Once a year Henry Coe State Park opens the gate at Bell’s Station on Highway 152 for a weekend, allowing access to the more remote areas of the backcountry. With over 87000 acres, Henry Coe is difficult to see in its entirety by dayhiking or even overnight backpacking, so this weekend is a great opportunity to get into areas that may otherwise take several days to access.
The Backcountry Weekend is usually planned for the last weekend of April which is the best window of time between the rainy season and the blisteringly hot summer season.
There are a couple of downsides to the Backcountry Weekend. First, the application/lottery process for the permits is a bit annoying (remember SASEs?) and the whole checkin process at the gate is generally disorganized and frustrating. It can be cancelled seemingly arbitrarily and at the last minute if someone feels the weather might not work out.
Because this is the only weekend that the gate is open you’ll be sharing the backcountry with a lot of other people. But still, it is nice to get in and enjoy the flowers and feeling of complete remoteness a mere stone’s throw from the craziness of San Jose and Silicon Valley.
This year I showed up on Saturday morning with the car full of backpackers, eager to hit the trail for my first overnight backpack of 2011. After standing in about four different lines during the chaotic check-in, we were on our way to Orestimba Corral where we met up with a couple friends who had come in the night before. Finally we set off for Jackrabbit Lake, about seven miles along a very un-Coe-like flat trail. Orestimba Creek was flowing and there were several deep swimming holes – evidence of this winter’s unusually heavy rains.
Coe is made up primarily of old ranch lands. The range runs north to south but trails tend to run east to west, so in order to get anywhere you’ll be hiking on old ranch roads over several ridges. These roads go straight up and down, rarely switchbacking. Coe hiking is hard. But starting from the Corral is nice since you can hike along the creek and get your ‘trail legs’ before the steep ascents and descents.
We followed this nice trail to Jackrabbit Lake. We found several other people camped there, but as always, a small amount of additional effort led us to a peaceful campsite away from the crowds. The afternoon was spent lazing around, fishing, wandering the lake, and generally doing nothing. It was lovely – I haven’t had a day like that in a long time!
Sunday morning dawned sunny and warm. As we packed up we took time to sit in the shade and contemplate the climb to Mustang Ridge. Our return route was a bit more difficult than the hike coming in, and it started with a ~600 foot climb to the ridge followed by hiking along the wiggling ridge to the summit of Mustang Peak. There was very little shade and the temperature was verging on too hot but a slight breeze kept it quite lovely. I was very thankful for my SPF 55 sunscreen.
Mustang Peak has some great views into the Henry Coe backcountry and beyond. We could see the snowcapped Sierra in the distance and after enjoying the summit we headed down the (slightly more) shaded ridge to the cars. In all, a great weekend in Henry Coe, and it whetted my appetite for summer. Can’t wait for the Sierra summer backpacking season to arrive!