Henry W Coe State Park: China Hole loop

stats - Coe China Hole

I have previously hiked only a couple of times in Henry W Coe State Park (see here and here).  Coe is a vast park: over 89,000 acres, the largest state park in northern California, and the second largest in the state.  Coe is so large that, for day hikers like me, much of it by necessity remains unexplored, remote wilderness.  This includes an area officially called the Henry W Coe State Wilderness, locally known as the Orestimba Wilderness.  The park is partly in Santa Clara County and partly in Stanislaus County.

For this hike I selected a moderate semi-loop hike beginning at the main visitor center near the E Dunne Ave entrance.  Coe is locally infamous for having few flat areas.  There are several ridges within the park, and it seems that all hikes over a few miles long have a lot of vertical gain and loss.  I selected a route to China Hole, which I had not previously visited.  I was hoping that, at a special place about 0.7 mile from the visitor center, I would be able to see some late-season butterfly mariposa lilies.  During my first visit to Coe 3 years ago I saw my very first mariposa lily and immediately was enchanted by these beautiful flowers.  This time I saw not only some “standard” butterfly mariposa lilies (Calochortus venustus) (see below), but a rare red variant.

image of red variant of butterfly mariposa lily

Red variant of butterfly mariposa lily

In addition, as confirmed by a visitor note on a whiteboard outside the visitor center, China Hole was full: that is, it had plenty of water.  I do not know if this will be the case later in the summer.

The GPS track shows my route, with the orange dot at the base of the balloon string denoting the visitor center.

GPS track

GPS track

Actually, the GPS track does not show the last 2.1 miles: I thought I might need to change batteries before the end of the hike, but did not realize that the unit was not configured to beep when battery power was getting low.  And although I had been checking periodically, I did not realize that the batteries had died until I arrived back at the visitor center.

On both the outbound and return I took trails that run roughly parallel to Manzanita Point Rd: Springs Trail on the outbound leg and Forest Trail on the return leg.  After reaching Manzanita Point I began the actual loop, hiking down Madrone Soda Spring Trail to Mile Trail, which further descends to China Hole along a stream, and then hiking back up China Hole Trail to Manzanita Point.

Even though my GPS data is missing the last couple of miles, the elevation profile emphasizes that the first half of the hike, to China Hole, was almost entirely downhill, with the bulk of the climbing on the return from China Hole.  The main descent, which was after leaving Manzanita Point Rd, was about 1000 feet.  It should be noted that 1000 feet – or more – from ridge to canyon bottom is very common in Coe.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

From the visitor center, I first enjoyed views across the southern Santa Clara Valley and Coyote Valley, with Mt Umunhum and Loma Prieta visible on the western skyline.  Though the day of my hike the weather was fairly clear, it is not unusual to view fog in the valleys, with the mountain tops floating on top.  From the visitor center I hiked down Corral Trail to reach Springs Trail.  Corral Trail is mostly shaded, which would be appreciated on many typical warm days.  Near the beginning of Corral Trail I noticed some western verbena (Verbena lasiostachys var lasiostachys), or California vervain, with characteristic finger-like spikes with light purple-blue flowers blooming at the tip.

image of western verbena along Corral Trail

Western verbena along Corral Trail

The last part of Corral Trail emerges from the shaded area into grassy hillsides shortly before the junction with Springs Trail (and Forest Trail, on my return hike).  Along Springs Trail there are pretty, scattered oaks and a couple of small springs.  On an earlier visit around the same time of year I encountered a snake sunning itself on this trail and opted to turn around rather than try to induce the snake to move off the trail.

image of Springs Trail

Springs Trail

Along Springs Trail I also found my first mariposa lilies of the day: familiar yellow mariposa lilies (Calochortus luteus).  The specimens along Springs Trail, shown on the left, were closer to the end of their blooming period: note that the edges of the petals were ruffled and the six stamens have spread out toward the petals and begun to dry up.  I found the flower on the right along the Forest Trail near the end of the hike, in a shaded area, and it looks much fresher.

image of yellow mariposa lilies

Yellow mariposa lilies

Along Springs Trail I encountered several types of sun-loving wildflowers, including harvest brodiaea (Brodiaea elegans), caterpillar phacelia (Phacelia cicutaria), small clarkia (Clarkia affinis), and California buckeye (Aesculus californica).

About 1.9 miles from the visitor center I reached the end of Springs Trail at Manzanita Point Rd, where I turned right to follow the road, perhaps a previous ranch road, 0.7 mile to Manzanita Point.  At Manzanita Point there is a small pond and a campground with 10 marked campsites.  Approaching Manzanita Point I noted some impressively large manzanitas, I believe bigberry manzanita (Arcostaphylos glauca).  Most manzanitas I have seen are shrubs, but this was really more like a tree.

image of impressive bigberry manzanita near Manzanita Point

Impressive bigberry manzanita near Manzanita Point

At Manzanita Point, near the sign for campsite 7, I turned right on Madrone Soda Spring Trail, which descends almost 800 feet in 1 mile (15% grade) into a canyon with a stream at the bottom.  I paid careful attention to my footing, both because of the relatively steep grade and because I seem to have most of my tripping and face-plant experiences on descents.  Along the way I passed coyote mint (Monardella villosa) and scrub.  At the bottom of the canyon is Madrone Soda Springs, site of a former mineral springs resort a century or so ago.  Once you reach the stream Madrone Soda Spring Trail becomes Mile Trail, which follows the stream for about 1.3 miles to China Hole.  Interestingly, the stream and trail descend another 300 feet before reaching China Hole.

I presume this stream is spring-fed and flows most or all of the year.  It is one of several small streams in the area that converge near China Hole to form Coyote Creek, which flows south into what is now Coyote Reservoir, then west and northwest to Anderson Reservoir in Anderson Lake County Park, and finally northwest through San Jose and eventually to the southeastern tip of San Francisco Bay.

Mile Trail, as it runs along the stream, is cool and shady.  I found a few Ithuriel’s spear (Triteleia laxa) that had not been hurried by full sun exposure to the end of their blooming cycle, as well as the skeleton of what might have been a squirrel.  I also found some white Chinese houses (Collinsia heterophylla), whose pretty flowers are a little under 1 inch long.  Father east in the park, the Chinese houses have more typical coloring, with the upper petals white and the lower petals violet.

image of white Chinese houses along Mile Trail

White Chinese houses along Mile Trail

I found it challenging to follow Mile Trail, even though it followed the stream bank.  It actually crosses the stream 12 times along the way to China Hole.  Here is one of the crossings, which uses a small log rather than the more common rock crossings.  You have to look carefully for the trail on the other side of the stream in order to not miss several of the crossings.

image of one of twelve stream crossings along Mile Trail

One of twelve stream crossings along Mile Trail

In fact, at one point I missed a crossing and found myself trying to climb up an almost imperceptible gully on an impossibly steep hillside.  On close examination the small blip on my GPS track suggests that the grade was nearly 40%!  I quickly abandoned this adventure, descending carefully using both feet, both hands, and my rear end and hoping to avoid the poison oak.  (I decontaminated carefully as soon as I got home.)  When I got back to the stream I quickly found the stream crossing I’d missed.  A few of the crossings were barely 10 meters apart.

At the end of Mile Trail there is signage indicating the short, perhaps 100 meter long, detour to China Hole, at the lowest elevation of the hike.  China Hole feels like a quiet, remote place where the stream is relatively wide and calm, lined by lush green plants and reflecting the nearby hills.  With a 5-mile hike to get there, the remote feeling is justified.

image of China Hole

China Hole

After enjoying a break, I returned to the trail junction at the beginning of the detour and hiked out on the other trail, which is China Hole Trail.  The trail climbs steadily, gaining roughly 1000 feet in 2.5 miles (8% grade).  Along the way there were spectacular views of nearby canyons; I think this one contains one of the forks of the Coyote Creek that join together near China Hole.

image of canyon view

Canyon view

The view was from a small rock outcrop where there was some canyon live-forever (Dudleya cymosa), also called rock lettuce.  The plant has a rosette of succulent leaves at the base and these unusual yellow flowers at the top.

image of canyon live-forever, or rock lettuce

Canyon live-forever, or rock lettuce

A bit farther up the trail I found some ruby chalice clarkia (Clarkia rubicunda), also called farewell-to-spring because its blooming period usually signals the end of the spring wildflower season.  In fact, I was pleasantly surprised at how many different types of wildflower I saw in mid-June, since the landscape was generally already dry and summer-like.

image of farewell-to-spring


I also found a few clay mariposa lilies (Calochortus argillosus).  This was one of the better examples, though the condition of the petals and stamens indicates that it is well along in its bloom cycle.

image of clay mariposa lily along China Hole Trail

Clay mariposa lily along China Hole Trail

There were quite a few large puffy seed head balls at least 2 inches in diameter, the familiar seed heads of dandelions.  In this case they were California dandelion (Agoseris grandiflora); grandiflora means “large flower.”  Although familiar, they are quite striking when viewed more closely.

image of California dandelion seed head

California dandelion seed head

Significant sections of China Hole Trail pass through areas of dense scrub and trees.  Here the vegetation cover creates the feeling of hiking through a green tunnel.  During the long, hot summer the shade is very welcome.

image of China Hole Trail

China Hole Trail

In many places along my hike route I passed California everlasting (Pseudognaphalium californicum).  The flowers are in clusters, and each individual flower seems to resemble a small sphere until you look more closely and see that they are slightly elongated and the outer end has a small yellow spot.

image of California everlasting

California everlasting

After the 2.5-mile climb I arrived back at Manzanita Point and Manzanita Point Rd, where I turned right to return to the visitor center.  Along Manzanita Point Rd my GPS batteries died, though I was unaware at the time.  The outer junction with Springs Trail is also the outer junction with Forest Trail, and I had planned to hike back along Forest Trail.  This is an interpretive trail, with printed and laminated trail guides available in small boxes at each end of the trail and at the visitor center.  I had picked up a guide before I left the visitor center on my hike, to make sure it was available when I got to the trail, as the boxes are sometimes empty.  Forest Trail is about 1.1 miles long and has some 28 marked locations with interpretive information in the guide.  Because I started at the outer end of the trail, I actually followed the stations in reverse sequence.  Forest Trail is more shaded than Springs Trail, so I thought it would be more pleasant for the return hike in the afternoon – and it was.

Near the northwest end of Forest Trail is the location where I was hoping to find butterfly mariposa lilies (Caluchortus venustus).  These mariposa lilies are special because each petal has, in addition to a darker red splotch near the base, a second, lighter splotch closer to the tip.  Since this was the first type of mariposa lily I had ever encountered, it is special for me – in addition to its inherent beauty.

image of butterfly mariposa lily along Forest Trail

Butterfly mariposa lily along Forest Trail

As I looked around for more butterfly mariposa lilies, I was startled to find one of the much rarer red variety, pictured at the beginning of this post.  The petals are almost red instead of cream-colored, and the pink outer splotches are a lighter shade of pink.  The impression is light on dark instead of the more typical dark on light.  The red one was actually a bit challenging to photograph, since its colors are in a part of the spectrum where my camera doesn’t always focus well.  It was quite a treat to find this unusual flower!

After completing the Forest Trail I crossed Manzanita Point Rd to Corral Trail for the last climb through the shade to the visitor center.  Along this trail there was more California everlasting, western verbena, and some small-flower lotus (Lotus micranthus).  These flowers, with petals that proclaim affiliation with the pea family, are pink and about 1/4 inch across.

image of small-flower lotus not far from the visitor center

Small-flower lotus not far from the visitor center

When I got back to the visitor center I made sure to get a copy of the very useful wildflower guide, available only via mail or at the visitor center.  It focuses on the park but is relevant for other inland areas in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Especially with the variety of wildflowers, this was a very enjoyable hike.  And any hike during which I see three different species of mariposa lily – plus a rare variant – is certainly memorable.  Although many hikes at Coe are long enough to be backpack trips, there are a few more that can be enjoyed as day hikes.  I look forward to coming back in seasons when it is not too hot.

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3 Responses to Henry W Coe State Park: China Hole loop

  1. CL says:

    Great post! I personally love HWC and have been there several times. I was there on early June but decided to try another entrance, Hunting Hollow Entrance instead of HQ. I strongly recommend it. Like you, I prefer a steep uphill instead of a steep downhill. We took Wagon Rd till Lyman Wilson Ridge Trail (STEEP uphill with absolutely gorgeous views of Blue Ridge). At the top of Lyman Wilson we turned left and follow the fire road until it’s junction with Jim Donnelly Trail, which we took downhill back to the parking lot. JDT is a new trail, built a few years back and has switchbacks! (Unheard of at HWC 😁). The loop was only 9 miles, which short for us but we were in a hurry! We will have to go back and explore more. Have a great weekend, Chicken Little .

    • CL says:

      Sorry about the ‘it’s junction’. It is ‘its junction’. My so called SMART phone put ‘it’s’ instead. I am a proud member of the grammar police 😂😂😂😂 Have a great day!

    • trailhiker says:

      Thanks for the tip about the Hunting Hollow entrance. I knew about Dowdy but it’s much farther away from where I live and seems to only be open on weekends. This time I purposely went to the main entrance so I could go to a staffed visitor center to pick up the wildflower book.

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