and there is good parking access. Other access points out of park headquarters out of Morgan Hill from U.S. 101 (Dunne Avenue exit); Dowdy Ranch (closed until spring of 2018) off Highway 152 (at Bell Station).
Distances: 10 miles from Gilroy (at U.S. 101), 39 miles from San Jose, 67 miles from San Mateo, 67 miles from Dublin, 75 miles from Half Moon Bay, 83 miles from Walnut Creek, 85 miles from downtown San Francisco, 99 miles from San Rafael.
- Tom Stienstra