For my fourth trip in Henry Coe State Park, I headed south into the Lakeview Zone on a cool autumn day in mid November. I’d already visited many of the 87,000 acre park’s designated zones during my previous hikes to the Blue Ridge Zone, the Orestimba Wilderness and Kelly and Coit Lakes, but this stop was a new one.
It’s a nice little corner of the park, with a handful of old jeep roads that follow the gently rolling ridge-lines and yield glimpses of the park’s wilder eastern interior. But the zone takes its name from the panoramic views of both Anderson and Coyote Lakes, which lie just outside the park to the southwest. This zone wold probably be a mountain biker’s dream, except that it’s not technically open to the public yet, and the jeep roads haven’t been connected to the rest of Henry Coe’s extensive trail network.
The Sycamore Canyon Trail, which ascends Cordoza Ridge from the Madrone Soda Springs camp, is the only way in. When I call this route an unmaintained bushwack of a climb… I’m being generous. I don’t recommend attempting this hike without permission from the rangers at park headquarters, a good map, a compass, or a reliable GPS, and some trailblazing experience.
I began at the park headquarters entrance at East Dunne Ave. I set off southeast on the shady, single-track Corral Trail, then continued on the Springs Trail at the 0.6 mile mark. The Springs Trail rejoins the wider Manzanita Point Road at the 1.8 mile mark, turning gradually further south toward Bass Pond and the Manzanita Point Group Camps before intersecting with the China Hole Trail to the north and Madrone Soda Springs Trail to the south at the 2.6 mile mark.
After kicking up a trio of deer and the ever present flock of turkeys behind the group camp, I turned south into Soda Springs Canyon, descending about 800 feet over the next mile along tight switchbacks. At the bottom of the descent, I crossed over the Mile Trail at the 3.5 mile mark, stepping easily across the shallow pools of early season rainwater in the western tributary of Coyote Creek. There are two tent sites on the southern bank of the stream at the Madrone Soda Springs Camp, once the site of a health resort for the reputed curative effects of its mineral water springs. As peaceful as this tree-lined camp was, it was not my destination, so I forged ahead.
The next mile or so was the most technically challenging part of this trip, and the reason for my warnings above. South of Soda Springs, there is an old fire trail that climbs up 900 feet to Cordoza Ridge via switchbacks. As I said, it’s not maintained, and has been overrun by berry bushes, underbrush, chaparral, and sprawling manzanita groves by turns. It’s a faint game trail at best, when you can see it at all. Even finding the trail head from the Soda Springs camp was tough, but hey, what’s life without a challenge?
From the camp, I pushed through berry bushes, bearing northwest along the southern bank of the stream. At the 3.9 mile mark, I made a hairpin turn away from the canyon floor onto the overgrown fire trail to begin my ascent. I continued southeast through dense underbrush to a set of switchbacks near the 4.2 mile mark. After the switchbacks, the trail climbs nearly due west along a steep ridge before plunging through a tangle of chaparral around the 4.5 mile mark. Pushing through this thicket is taxing work and will snag anything that isn’t securely strapped down to your pack. Don’t say I didn’t warn you! I had to detour around a few fallen trees along this last part of the ascent as well.
Next I wove through a grove of sprawling manzanita bushes, a welcome change after leaving the chaparral behind. Near the 4.7 mile mark, the trail turns northwest, ascending through mixed woodlands before reaching the grassy Cordoza Ridge Road at the 4.8 mile mark.
Here I turned south to hike along Cordoza Ridge Road. For the most part, all these ridge-top jeep roads are wide, rolling, and scenic. In June these same roads might feel hot, dry, and shadeless, but since I was here in November, the views were gorgeous and the crisp air was invigorating.
I knew that my water access was limited to a few scattered cattle ponds where the water had to be filtered. So I headed for the largest of the mapped ponds on Fitzgerald Ridge to camp for the night. Cordoza Ridge Road rolls gently southward until it curves southwest near the 5.1 mile mark, with scenic views across Cordoza Canyon to the northwest.
I pressed on as the road wound southwest, passing an intersection with Big Canyon Road at the 5.5 mile mark. Then the road descends gently with the ridgeline to an intersection with Fitzgerald Ridge Road near the 6.0 mile mark. Here, I turned west, descending more steeply toward the livestock watering pond near the 6.5 mile mark.
I camped upslope from the pond, and settled in to enjoy the sunset over Morgan Hill to the south. This is an active cattle grazing area, and although I didn’t have to share my campsite with any lowing cows, there was plenty of proof that they’d been around. Recently. (Watch where you step!)
So day 1 of the Lakeview Zone trip featured 6.5 miles of hiking, about 1500 feet of elevation gain and 1800 feet of loss. Along the way, I enjoyed panoramic views, deer, wild turkeys, and plenty of solitude.
My plans for day two were to trek around and see as much of Lakeview Zone as I could fit in before returning to Madrone Soda Springs camp for the night. So I took Fitgerald Ridge Road southeast toward Palassou Ridge and the promised vistas of to the south. At a fork in the road near the 0.7 mile mark (7.2 miles cumulative) , I turned right onto Nesbit Ridge Road. There is a small livestock pond a bit further along the left branch of the fork at the beginning of Palassu Ridge, but it was murkier than the water from Fitzgerald Ridge Pond.
Soon after the fork, Nesbit Ridge Road veers southwest, keeping this heading until the 1.2 mile mark (7.7 mile cumulative). There the road wraps west around a knoll before dog-legging back to the south. There are panoramic vistas all along this leg of the hike, mostly to the north and west but occasionally to the eastern interior of the park as well.
The ridge road skirts to the west of the highest point of Nesbit Ridge, mantling along a contour line until the 1.9 mile mark (8.4 miles cumulative). Here the road begins a long descent leading to the edge of the park and onto private lands before reaching Larios Canyon and Coyote Lake. I followed the road to nearly the edge of the park at the 2.2 mile mark (8.7 miles cumulative). This part of the ridge offers stunning views of Anderson Lake to the west and Coyote Lake to the south. It was well worth the walk.
After eating a morning snack overlooking the lakes, I retraced my steps, taking Nesbit Ridge Road, Fitzgerald Ridge Road, and Cordoza Ridge Road back to the intersection with Big Canyon Road near the 4.6 mile mark (11.1 miles cumulative). I scrambled up the short but steep incline to the first of two ponds on the south side of Big Canyon Road, but it was little more than a muddy wallow.
The road bends southwest beyond the first pond, gradually descending through mixed woodlands with more shade than Cordoza , Fitzgerald, or Nesbit Ridges. There were stands of evergreens interspersed with the yellowing deciduous leaves. It was a nice change of scene from the more open western section. I continued southwest, savoring the occasional view of steep-sided Sycamore and Soda Springs canyons to the northeast through breaks in the trees.
Near the 5.4 mile mark (11.9 miles cumulative), Big Canyon Road veers southward briefly, before an eastward bend and a hairpin that serves as a small switchback in a particularly steep part of the otherwise gradual descent. I continued onward to the second small pond, near the 5.7 mile mark (12.2 miles cumulative). This pond was completely dry and filled in with windblown leaves. Despite the lack of water, this is a cozy little site, tucked in among a stand of oaks and pines with plenty of soft leaves for an afternoon rest stop. I took a break here for a leisurely lunch and watched the industrious squirrels stashing acorns for the winter.
After lunch, I again retraced my steps, taking Big Canyon Road back to Cordoza Ridge Road. Hiking northwest, I passed by the turnoff for Sycamore Canyon Trail near the 7.5 mile mark (14.0 miles cumulative). I didn’t see much more wildlife on Day 2, but I did spot plenty of tracks, including one that might have been a mountain lion following a herd of deer.
I continued on to the last livestock pond on my tour, near the 7.9 mile mark southwest of Cordoza Ridge Road. It was dry as well but it was also fenced off, so I didn’t try to get too close to this one. Now thoroughly satisfied that I had chosen the best place to camp the first night on Fitzgerald Ridge, I turned back southeast and returned to the almost hidden turnoff for Sycamore Canyon Trail near the 8.4 mile mark (14.9 miles cumulative).
The bushwack back down the Sycamore Canyon Trail was not as challenging as the trip in, since I was more familiar with the route. I could also spot a few of my own footprints from the day before in the leaf litter or occasional patch of mud. But still, descending 900 feet through a mile of underbrush takes it out of you, and I was ready to pack it in when I finally reached Madrone Soda Springs Camp near the 9.6 mile mark (16.1 miles cumulative).
The Madrone Soda Springs have an interesting history. If you’re willing to scrape away some fallen leaves and vines, you can still find relics from the late 1800′s to earl 1920′s when a resort and health spa operated here. Most of the structures are crumbling away now, and the soda springs are long since dried up, but you’d be surprised what you can find if you look hard enough.
Day 2 of the Lakeview trip included 9.6 miles of hiking, about 1600 feet of elevation gain and 2300 feet of loss. I visited enough livestock ponds to confirm that the first one I checked on was the most reliable watering hole for this area, and enjoyed another day of solitude and simple pleasures.
Day 3 dawned clear and cold. There was a film of hard frost on my bivy sack and a skin of ice in both my water bottles, which made it a little harder to eat breakfast and pack up, but I managed. After breakfast, I hiked the 1 mile and 900 feet back up Madrone Soda Springs Trail to Manzanita Point Road.
The air was starting to warm up by then, so I took a short break remove a few layers of insulation before continuing back to the park headquarters via Manzanita Point Road, Springs Trail and the Corral Trail. Once I could see the headquarters in the distance, I started to see day hikers, out enjoying the sunny autumn weather. It was a short Day 3, but it got me back home in time for lunch. You’ve just gotta’ love that about having a park like Henry Coe in your back yard.
On my way out, I hiked 3.5 miles, gained 1300 feet of elevation, and lost about 200 feet. That bring the round trip total to about 19.7 miles, and 4300 feet of elevation gain and loss. Not bad for a weekend outing.
This also checks off zone number 10 of Henry Coe’s 15 named park zones. I plan to hit 4 of the last 5 in a longer trip in late spring. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to visit the last zone, since it’s one of the park’s later additions and I’ll probably have to get permission from the rangers to visit it, like I did with this trip.
As I’ve said before, Henry Coe is a real gem of a state park. If you live in the Bay area, you should definitely make the short drive down to Morgan Hill and go for a walk. You won’t regret it.
The text of this article was previously published on Associated Content.