I went on this hike, informally known as The Death March, with a group of geocachers led by a friend. He had described one section as the steepest trail in the entire Bay Area, gaining nearly 1500 feet in less than 1.5 miles. I decided I would go as long as I felt up to a challenge – which included starting at dawn after a 1 hr 15 min drive, and was projected to include finishing after dusk, hiking by headlamp. Well, it was a most enjoyable hike, and we even finished before the headlamps were needed.
The hike was in Henry W. Coe State Park, where I’d done a much shorter hike a few months earlier. The park, at over 87,000 acres the largest in northern California, is located in the southern Diablo Range above the Coyote Valley. Some of the park’s public outreach and educational programs are carried out by the Pine Ridge Association.
The hike itself was a 15+ mile loop that started at the Coe Ranch headquarters just inside the E Dunne Ave entrance. On the GPS track, the start/end of the loop is at the lower left near the 2650-foot elevation label. We went clockwise around the loop. One of the landmarks was to be Mt Sizer, barely a mile past the steepest climb, though the peak itself was very modest relative to its surroundings.
One consequence of the HQ location and elevation is that much of the hike was at a lower elevation. The park is quite rugged, with numerous ridges separated by steep canyons. There is practically no such thing as a flat trail, and the two major climbs, near 5 and 13 miles, are quite steep.
From Park Headquarters we headed roughly north on Monument Trail, which climbs nearly 400 feet in 0.7 mile. This 10% grade is merely a wake-up call for what comes later. The trail goes to the Henry Coe Monument on Hobbs Rd. From Hobbs Rd there is a nice view generally south across Gilroy and the Coyote Valley with the Santa Cruz Mountains in the distance. This was the last we would see of civilization for the rest of the hike.
We continued roughly north along Hobbs Rd, descending 600 feet to a junction with Frog Lake Trail before once again climbing 400 feet to a junction with Middle Ridge Trail. Shortly after Frog Lake Trail we came upon a very unusual-looking tree. No one in our group knew quite what happened to shape the trunk.
The junction with Middle Ridge Trail is just past the ridgeline of Middle Ridge, and there is a picnic table with a wonderful view across the canyon to the next ridge, Blue Ridge, our next destination. Although it cannot be seen very well in the picture, the trail we would take was barely discernible, pretty much directly up the side of the canyon.
From Middle Ridge we descended once again, this time 1200 feet, to cross the Middle Fork of Coyote Creek at the bottom of the canyon. The creek was completely dry. Immediately after the creek crossing, those who had hiked the route previously made a point of starting a timer for the climb up to Blue Ridge – so I did, also. This was the major climb of the day, 1500 feet in 1.3 miles, for an average grade of nearly 22%. This section of Hobbs Rd is known as The Short Cut – not that there is an alternative route for miles around. I decided to try a hill-climbing technique championed by a hiking buddy of mine: continue as steadily as possible, without actually stopping along the way to rest. I did stop momentarily for a few photos, like this one looking south along the canyon, but basically I kept putting one foot in front of the other until I got to the top.
Diabolically, about 2/3 of the way up The Short Cut, there was a small roller, probably less than 10 feet of elevation loss. Of course, the slope steepened right afterward, as if to restore the average grade! At the top of the climb there is a junction with Blue Ridge Road, where everyone was stopping their timers. According to the conversation (urban legend?) you had done a good climb if you made it in fewer minutes than your age. According to my timer, I made it in 47 minutes flat – and it’s been quite awhile since I was 47. So it was a very good climb indeed. Everyone in the group made it to the top in good spirits. Note the smiles of satisfaction as this trio reached the top.
We followed Blue Ridge Road southeast along the ridgeline for about 3.3 miles. Along the way we enjoyed views to the northeast into the vast backcountry of Coe Park. In this general direction lies the Orestimba Wilderness section of the park, which is so remote that people who hike there rarely see anyone else for days at a time.
Looking the other direction from Blue Ridge we could see over Middle Ridge and all the way to the Santa Cruz Mountains, with Loma Prieta and Mt Umunhum on the skyline.
About 1.1 mile along Blue Ridge Rd there is a spur trail to the top of Mt Sizer, the highest point in the park outside of the Orestimba Wilderness section at just under 3200 feet elevation. In terms of peak bagging, the actual summit is almost an anti-climax, as Mt Sizer is just a slightly higher bump along the Blue Ridge ridgeline. Just beyond the top of Mt Sizer there was a clear view – the only one of the day – of Lick Observatory on Mt Hamilton.
In principle, if the day had been clearer, we would have been able to see the Sierras from Blue Ridge after passing Mt Sizer. Although we could not see that far, we still had wonderful “distant views” throughout the hike. Here, about 1.6 miles past Mt Sizer, there was a beautiful view generally southeast along the Diablo Range, with an interesting distant skyline and still more ridges within Coe Park in the foreground.
After Mt Sizer, Blue Ridge Rd begins a gradual descent, as shown in the elevation profile. There are two routes from Blue Ridge Rd to Poverty Flat Rd. We decided to take Jackass Trail, which branches off at Jackass Ridge. A notable feature along Blue Ridge Rd and Jackass Trail is the evidence that remains from a massive wildfire, the Lick Fire, which burned nearly 48,000 acres in 8 days in September 2007. In many places along Blue Ridge Rd, the brush and chaparral are intact on the southwest side of the road and are charred remains on the northeast side of the road. Jackass Trail passes through some of the fire damaged terrain at lower elevation.
At the bottom end of Jackass Trail, 10.5 miles into the hike, we reached Poverty Flat Rd, which we would follow for 3 challenging miles, descending 600 feet and then climbing 1000 feet. The actual flat section of trail around 12 miles is Poverty Flat, at the bottom end of Middle Ridge Trail. There is also a trail that goes to China Hole. At the China Hole trail junction I saw two deer, which were apparently startled by the size of our group (14 hikers) and promptly left the area.
We took a break at Poverty Flat before beginning the climb. This also turned out to be one of numerous locations of geochaches that we passed. The location of this cache required some off-trail climbing.
Especially at this point in a hike, almost any climb seems a bit diabolical. I expect most hikers would agree that this trail should actually be called Poverty Not-So-Flat Rd! The section of climbing on Poverty Flat Rd was about 1000 feet in 2 miles, so “only” about 10% grade. But it seemed steeper.
Just before Poverty Flat Rd tees at Manzanita Point Rd there are junctions with Springs Trail and Forest Trail. There is also a water tank with potable water. We took one last break there to celebrate completion of the steepest part of the climb back to HQ. Next to the water tank and a picnic table there was what I call a woodpecker tree: a dead oak tree marked with rows and rows of holes made by woodpeckers. Many of the holes have been plugged with acorns. There was even a woodpecker at work! I could see a red patch on the back of its head, which helped me identify it later as an acorn woodpecker. When I did the identification I was pleased to note that it was a new entry to my birding life list.
From this major junction we took the Forest Trail, which is a very nice self-guided trail with 28 markers and a brochure you can pick up at one end and leave at the other end. The far end of the trail again meets up with Manzanita Point Rd. It’s a little longer, which means that the grade is more gradual. From the next junction we took Corral Trail for the last 0.6 mile to the HQ parking area. From Poverty Flat to the trailhead is a 1400-foot climb: a long climb at the end of a 15-mile hike.
We were happy to arrive at the trailhead before sunset and have a bit of daylight in which to savor our accomplishment and stretch well-exercised leg muscles. The setting sun lit up the clouds beautifully.
Coe Park is both rugged and beautiful. It is so big, without roads open to the public, that most park visitors only experience a small portion. I hope to be able to hike more trails in the future.