What: Big Coe Loop (BCL) Route Guide.
Where: Henry Coe State Park southeast of San Jose, California.
Distance: about 74 miles.
Highlights: Perimeter walk around the Bay Area’s largest and wildest park.
- 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 San Jose.
- It is a loop, so no need to hitch or shuttle two vehicles.
- It is lightly used and one should expect to encounter few parties while hiking in the backcountry, although the park gets substantial use during holiday weekends in the spring.
- It 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.
- Since it is best in the spring, 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 BCL optimizes for solitude.
- There is an exceptionally good map which shows all of the trails and all of the springs.
- Finally, the act of circumambulation is a worldwide practice and doing it in the largest and wildest Bay Area park honors that tradition.
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.
Many thanks to Michael Hill for contributing the profile.
Notes for Potential Hikers
It would be simple for us to say “go hike at Coe, just get a map and figure out your own route, there are lots of options”. But we’ve learned that when traveling to an unfamiliar region the availability of a well designed route is very helpful. Sometimes a good route description is all it takes to inspire us to pack our packs and go. We hope the BCL serves that purpose for others.
We had many options when routing this loop. We endeavored to keep it as close to the park border as practicable while staying on trails and without retracing any steps. We believe that there is a certain integrity to a route that circumambulates the entire park rather than wandering randomly on its vast network of trails.
The loop is roughly 74 miles in length with nearly 20,000 feet of elevation gain, for an average gain of over 250 feet per mile. To put that in perspective, the well-known John Muir Trail has an average gain of 221 feet per mile; Coe is at low altitude, but the terrain is quite hilly.
The entire BCL is on designated trails and most trail junctions have signs. It is an appropriate route for any backpacker; stronger hikers will 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 select campsites, the permit system is by zone, and getting a walk-up permit is not 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. Finding good campsites is not difficult as most of the ridges have flat, grassy knolls with expansive views.
A 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 little used, are rarely maintained and may be overgrown or obscure in places. There may be some short stretches of thrashing or diverting around patches of chaparral. 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.
We do not think there is an advantage to doing the loop in one direction or the other, and one could start at either Park Headquarters or Hunting Hollow. This route description arbitrarily starts at Coe Headquarters and runs clockwise.
- HQ to Blue Ridge, 5.4 miles, up 2400’, down 1900’.
Leave headquarters on the paved road near 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.
- Blue Ridge to Coyote Creek, 5.7 miles, up 900’, down 2700’.
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, turn right and go down the ridge to Coyote Creek.
- Coyote Creek to Chaparral Trail, 3.3 miles, up 1200’, down 100’.
Turn left and briefly up the creek to the Bear Mountain Road. Turn right onto the road and steeply up to County Line Road. Turn left and follow County Line Road north to a right onto the Chaparral Trail. Here you enter the Orestimba Wilderness.
- Chaparral Trail to Orestimba Road, 13.7 miles, up 2900’, down 4300’.
Descend 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 a 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 mostly 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 did go through. You may have to leave the old roadbed and walk around areas of brush.
- Orestimba Road to County Line Road at Mustang Peak, 10.1 miles, up 2100’, down 1100’. Turn right onto the road heading south; then take the Rooster Comb Trail when the Orestimba Road hits the park boundary and private property. The Rooster Comb Trail rejoins the Orestimba Creek Road after a couple of miles. 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.
- County Line Road at Mustang Peak to Pacheco Creek, 6.0 miles, up 1000’, down 2300’.
Turn right onto County Line Road until you can make a left onto the Purple Pond Trail. Past the pond the trail joins Dutch’s Trail and then the Tie Down Trail, which descends to the North Fork of Pacheco Creek.
- Pacheco Creek to Burra Burra Trail, 2.5 miles, up 1300’, down 200’.
At the creek, follow the North Fork Trail downstream and then up the Max Corral Trail to Dowdy Ranch Visitor Center. There is reliable water here. Out the Visitor Center access road to the Kaiser-Aetna Road; take a right and follow it briefly to a left onto the Burra Burra Trail.
- Burra Burra Trail to Jim Donnelly Trail, 11.6 miles, up 2500’, down 3500’.
The Burra Burra Trail circles Burra Burra Peak and then descends down to Canadá de la Dormida Creek where you pick up the Vasquez Road and climb again to Wagon Road. Turn left and follow the Wagon Road south all the way to the junction with Hunting Hollow Road. Take a right onto Hunting Hollow Road and down to the junction with the Jim Donnelly Trail. Here you could continue left another mile or so to the Hunting Hollow park entrance.
- Jim Donnelly Trail to China Hole, 12.2 miles, up 3000’, down 2600’.
Go up the Jim Donnelly Trail to the junction with Steer Ridge Road. Turn right onto the road and soon turn left onto the Spike Jones Trail. Take the next left onto the Timm Trail that descends to the Grizzly Gulch Trail. Here, turn left again and you will soon junction with Coit Road just past the Coyote Creek entrance. Turn right and walk up the road to Mahoney Meadows Road. Turn left and walk north until you reach the China Hole Trail. A left onto that trail takes you down to China Hole.
- China Hole to HQ, 4.1 miles, up 1900’, down 500’.
At Coyote Creek, go downstream to the Mile Trail. Head uphill to the Madrone Soda Springs Trail and follow it to the Manzanita Point Road. Turn left on the road and return to Park Headquarters via a final left turn onto the Corral Trail.