Trip Summary

What: a spring loop hike in the Bay Area’s largest and wildest park.
Where: Henry Coe State Park; southeast of San Jose, California.
When: March 24-27, 2022  (4 days).
Distance: about 67 miles.

Why we went (and why you should as well)

  • It is close to a major metropolitan area, so more time hiking and less time driving. In non rush-hour traffic, the trailhead is less than an hour’s drive from our home.
  • Coe is the largest piece of near wilderness that is publicly accessible in the Bay Area.
  • It is a loop, so no need to hitch or shuttle two vehicles.
  • Coe is lightly used and one should expect to encounter few parties while hiking in the backcountry during the week. Although the park gets substantial use during holiday weekends in the spring, most park visitors will be within a few miles of the park entrances.
  • The Coe Big Loop (CBL) is on trails and suitable for most skill levels.
  • It visits all the habitats in the park.
  • The route is available year-round, although it is often uncomfortably hot in June through August. Spring is the most popular season because of the wildflowers, but fall and winter are quieter and can offer fine weather.
  • The route offers a nice long hiking opportunity during what is often considered the off-season for backpacking.
  • Securing a permit is not problematic.
  • Backpackers tend to flock to Mississippi, Coit, and Kelley reservoirs. These are old stock ponds, not alpine lakes, and by avoiding them the CBL optimizes for solitude.
  • The route includes very easy access to four Nifty Ninety peaks: Mt. Sizer, Burra Burra Peak, Vasquez Peak, and Willson Peak.
  • There is an exceptionally good park map that shows all of the trails and springs.

To summarize, there’s no reason why a Bay Area backpacker shouldn’t take a good long walk at Coe. It’s close, beautiful, and completely hassle-free.


See our article Overview: Coe State Park for a list of resources and a description of the park.

Click map to open an interactive CalTopo map in a new browser tab. Instructions for using CalTopo.

Amy’s Assessment

I continue to be grateful that we have such a large and beautiful park just an hour from home.

This is our third consecutive year with roughly 50% of normal rainfall. The flowers were blooming, but not the spectacular display we see in a wetter year.

Coe has three species of deciduous oaks:  Black, Blue, and Valley. These oaks were in the process of flushing their leaves, depending on altitude and species. My favorite time of year at Coe is when the oaks have fresh intensely green leaves, and I was happy to be there to see it. I think our timing was perfect.

The southern and western ridges of the park have not burned recently, and have a wetter climate than the northeastern region. Listed in the order that we encountered them on this loop, the following ridges have the wetter climate and are gorgeous California Oak savannah habitat: Middle, Blue, Burra Burra, Vasquez/Rock Springs, Steer (Willson), Mahoney, and Pine.

The northeastern section has a drier climate and has more extensive chaparral and Blue Oak/Gray Pine savannah habitats. All of that zone burned in 2007 and again in 2020, although within the fire perimeter there was a patchwork of fire intensity. It is interesting to see how quickly the chaparral rejuvenates. Although it was a dry winter, Red and Orestimba Creeks in the northeastern zone were still flowing, and the riparian meadows were green and beautiful.

We had a stellar campsite near the top of Rock Springs Peak, a terrific place to spend the final night of a five star hike.

James’ Assessment

A number of years ago, we designed a long Coe walk that explored much of the park and published it on our DoingMiles site. Although we had previously walked all of the trails that made up this route, we had never done it as a continuous trip. This always seemed a bit wrong to me and I always had wanted a chance to correct the problem.

The winter rains have failed again in California this year and the hills are already beginning to lose their vivid green spring lushness. However, we were late enough into spring for the oaks to have mostly leafed out, so it seemed like an ideal time to take that long walk at Coe. A convenient hole in our schedules allowed us to quickly plan this late March trip. We have not backpacked at Coe in the past few years and I was quite excited about doing another multi-day loop.

Reviewing our published route, we realized that one piece of it, the Pinto Creek Trail, had been mostly abandoned and then badly damaged during the 2020 fires; we decided to re-route along Robinson Creek. Although this shortened the route a bit, the Robinson Creek Trail is in decent shape and is a very beautiful piece of walking. The Pinto Creek option is still offered as an alternative for those who would like a few more miles and maybe a bit more adventurous hiking.

On our last evening out on the walk at a fabulous campsite near Rock Springs Peak, we decided to make another change. On the original route, one goal was to stay as close to the park perimeter as possible. This led to a bit routing in the Hunting Hollow area that ultimately seemed more gratuitous than well thought out. We decided to make a change and traverse Willson Ridge instead of dropping down into Hunting Hollow. This choice was confirmed the next day as we walked that superb ridgetop for at least the fiftieth time; it is some of the finest walking in the Bay Area.

The trip was everything I had hoped it might be and as I get closer to the mid-70’s age bracket, I feel grateful that I can still manage to complete a walk as fine as this.

Notes for Potential Hikers

This trip report is a modification of a previous article we wrote: the Big Coe Loop Route Guide.  We were looking for a local backpacking trip and decided it was time to do two things: update and validate the CBL following the 2020 fires and to actually walk the route as a continuous trip. When we wrote the original post, although we had walked all of the trails previously, many of them numerous times, we had never completed the CBL as a single walk.

Our initial route had endeavored to keep the route as close to the park border as practicable while staying on trails and without retracing any steps. We believed that there was a certain integrity to a route that circumambulates the entire park rather than wandering randomly on its vast network of trails. On this trip, we made a couple of small route changes that we believe improves the overall experience.

Using the two “A” alternates (as shown on our map), the loop is about 67 miles in length with at least 18,600 feet of elevation gain, for an average gain of over 280 feet per mile. To put that in perspective, the well-known John Muir Trail has an average gain of 221 feet per mile; while Coe is a low altitude park, its topography can be challenging.

The entire CBL is on designated trails and most trail junctions have signs, although some of these were damaged during the fire. It is an appropriate route for any backpacker; stronger hikers may take less time, but anybody can do it.

There are reliable water sources along the route, although they could be widely spaced late in the summer following a dry winter. It is worthwhile to check the Pine Ridge Association’s very useful water source status page before a trip; links to the current water conditions are in the upper right of that page.

The number of permits for selected campsites near Park HQ is limited. Other than those campsites, the permit system is by zone, and getting a walk-up permit is rarely a problem. With the exception of zones close to the trailheads, camping is permissible anywhere throughout the park. There are designated backcountry campsites located near water sources, but one is not limited to those sites, and by avoiding them you can find solitude. Good campsites are usually not too difficult to locate as most of the ridges have flat, grassy knolls with expansive views and many valley floors have flat beautiful meadows.

A CBL highlight is a traverse through the very lightly used Orestimba Wilderness, where mountain bikes and vehicles are not permitted. In this section some of the trails are infrequently used, rarely maintained, and may be overgrown or obscure in places. With one exception, we found all of the trails quite passable during our trip. The Pine Ridge Association maintains a useful inventory of Trail Conditions.

If solitude is important to you, it is best to avoid backpacking in the eastern part of the park during the Pine Ridge Association’s Backcountry Weekend. For that weekend, special permits are issued by lottery that allow private vehicles access to the interior of the park on the Kaiser-Aetna Road, and backpacking permits are often not available outside of the Backcountry Weekend lottery system. Additionally, Dowdy Ranch Visitor Center at the southeast corner of the park is also open to limited vehicular access on some spring and summer weekends.

In the 2007 Lick Fire over half the park burned. In the 2020 SCU Lightning Complex Fire well over half the park burned, including most of what had burned in the 2007 fire. If you open our CalTopo map you can turn on the “Fire History” layer to learn more. The intensity of the fire varied widely; in some places, the burned everything to the ground, while other areas were only lightly touched. Large numbers of trees were killed and the standing trunks are now starting to fall over, occasionally across the trail. The western and southern legs of the BCL have not burned for years, but the northern and eastern portions are through areas that burned in 2020.

Route Description

The route starts at Coe Park Headquarters on Pine Ridge where safe overnight parking is available.

We think there is a significant advantage walking the loop clockwise because traveling in that direction allows the longest and steepest segments to be uphill walks. This may seem counter-intuitive, but the surfaces of the old ranch roads are often covered with loose materials and this makes descending steep sections difficult and occasionally dangerous. For instance, Hobbs Road up to Blue Ridge climbs 1500 feet in 1.3 miles; we have descended this road once and would never do it again.

The numbers below match the segments on the CalTopo map and the trail names are printed on the park map. Distance and elevation data are generated from GoogleEarth routes.

01. HQ to Blue Ridge, 5.5 miles, up 2470’, down 2030’.
Leave headquarters on the road to the ranger residence and turn left onto the Monument Trail. Follow the trail north to Hobbs Road, turn left and go past Frog Lake and Deer Horn Spring and down to the Middle Fork Coyote Creek and then ascend steeply up to Blue Ridge Road.

02. Blue Ridge to Coyote Creek There are two options:

02A. Via Rock House Ridge, 5.2 miles, up 960’, down 2760’.
Turn right and follow the Blue Ridge Road east to a left onto Black Oak Spring Trail and on to Rock House Ridge. At the junction next to Hat Rock, turn right and go down the ridge to Coyote Creek. As of this writing, the Black Oak Spring Trail no longer exists and the route from the Blue Ridge Road to Rock House Ridge is now entirely cross-country. We found this travel quite easy, with no thrashing and gentle hillside slopes. A very brief spur road leads to the summit of Mt. Sizer, 3316′.

02B. Via Blue Ridge, 4.9 miles, up 500’, down 2290’.
Stay on the Blue Ridge Road until it ends at Coyote Creek. This will be at the same place where option 2A ends and is the easier option to follow.

03. Coyote Creek to Chaparral Trail, 5.9 miles, up 1890’, down 940’.
Turn left and follow Coyote Creek to the Bear Mountain Road. Turn right onto the road and climb steeply up to County Line Road. Turn left and climb over a locked gate and follow County Line Road north to the Chaparral Trail. Here is where you enter the Orestimba Wilderness. Just before the junction with County Line Road, you can walk an additional thirty feet or so off-trail to the non-descript top of Bear Mountain, 2604′.

04. Chaparral Trail to Orestimba Road. There are two options:

04A. Chaparral Trail to Orestimba Road via Robinson Creek, 7.5 miles, up 1130’, down 2370’.
Descend the Chaparral Trail to Red Creek and turn right. Shortly go left onto the Robinson Creek Trail and stay on it until reaching Orestimba Creek. The trail becomes obscure in the beautiful large open valley where Pinto Creek joins Robinson Creek; just continue downstream anywhere in this valley and the trail will be found again where the valley pinches off.

04B. Chaparral Trail to Orestimba Road via Pinto Creek, 11.2 miles, up 3010’, down 4250′.
This is the most remote section of the park. Descend the Chaparral Trail to the Red Creek Road and turn left. Take Red Creek north to the junction with the Mt. Stakes Trail. Turn right and follow the Mt. Stakes Trail over an unnamed 3100 foot peak and down to another right onto the Pinto Creek Trail. Follow Pinto Creek to the Robinson Creek Trail and out to the Orestimba Creek Road. The section from Red Creek to Robinson Creek is the most likely piece of trail to include some thrashing. It is infrequently walked and sees little, if any maintenance. We have walked this section at least three times in past years and it went through, but have had no recent personal experience on it.

05. Orestimba Road to County Line Road at Mustang Peak, 10.0 miles, up 2530’, down 1460’.
Turn right onto the road heading south; then left onto the Rooster Comb Trail near where the Orestimba Road hits the park boundary and private property. The Rooster Comb Trail rejoins the Orestimba Creek Road after a couple of miles. Along the way, a spur trail leads to the Rooster Comb, 1836′, that has fine views to the south. Go past the junction with the Red Creek Road and soon fork left onto the Long Ridge Road and follow it uphill until it joins County Line Road near Mustang Peak. Jackrabbit Lake is 0.4 of a mile off route and is a very fine place to camp.

06. County Line Road at Mustang Peak to Pacheco Creek, 6.2 miles, up 1370’, down 2610’.
Turn right onto County Line Road until you can make a left onto Dutch’s Trail. When the trail forks, take the left branch on the Purple Pond Trail. Past the pond the trail climbs to rejoin Dutch’s Trail and further on the Tie Down Trail that descends to the North Fork of Pacheco Creek. Mustang Peak, 2263′, can be easily climbed off trail via its south ridge. A spur trail branches off the Tie Down Trail to the  top of Tie Down Peak, 1480′.

07. Pacheco Creek to Burra Burra Trail, 2.6 miles, up 1340’, down 250’.
At the creek, follow the North Fork Trail down lovely Pacheco Creek and then up the Max Corral Trail to Dowdy Ranch Visitor Center. There is reliable water and occasionally a ranger here. Head out the dirt Visitor Center water tank access road, not the paved road, to the Kaiser-Aetna Road; take a left and follow it very briefly to a right onto the Burra Burra Trail.

08. Burra Burra Trail to Wagon Road, 6.0 miles, up 2210’, down 1970’.
The Burra Burra Trail circles the south side of Burra Burra Peak. Then take a left and descend steeply down to Canadá de la Dormida Creek where you pick up the Vasquez Road and climb over Rock Springs Peak, 2275′, and Vasquez Peak, 2210′, to the Wagon Road. There is a short spur trail to the summit of Burra Burra, 2281′.

09. Wagon Road to Coyote Creek, 5.3 miles, up 950’, down 2160’.
Cross the Wagon Road onto the Steer Ridge Road. Climb to the top of fabulous Willson Ridge and continue on the road to a right turn onto the Spike Jones Trail. Descend to the next left onto the Timm Trail which drops down to Coit Road along Coyote Creek. A very short spur along Willson Ridge leads to the flat summit of Willson Peak, 2651′.

10. Coyote Creek to China Hole, 7.6 miles, up 1830’, down 1560’.
Follow the Coit Road upstream to its junction with the Mahoney Meadows Road. Turn left and walk through Mahoney Meadows until a left onto the China Hole Trail. Descend to Coyote Creek at China Hole. Here you are likely to start to encounter other people.

11. China Hole to HQ, 5.1 miles, up 1920’, down 470’.
Cross Coyote Creek and go briefly downstream to the China Hole Trail. Head uphill to the Manzanita Point Road and follow it to a left onto the the Springs Trail. Follow this trail to return to Park Headquarters via a final left turn onto the Corral Trail.