The best backpacking in the Bay
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Henry David Thoreau
About a decade after Henry David Thoreau ventured to Walden in 1854, another Henry purchased Willow and San Felipe ranches. A century later, that land would end up being declared Henry W. Coe State Park. And now I’ve explored that park. Well, a small part of it anyway.
Coe is almost ninety thousand acres of expansive wilderness just southeast of San Jose. The park embodies the nature of the Bay Area: rolling hills, giant oaks, prickly pines, and golden grasses turned green after heavy rain. Misha (my backpacking buddy on this trip) and I ended up only exploring a sliver of the enormous park, but by the time we arrived back at my car we were both more than satisfied with the experience.
Misha and I originally planned to go to the Lost Coast for our spring break. As planning progressed it became more and more obvious that we wouldn’t be prepared for the heavy rains that characterize that strip of coastline. I don’t remember exactly what it was that prompted us to consider Henry Coe (the proximity?), but we ended up agreeing that it was our best bet. This would be Misha’s first time backpacking, so I took over most of the route preparation.
The plan was to spend three days and two nights on our trip. On the first day we would park at the Hunting Hollow Entrance, walk to the Coyote Creek Entrance, and spend the night at Kelly Lake. Then on the second day we would hike to Willson Camp and spend the night, and then finally on the third day trek back to the car. If you’re having trouble picturing the route, check out this map, where I’ve marked with colored dots the 4 locations I just mentioned. We ended up abandoning this plan, but more on that later.
Day 0: the Preparation
Misha and I were not the backpacking pros we dreamt ourselves to be. I had to borrow my parents’ stove (turns out my stove only takes butane, which is much harder to find) and Misha had to ask for a friend’s water filter. But I’d like to think that what Misha and I lacked in equipment we made up for in tenacity.
Some equipment that ended up proving especially convenient:
- These super warm (and cheap) Woolly Clothing Co. Merino Wool Socks
- This lightweight LifeStraw Water Filter
- This perfectly sized 2 person Mountaineering Tent (check out this video of us setting up the tent)
- This surprisingly convenient LED light bulb lantern
Honorable mentions to:
- The bottle of sriracha that made so many cups of instant ramen edible
- Snow Crash, which kept me thoroughly entertained (review coming soon)
- This mini powerbank, which I’m sure would’ve been useful if I hadn’t left my charging cable in the car
The biggest lesson from this trip, however, was not in what I had remembered to bring, but in what I had forgotten. And now I’m going to impart that lesson on you. If you are bringing a stove, always bring a pan. We ended up boiling water in Misha’s mug one cup at a time. By the time there was enough water in our instant ramen cups the noodles ended up only lukewarm. Lesson learned.
Day 1: Hunting Hollow to Coyote Creek to Lake Kelly
I picked up Misha at around 9AM, grabbed some bagels, and headed off. A couple hours later, we were there: the Hunting Hollow Entrance to Henry W. Coe State Park. I parked the car, paid the fees (apparently not properly, but I’ll get back to that later), and we headed off on our grand adventure.
We started the day in good spirits, following the meandering Coyote Creek up to the aptly named Coyote Creek Entrance. This two mile stretch was without a doubt the easiest of the day; we walked along a paved road with almost no incline. Misha and I were so excited by the time we got to the entrance that we took a wrong turn and ended up on Coit Road. When Coit road intersected Anza Trail I realized that we had gone too far, so we had to double back. This added an extra two miles to what was supposed to be a six mile day.
Back at the Coyote Creek Entrance again, we started off on the Spike Jones trail. It was fine until we reached the creek which indicated the start of the Grizzly Gulch trail. The initial ascent was grisly. I’ve hiked steeper inclines at higher altitudes, but only with a day pack. The added weight of the multi-day pack meant that, after a few miles, every little hill in front of us seemed like a mountain.
These were absolutely the most punishing climbs I’ve experienced. We ascended over 1,500 feet between our start at Hunting Hollow (856 feet) and our peak along Dexter Trail (2421 feet). Thankfully, by the time we reached Kelly Lake we had been descending for a few miles so we weren’t too sore when we started to make camp.
After we set up the tent our priority became getting water. We each brought several liters, but the strenuous hiking left us parched. Misha had borrowed a pump water filter, so we filled up our water containers from the stream running out of Kelly Lake. The water of the lake looked somewhat murky, but the stream water was clear enough that I would have felt comfortable drinking it even without the purification.
With shelter and water out of the way, our minds turned to the third essential: food. Like I mentioned above, I had forgotten to bring a camping pot, so we were stuck using a little metal cup for boiling water. Thankfully I had packed more than enough instant ramen and we were so hungry that we scarfed down the noodles as if they were a delicacy.
Just as we were wrapping up our dinner the drizzle started. We knew that the forecast called for much more rain, so we packed in our supplies and called it a day. It was only 7PM at this point, but we were so sore from the day’s adventures that we had no qualms about calling it a day. I read a few chapters of Snow Crash and promptly fell asleep.
I woke up a few times that night, always to the sound of rain pelting our tent. Thankfully the tent kept us and our supplies well insulated from the downpour.
Day 2: Lake Kelly to Camp Willson to Hunting Hollow
By the time we were both sufficiently awake to venture out of the tent the rain had stopped. We emerged to find that the rain had left the streams swollen and turned an area of dirt not far from our tent into a muddy marsh. By contrast, everything inside the tent was as dry as it had been when we first packed our backpacks.
It took us a few hours to get ready (including making “instant” oatmeal as painfully slowly as we had made the “instant” ramen). By 9AM we were packed up and ready to leave. After a quarter mile of flat hiking alongside the lake, suddenly the inclines started again. I was still so so so sore from the previous day’s hike and had to stop more often than I’d like to admit. But after about a mile of strenuous uphills, Kelly Lake Trail intersected with Wagon Road, and it was smooth sailing from there.
We covered the 6 miles planned for that day in about 3 hours (with plenty of snack breaks) and arrived at Camp Willson around noon. It turned out that the camp is essentially just a couple of old ramshackle buildings. We ate a quick lunch — mostly consisting of uncooked cup of noodles — on a picnic table and tried to figure out what we should do with the rest of our day. The signs indicated that it was only three more miles and change to get back to where the car was parked at Hunting Hollow Entrance. We eventually decided to cut our trip short. Just as we were coming to this conclusion, however, the downpour started.
Fortunately, the buildings at Camp Willson are well protected against the rain, so we just sat in a shed and plotted our course of action. We weren’t sure whether to wait for the storm to subside and try to make it to the car, or whether to just set up camp at Willson and finish our last three miles the next day. In the end we decided that at 2:30 we were going to leave Camp Willson, rain or shine. As luck would have it, the clouds parted at 2:20.
The next 3.2 miles flew by. Even though we had already hiked over 6 miles that day, the thought of being in our warm, dry homes reinvigorated us in a way that nothing else could. The views along Lyman Willson Ridge are less varied than the views from Grizzly Gulch, but no less beautiful. Unfortunately, the clouds overhead made capturing that beauty with my iPhone’s camera all but impossible.
When we arrived back at the car we were elated. Our excitement was only somewhat dampened by the $75 ticket waiting for me on my windshield. It turns out that when paying for parking, one needs to put the receipt in one’s car, not in one’s wallet. Oops. They’ll definitely revoke the ticket since I did actually pay for the parking. I mean, they’ve gotta. Right?
With the packs off our backs and in the backseat, I drove us home. After all that adventure, nothing sounded better than relaxing on the couch with a platter of homemade nachos.
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If you have any questions or recommendations for adventures to go on, feel free to comment here or shoot me an email at email@example.com. Also, check out my next review: “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan. Thanks for reading and have a great day!