Henry Coe State Park – Kelly Lake and Coit Lake

by Richard Perkins
This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Trail Guides

I took my third backpacking trip in Henry Coe State Park in early June. My previous trips were both out-and-back affairs, starting and ending at the park’s northern headquarters on East Dunne Ave. For this outing I planned a through hike instead, entering the 87,000 acres of parkland at the headquarters entrance and leaving via the southern Coyote Creek entrance a few days later.

My 21 mile hike took me through the Western, Mahoney, Kelly, Coit, and Grizzly Gulch Zones and gave me a chance to visit scenic Kelly and Coit Lakes along the way. My first day of hiking started in the afternoon, so it was short. I left HQ along the pleasantly shaded, single-track Corral trail. At the 0.6-mile mark, I turned onto Manzanita Point road, a broad and exposed jeep road that runs to the group and equestrian camps clustered around Bass Pond.

I continued past the turn-off for Poverty Flat Road at the 1.5-mile mark until I reached intersection with single-track China Hole and Madrone Soda Springs trails at the the 2.2-mile mark. From there I continued northeast along the China Hole trail, emerging from the mixed oak woodland near the group camps into the chaparral walled switchbacks that descend steeply toward China Hole and the Narrows.

My first day’s hike entailed five miles of backpacking and a net elevation loss of 1400 feet. I saw a couple of wild turkey near the group camps at Manzanita Point and a deer grazing through the meadows overlooking the Coyote Creek’s Middle Fork along the way. I also saw two backpackers toiling up China Hole trail’s ascent on their way out of the park. I set up camp at one of the grassy sites on the southeast side of China Hole’s wading pools in the early evening. I even got to relax in my new, ultra-light camp chair and watch the stars come out before calling it a night. It was great to be out on the trail again.

I started early on Day 2. Summer days in Henry Coe can get hot, especially in the early afternoon. I wanted to make the most of the cooler morning hours, so I was packed up and ready to go right after breakfast.
I climbed up Mahoney Ridge along the China Hole trail, following well-graded switchbacks through the dappled shade of a mixed oak forest. After about 600 feet of ascent, I reached the northernmost tip of the ridge. I stepped out into sunny meadows just before turning south on the aptly named Mahoney Meadows road at the 1.9-mile mark (6.9 miles cumulative). Unfortunately, I left the shade behind at this point for most of the day. The walk southeast along the ridge line is dotted with intermittent stands of live oak.

The meadows here were mostly brown and dormant by early summer, and the temperature rose steadily throughout the morning. The path here is a wide jeep road, and with the combination of elevation and rolling meadows, the views  were hard to beat. I also managed to spot some of the last of the season’s wildflowers along the way.

At the 3.8-mile mark (8.8 miles cumulative), I reached the intersection with Coit road and turned southeast. Coit is another wide jeep road that continues along the spine of Mahoney Ridge, climbing steeply in some places as it ascends toward the the highest point of my trip, 2600 feet. Along my route to the top, I passed turn-offs for the Cross Canyon trail near the 4-mile mark (9 miles cumulative), and the Blue Tank Spring trail near the 4.8 mile mark (9.8 miles cumulative). I passed through recovery regions, full of green shoots and wildflowers but bearing the obvious scars of Henry Coe’s never-ending struggle with wild brush fires.

The view did not disappoint when I reached the highest point of my trip near the 5.5 mile mark (10.5 cumulative miles). I climbed up onto a grassy berm on the northeast edge of Coit road for 360 degrees of unobstructed views across the park. It was well worth the heat.

After passing the Wasno road turn-off at near the 5.7 mile mark (10.7 miles cumulative), I started to descend in earnest. I lost 600 feet of elevation over the next two miles, some of it in broad switchbacks and the rest in jeep runs straight downhill. I passed a mountain biker toiling his way uphill from the south, an unavoidable consequence of hiking on the jeep roads that connect the southern interior regions to the southern park entrances.

The plant life in the southern face of the ridge was a little different, with a few determined pines clinging to rocky escarpments and more wildflowers on the banks of this stretch of Coit road.

When I rounded the corner of one of the last switchbacks in the descent, I could see Kelly Lake nestled in the valley below. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the first backpacker there. A trio of hikers had spent the previous night on the lake’s northeastern shore after hiking in from the southern entrance. They left that evening to move on to Coit Lake, but not before I had to set up my own camp. I settled for a smaller, more sheltered site on the southwestern shore. The water access wasn’t as good as the grassy site on the other side of the lake, but it suited me.I did have to share it with a fledgling chick that had fallen (or jumped) from its nest. It’s mother stayed close by as well, keeping a wary eye on me the whole time.

It was just as well that I chose the more remote camp site, since another solo backpacker arrived in the late evening after the trio left. We compared notes as he started looking for a place to set up his own camp for the night. Like me, he had hiked in from the northern headquarters entrance to reach Kelly Lake.  But he had done the whole trip in one day. I traveled 7.6 miles on Day 2, climbed 1700 feet in elevation and then lost about 1000 feet of that in my final descent to the lake. The other hiker? About 13 miles, plus 1800 feet of ascent and 2600 feet of descent. He had a long day!

I had a few hours of free time on Day 3 before I had to break camp and depart for the Coyote Creek entrance to the park. I took the opportunity to visit nearby Coit Lake after breakfast. I filled a water bottle and set off north on Coit road, leaving the Kelly Lake dam behind me as the road rose through stands of mixed oak and wildflowers. After climbing about 400 feet, I passed the intersection for the Crest trail and Willow Ridge road in a saddle at the 1-mile mark (13.6 miles cumulative). I couldn’t see much of the lake from this vantage point, but the reedy inlet came into view as I descended to the turnoff for the Western Coit Lake trail at the 1.3-mile mark (13.9 miles cumulative).

The trail led past the group camp on the southwestern shore of Coit Lake near the 1.5 mile mark (14.1 miles cumulative). A large group of bike campers had camped there the previous night. They were cooking up breakfast at the picnic tables and cooling their heels in the shade of the pergola as I strolled by. Beyond the group camp, the trail narrowed to a single track, skirting between the shore of the lake and the steep rise up to Willow Ridge. I found a second, smaller campsite a little further along near the 1.7-mile mark (14.3 miles cumulative), where industrious campers had carved out a level tent pad from the hillside and left small fire ring nestled among the pines.

I reached the dam and walked along its length to the northernmost point of Coit Lake before turning back.  Then I headed southeast, climbing 250 feet along Coit Dam road to the intersection with Willow Ridge road near  the 2.5-mile mark (15.1 miles cumulative). I turned southwest, following Willow Ridge road back to its intersection with Coit road at the 3.1-mile mark (15.7 miles cumulative) before retracing my steps to my base camp at Kelly Lake. I saw two deer on my return trip, which brought my total to 6 for the weekend. This pleasant walk added 4.1 miles and 850 feet of elevation gain and loss to my trip.  Not bad for a morning outing.

After eating taking a refreshing swim and eating a light lunch, I broke camp at Kelly Lake and set off for the Coyote Creek entrance. I had to climb about 600 feet along Kelly Lake trail before reaching Wasno road at the 0.9-mile mark (17.6 miles cumulative). The going was steep, but manageable. I certainly used a lot of water on this leg of the trip. The rest of my hike for Day 3 was one long (and often steep) descent.

I turned southeast on Wasno road for two tenths of a mile before bearing southwest on the Dexter trail, a single-track plunge straight down through the steep, shadeless meadows on the south face of Wasno Ridge. The going was a little hairy at times, and trecking poles would have made the footing less treacherous as I dropped 500 feet in half a mile before the Grizzly Gulch trail at the 1.7-mile mark (18.4 miles cumulative). The views from Dexter trail, however, were extensive, especially of the giant stone monolith that soars 100 feet straight up over the junction of two minor tributaries to distant Coyote Creek.

Grizzly Gulch trail was much more forgiving, at least initially. It mantles along a contour, skirting in and out of riparian woodlands that offered comforting shade on a hot June afternoon. The panoramic views offered when the trail broke out of the scattered woodlands were nearly as good as those from the heights of Coit road.

I continued skirting the edge of Wasno ridge until the intersection with the aptly name Rock Tower trail near the 2.7-mile mark (19.4 miles cumulative). Then Grizzly Gulch trail turned south, descending aggressively along the eastern bank of another tributary of Coyote Creek. I passed another trio of backpackers climbing up toward Kelly Lake, warning them that a group of ten hikers had just set up camp on the largest site that morning. Both Kelly and Coit lakes are popular destinations on hot summer weekends, for obvious reasons.

I passed a sign for the Cullen trail near the 3.2-mile mark (19.9 miles cumulative), though I couldn’t spot the single-track trail in the grass myself. I kept descending, dropping through more riparian woodlands on my way to a low-water crossing at the 3.6-mile mark (20.3 miles cumulative). I had lost a little over 700 feet in about a mile at this point, but most of the descent was behind me. After the crossing, Grizzly Gulch trail turned westerly, following the southern bank of this major tributary of Coyote Creek through some of the densest (and coolest) forest of the entire trip. It was a welcome relief from the sun. I reached the intersection with the Spike Jones trail near the 4-mile mark (20.7 miles cumulative), and continued west through mixed oak forest until I reached Coit road again about 2 tenths of a mile later. From there, it was a short stroll south on Coit road to the Coyote Creek entrance at the 4.4-mile mark (21.1 miles cumulative).

Overall, this thru-hike (with day trips) added about 21 miles to my backpacking total, including about 3700 feet of ascent and 5400 feet of descent along the way. It was a fun outing, with plenty of wildlife, wildflowers, and scenic vistas to enjoy. The park was a little more crowded than my previous visits, though I never had to share a campsite and encountering 19 backpackers and 8 mountain bikers in 21 miles would still count as secluded compared to most camping destinations. June weather was much warmer and drier than my April outings, and water was noticeably more scarce. The ticks were out in force too; I lost count after brushing off about 20 of the little bloodsuckers over course of the weekend.

Even so, for my money Henry Coe State Park is still one of the best backwoods destinations in the Bay area. So far I’ve visited 9 of the park’s 15 zones, and enjoyed every one in its own right. I fully intend to check off the remaining 6 zones in time. Happy hiking!

The text of this article was previously published on Associated Content.

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