While planning my upcoming trip, it became even clearer to me that backpacking is close to an oral tradition. Hiking is not - you can find a wealth of information about trails, policies, and so on, and have a fully satisfying and enjoyable hike based just on information easily found online. When it comes to the backcountry, though, things become very vague. Because there are fewer backpackers than hikers, and because backpackers can move much deeper into the park than dayhikers, the farther trails aren't as well-documented. A good topo map can help you anticipate the distances and amount of climbing involved, but can't explain how much shade you'll have, how good the water supplies are (another factor that doesn't matter much to day-hikers), or the types of surfaces you'll be on. And, when it comes to camping, I personally really want to know at least one potential camping site ahead of time, rather than just trusting my luck that one will show up.
Rewinding briefly: looking back, I'm pretty amazed at how I fell into backpacking. I've been hiking for a long time; arguably all my life, since it was a staple part of our family vacations growing up, and intensively for the last five years or so. I've now visited all the major parks on the southern San Francisco Bay Area, as well as many along the Peninsula and the eastern Bay Area. It's been great, but I was never really tempted to stretch it into backpacking... I show up, walk around in gorgeous scenery for a few hours, and then go back home.
The total time elapsed from my first thought of, "Huh, maybe I should go on a backpacking trip" to actually going on one was a bit less than one week. In retrospect, that's pretty astonishing, especially considering that I didn't have all the gear and considering the incredible amount of time I've spent on research after that first trip. Three-day weekends tend to sneak up on me, so it was February before I remembered that I had President's Day off, and that once again I had neglected to make any plans. I'm not totally sure why the thought of backpacking came up, but it may have been due in part to overhearing some co-workers describe trips of their own. The more I thought about it, the better it seemed. Backpacking would let me dive deep into Coe Park, a huge and beautiful park that I love and had barely scratched the surface of. I'd picked up a nice big topo map on a previous visit back in 2005, and started looking at what I could visit on a long three-day trip. Plus, I had a great, large Osprey Aether backpack that I'd received several Christmases ago that I hadn't put to use yet.
I took a quick equipment inventory. Even though I didn't have any backpacking-specific gear, other than the pack, I had most of what I needed to take the trip. All I was missing was a tent and a camp stove. I trawled Amazon and found good solutions for both. I opted for the Eureka Tetragon for a tent - at a bit over five pounds, it weighed more than an ultralight tent, but it was a really good value, compact enough to carry, had great reviews, and seemed more flexible. For a stove I picked up the MSR Pocket Rocket, partly because of the reviews but mostly because Amazon had it in stock. I finally took advantage of the free trial for Amazon Prime, getting free shipping on those items and receiving them before I took off on my trip.
On Friday, I walked down to Sports Basement on my lunch break, where I picked up a butane fuel canister, a largeish Nalgene water reservoir, and a groundsheet for the tent. I swung by Trader Joe's on the way back and bought a bag of dried apricots, some ABC Trail Mix, a bag of pita bread, and two boxes of Indian Fare. Back at home, I laid out all the equipment, checking off against an inventory I'd found online. I got to exercise my Tetris skills and fit this mass of stuff into my bag. I hoisted it and walked around a bit. Wow! I was surprised at how it felt... it totally changed my balance, and I felt like I needed to learn how to walk again.
Coe has a three-tiered system of camping. First are the group camps, based at Manzanita Point. These are popular with youth groups, Boy Scouts, and other organized outings, and include fire pits and toilets. Next come designated camp sites in the "Western Zone". This zone is by far the most popular within the park, and covers most of what you can reach within a single day's hike from the park's headquarters. These camp sites are scattered around and reservable on a first-come, first-serve basis. The rest of the park is divided into further zones; in this third tier, the park limits the number of campers within each zone to help provide a sense of privacy and quiet, but "allows" you to camp anywhere you want.
I went to the library and checked out a book on backpacking trips in Northern California, which included two hikes in Coe. They described a route that sounded good to me, although with my strong background in Coe I thought I could push it a little farther. More importantly, it described some of the campsites available. It recommended Los Cruzeros, which offers three sites and is close to a reliable source of water. In passing, it mentioned a nearby alternative site called Lost Spring, saying that it was good but mentioning that it only has room for a single tent. "That's perfect!", I thought, and resolved to make that my stop. I'd hike out there the first day, pitch my tent, go day-hiking from there on my second day, and hike back out of the park on the third.
Even with my limited lead time, I totally geeked out on backpacking stuff, reading as much as I could find. I started to absorb the mantra of lightweight backpacking; I didn't want to be as minimalist as some of these guys, but saw the value in trimming out unnecessary weight. When it came to food, I decided to supplement my TJ's haul with some almond butter and oatmeal. I figured that the combination of food would let me mix-and-match to some extent; for example, the dried fruit and trek mix made good snacks, but I could also stir them into oatmeal for a more satisfying breakfast. I also brought along some packets of tea.
It was February, but February in the Bay Area is still pretty darn moderate. I knew it would be a bit chillier in the hills, but even the highest peaks around here very rarely drop below freezing, even at night. I packed out a set of underwear (short and long), cotton t-shirts, a single long-sleeve buttoned cotton shirt, a lightweight jacket, a wide-brimmed hiking hat and a warm winter cap. I wore my convertible pants, hiking socks, and my beloved hiking shoes. I checked the weather forecast and decided that I'd be all right. I would have canceled if they predicted rain, but it sounded clear.
I called the park on Friday and asked about the current conditions in the backcountry. The man I spoke with said that all of the streams were passable, but some would have to be forded, and recommended that I bring shoes to cross in. Duly noted, I slipped in a pair of sandals.
I left relatively early in the morning and was one of the first people into the park. Two extremely friendly people got me registered at headquarters; they actually weren't familiar with Lost Spring, but found it on their list and marked my reservation. I hoisted my pack and set out.
I love ridgelines. Walking along a ridgeline isn't just one of my favorite experiences hiking, but one of my favorite experiences period. As such, I had planned the route to maximize the ridgelines, which meant a jaunt along the Middle Ridge Trail for much of my way out. I finally saw another person when I reached Poverty Flat. My planned route was fairly flexible; I had toyed with the idea of going down to the Narrows and working my way along there to Los Cruzeros, but based on the water levels, I decided not to risk it. Instead, I went along Poverty Flat Road. It was probably my third or fourth time on that trail; each time I go, I read my notes from earlier trips where I complain about how incredibly steep it is. Each time, I think, "Pshaw! I used to be such a wimp. I'm a way better hiker now, I'm sure it's fine." Each time, I end up in agony, after struggling up its punishing grade, and leave dire warnings in my notes about how incredibly steep it is. This time around, I had an extra thirty pounds weighing me down, and I'm a bit amazed that I made it through.
From there, it was an easy downhill jaunt to Los Cruzeros. I'd been there before; this time, I looked around for the three campsites, and couldn't see them. I later realized that this was part of the point. Backpacking campsites are meant to fade into the background, to be part of the scenery, and leave little impact behind. I hiked up Lost Spring Trail, and nearly missed my own campsite, even though it was marked with a defunct outhouse.
All in all, Lost Spring was a good site. I think it would be better in the summer; if I did this trip again at this time of year, I would have grabbed one of the Los Cruzeros. Lost Spring is in a fairly heavily wooded area, so there was a lot of shade, not too much wind, and an obstructed view of the sky. The ground was fairly level, and an ancient picnic table helped ease me into my first experience with solo backcountry cooking.
I ate a late lunch, delighted by how delicious everything tasted. I had plenty of daylight left, so I struck out again, this time in my light day pack, exploring to the east and south. I found a good, modern outhouse just about a half-mile up the trail from my camp, and some amazing views along the ridge. I monitored the time and turned around with plenty of time to return to Los Cruzeros, refill my water, and make it to camp before dusk.
In the morning, I reviewed my map and decided to alter my planned second-day hike. The stream crossings had been pretty challenging, and my route involved crossing a lot of them; plus, my ultimate destination was a peak that I could probably reach on an intense day-hike. Instead, I decided to strike further into the park, aiming at the largest lake, Mississippi Lake. Confident, I grabbed a bare kit of food, water, and first-aid, and headed out.
This trip was much longer than the previous days - I covered well over twenty miles altogether - but was much more comfortable; after a day of bearing the pack, I felt incredibly light, even when going uphill. The solitude was incredible; I passed a pair of backpackers early on, and didn't see another soul all day. Much of the hike was along a ridge, which, you know, is awesome, and the lake itself was incredible. February is one of the wettest times of the year, so the lake was full, with lots of wildlife, and just gorgeous. I had an incredibly peaceful lunch by the shores of the lake, just staring out at the water and wondering how I got to be so lucky. I took a leisurely walk along the lake's shore, decided that I didn't have time to climb up a nearby mountain, and headed back to camp.
The third day I struck the tent and cleaned up in the morning. I felt like I was starting to absorb some of the backpacking ethos... I was taking pleasure in packing out my trash, marveling at how you couldn't tell that I had been here. I took a different route back out of the park, through China Hole, an impressive, challenging, beautiful leg that let me turn the whole trip into a giant loop. I passed many more people on my way back out of the park, smiled at everyone, and kept on lumbering past.
After leaving the park, I swung by an In-n-Out Burger and blissfully munched on a hamburger. The whole experience was very challenging, and I knew that there were things I would change on my next trip, and I was equally confident that there would be a next trip. It would come several months later, on Memorial Day. I'll try to write that one up soon.
Possible take-aways for others considering hiking in Coe:
* Contrary to some older maps, Lost Spring doesn't have a functioning outhouse.
* "Springs" in Coe generally look disgusting; I haven't taken water from one yet, and won't unless there is no other source.
* Keep your eyes peeled to the right as you walk up Lost Spring Trail to spot the campsite; it's set uphill and a ways away from the trail. Your best bet is to spot the old outhouse, but even that isn't visible from every angle.
* Mississippi Lake has a trash can, one of the only ones in the park interior; it would be a great place to offload weight that you don't want to pack back out.
* President's Day weekend has very light traffic, especially in contrast to Memorial Day Weekend. Keep the weather in mind, though, and double-check if you want to avoid rain.
* Bring your own TP. All the outhouses I visited during Presidents Day Weekend were well-stocked, but some of the ones during Memorial Day were out.
Here's a bare-bones summary of my route:
DAY 1 MORNING:
- Entered at park HQ, parked and paid
- East on Corral Trail
- Cross Manzanita Point Road and take the center Fish Trail up
- Right on Middle Ridge Trail
- Left on Poverty Flat Road
- Right on Mahoney Meadows Road
- Cross the creek and continue on the road
- Right on Lost Spring Trail
- Camp at Lost Spring
- Continue south along Lost Spring Trail (right turn from camp)
- Turn right on Mahoney Meadows Road
- Continued past Mahoney Pond, kept going until it was time to turn around and return to camp
- North along Lost Spring Trail (left turn from camp)
- Turn left on Mahoney Meadows Road
- Cross the creek, look for Willow Ridge Trail to the right
- Continue uphill and east along Willow Ridge Trail
- Short detour at Willow Ridge Spring for a break
- Left on Willow Ridge Road
- Stay on Willow Ridge Road, ignoring the side trails, continuing north and east
- Walk down the road to Mississippi Lake
- Walk left along the trail to do a loop around the lake. It's pretty everywhere, but there's a nice sheltered spot for lunch near the northwest of the lake with a toilet and trash can nearby
- After finishing the loop, retrace steps back to camp. (If daylight permits, could consider going up Bear Mountain Peak Trail - I didn't do this, and it doesn't look like it actually reaches the peak, but would still be a great view.)
- South along Lost Spring Trail (right turn from camp)
- Right on China Hole Trail
- Cross China Hole and continue up along China Hole Trail, past Manzanita Point all the way to the camps
- Right on Manzanita Point Road
- Left on Springs Trail
- Left on Corral Trail back to park headquarters