Henry Coe State Park is the largest park in the Bay Area. It’s so large that all the big cities of Santa Clara County – from San Jose to Palo Alto – could fit inside it. It’s simply huge. And it only has three entrances. Two, really, as two of ‘em are only 2 miles apart.
But there’s a secret entrance.
After 20 years of planning, the Dowdy Visitor Center was finished in 2006. It would provide a much-needed link to the far eastern parts of the park … places which were only accessible by several days of backpacking.
But from the beginning there was trouble. Though the facility was completed in 2006, there were no funds to operate it, so it remained closed.
Finally, with much fanfare, it opened in 2007.
In 2008 Henry Coe State Park was one of the state parks slated to be completely closed due to the State’s budget woes. This plan was never implemented.
By early 2009 the Dowdy Entrance was open just a few days a week, a few months out of the year.
By late 2009 Dowdy was closed “until further notice”.
Some say Dowdy was never meant to stay open … that it was all a ruse, built to disguise a secret bunker operated by futuristic beings or perhaps a Google server farm buried 500 meters below ground.
Last winter I did a dayhike with some friends to Rock Springs Peak from the Hunting Hollow entrance. It was a deathmarch … 13 miles. It surprised me to notice that Rock Springs Peak is closer to Dowdy than to Hunting Hollow. That got me thinking … could I hike to Dowdy?
I became somewhat obsessed with it … hiking out to Dowdy, taking pictures of the brand new and yet abandoned buildings. Pitching a tent in the parking lot. An odd goal, but geocachers can’t make fun of what other folks do for hobbies, so why not.
But as with any hike in Coe, there are issues to deal with.
- Miles. Even the most direct route would be over 20 miles.
- Feet. No trail in Coe is flat. The vertical climb involved would be significant.
- Too Much Water. In the winter and spring, there is too much water at Coe. Stream crossings can be dangerous.
- Too Little Water. In the summer and fall, there is too little water at Coe. Even with a filter, drinking water is available at only a few spots. How much water would one need to carry to make it to Dowdy?
Since I was going in November there was another issue … daylight. With only 10 hours of sun it became a critical factor.
After staring at the map for months, I was lucky enough to be able to get away for 3 days to give it a try. Since I was going alone, I stayed to main roads and trails as much as possible. Since I was going in the Fall, I worried about water. Three different Coe volunteers told me there was drinking water available at Dowdy … but all had just enough uncertainty in their voices to make me worry.
So the plan, day by day:
- Hunting Hollow to Willson Camp. Refill my water there. Keep going until 4pm, then find the first available campsite for the night…wherever I was.
- Breakfast, then zip over to Dowdy as a day hike – leaving my tent and related stuff behind. If I returned to camp before 2:30 break camp and head back towards Willson Camp; again making camp at 4pm.
- Break camp and make a fairly short return to the car. Drive immediately to nearest burger joint.
The out and back route was pretty simple … Hunting Hollow to Lyman Willson Ridge Trail to Willson Camp to Wagon Road to Center Flats Road to Dowdy. The only other possible route was 4 miles shorter, but had an extra 2000 feet of vertical climb. No, thanks.
The hike itself was pretty uneventful. I’ve hiked up to Willson Camp and beyond several times, and knew what to expect. The climb up Lyman Willson Ridge is pretty brutal … 1300 feet in 2 miles.
But once that first big climb was done, that was basically it. Lots of small ups and downs, but no more huge climbs. There were, however, apparently huge ants. Or something.
I got a later start than I intended, so the day went quickly. And sure enough, at 4pm the sun was about to disappear below the hills. I had just turned onto Center Flats Road, so I started looking for a suitable campsite. The nearest flat spot a few feet off trail would do nicely, thanks.
By 5 it was dark and cold. By 6 it was really dark and really cold. By 6:30 it was so dark I could see the Milky Way … and more stars than I’ve ever seen before in Santa Clara County. The fog rolled in at 7, the stars went away, and the shivering began. So into the sleeping bag at 7 … not sleepy at all, and with 12 hours to kill until sunrise.
It’s incredible how warm the sun is. A tent will go from a freezing deathtrap to quite comfortable after just a few minutes of sun. I unzipped the tent flap and stuck the camera out to snap a few first pics.
After breakfast it was time to head to Dowdy, which was now just 5 miles away. No problem, I’d be there before lunchtime. And Center Flat Road is Flat, right? Riiiight.
Finally, I made it to Dowdy. I’ve been there before … rather I drove by the entrance along Kaiser Aetna Road during Backcountry Weekend … the one weekend during the year that you can actually drive into Coe. But I had never turned down the driveway to see it. Now I was walking in … no car, and perhaps no other human for 10 miles in any direction.
The buildings still look brand new. It’s eerie … ready to go, in great shape…but abandoned for years.
A few things have broken…
…and faded. Or was this always the Pink Panther?
The picnic areas and campsites looked great. And the water, thankfully, was indeed still connected. I took the opportunity to fill up – 5 full liters.
So after a quick lunch at one of the picnic tables, I headed back the way I came.
Sure enough, I made it back to the previous night’s camp at about 2:30. So I broke down camp and headed out. I made it back to Rodeo Pond when the sunlight ran out.
As a choice of campsite this turned out to be an error. Though quite flat and near a lovely toilet, it was in a valley … and since cold air sinks, it was even colder and wetter than the previous night. My fantastic tent kept me dry – no condensation – but gosh it was cold. No looking at the stars … I even skipped dinner. By 5:15 I was buried in my sleeping bag, and didn’t emerge until first light at 7 the next morning. It was the coldest I’ve ever been while camping.
But after a few minutes in direct sun the next morning all was forgotten, and there was nothing to do but pack up and head back to the car.
It’s late Fall, so there aren’t many flowers out there. There are a few small yellow and purple ones on Lyman Willson Ridge Trail, and I did see one small patch of California Fuscia left – but this time of year the park is two toned … grey and bright green. Everything left from last year is dead and degrading … no longer “golden” or even “yellow”, by now it’s just grey.
But already next year’s green has emerged and is growing. In some places it’s as tall as the crumbling grey from last year, making an appearance. In other places it’s still hidden. But by next Spring this will be an incredible emerald green wonderland.
Wildlife out in the, uh, wild is more afraid of humans than in parks near our cities. The deer in Santa Teresa County Park are happy to come into neighboring yards to graze. I never saw a deer in 2 1/2 days of travels. Nor a rabbit, or turkey, or any other large animal of any kind. The one exception was a bobcat … which was sensibly walking down the trail when I crested a nearby hill. At the first sign of me it disappeared.
But though I didn’t see many animals, I heard them. Especially at night. A flocks of birds makes an incredible whoosh as they zoom in to a lake to land for the evening. And yipping coyotes are loud!
Oh, which brings me to ticks.
Coe has ‘em. Even in November. I found them crawling on me. I found one trying to make a home in my eyelashes. I found one crawling around inside my tent. Luckily no bites…but never assume, as I did, that you don’t need to use DEET since it’s not Tick Season.
At Coe it’s Always Tick Season. Thank heavens they aren’t as big as those ants.
In 48 hours I saw three people.
Near Willson Camp at the beginning of my hike I passed two mountain bikers. They told me that all the springs were running strong … good news, as I was a little worried about availability of water on the hike.
In the last 45 minutes of the adventure I hiked out with another fellow … a nice man from Oakland who had never been to Coe before, and decided to do a 3 day backpacking trip too. He seemed to have had a great time.
But in between … for 46 hours … I didn’t see a single person. Once I turned on to Center Flats Road there was no sign of recent humans … no tire tracks, no foot prints, nothing. (Kaiser Aetna Road near Dowdy had very recent tire tracks – a truck had been through quite recently.)
In general, I felt pretty good at the end of the trip. One small blister on my heel, but other than that no trouble.
However, I did re-learn a valuable lesson right at the end of the trip.
Heading down Lyman Willson Ridge I was going at a quick pace…it’s very steep. At one point I looked at my GPS to see how far I had left to go. I thought, “looking at the GPS while you hike this fast isn’t safe…you could trip”.
Two seconds later, I tripped.
Thankfully no major damage. Road rash on one knee; twisted the other ankle. But I was able to keep going, and made it to the car a little slower and a little humbled. I had just passed another hiker … the first person I’d seen in 2 days … who stopped to make sure I was OK and hike out with me. I appreciate his concern and his patience.
Coe is an amazing place. Hiking there, for a few hours hours or a few days, is a blessing.
Coe is an unforgiving place. It’s steeper and bigger than you think. Take plenty of water and give it plenty of respect.
And don’t look at your GPS while you walk.
- Total track length: 25.44 miles
- Total Elevation Gain: 4831 feet
Full resolution photos: here.
SammyTrail map of route and geotagged photos: here.