Monday, August 02, 2010

Backpacking Memorial Day in Coe

Before the sands of my memory finish slipping through the hourglass of time, here's a record of my most successful backpacking trip to date: namely, my second backpacking trip.

I went back to Coe.  Why do anything else?  Coe is a gorgeous park, and I could easily spend a week or more in there and still not see everything. 

My motivation was largely the same as before: I had a nice, big 3-day weekend coming up and no particular plans.  I'd made a list of corrections after my previous trip and knew what I'd be doing differently.  Top of the list: bringing different footwear for water crossings.  Bringing sandals was a good idea, but I had stupidly brought leather sandals; they soaked up a ton of water on my first crossing and remained damp all three days.  This time I brought a pair of rubber flip-flops... no support at all, but infinitely more water resistant.

As it turned out, I never needed to use them.  I just had a few shallow stream crossings early on, all of which had sufficient rocks for me to hop across.  The lightweight sandals remained safely ensconced within my bag for the duration.

I'd called ahead again the day before my trip to check on conditions.  The friendly ranger said "Conditions are... well, perfect."  I began to giggle with glee.  Unusually late rainfall meant that the streams were still running.  The weather would be warm but not too hot.  I smiled, and smiled, and smiled.

Coe has three main entrances.  The majority of visitors arrive at the park headquarters, available from East Dunne Avenue in Morgan Hill.  Two other entrances, Hunting Hollow and Coyote Creek, are at the southwest of the park and are reached from an entirely different route through Gilroy.  Since my President's Day jaunt had struck into the northern center of the park, I decided to remain south for this trip.  Once again, I would focus on the deep parts of the park that could not be accessed other than by backpacking (or more uncouth forms of travel like horse or bicycle).  I would also take the plunge from designated camping to zone camping.

I started planning by looking at my good topo map and trying to figure out how far I could get in a single day.  I read some trip reports online, including one report of a loop through Redfern Pond, Kelly Lake and Coit Lake.  That sounded good, but he took two days to make it to Coit, and judging from the distances I was sure I could do it in one.  Coit seemed likely to attract more campers on what was sure to be a busier weekend, so I hunted around for a more out-of-the-way choice.  I eventually settled on the Fish and Game Pond, a water source very close to Coit Lake.  It was pretty centrally located, would be a good base camp for further hiking, would provide water, and just be a good spot in general.  Judging from the topo map, it looked like there was a flattish area near the pond, so I reasoned that I could pitch a tent there.  That's actually one of the hardest parts of zone camping, incidentally... without having been a place before, I don't have any idea where I COULD camp; I can see where there's water, but can't visualize whether the ground is decently level and has a good surface.

For planning, I was able to re-use all my gear from the previous trip, other than the aforementioned sandals.  I'd been really happy with my food the previous trip and so I repeated it, just swapping out for different flavors of Indian Fare.  I thought about getting other dried fruit as well, but nothing else looked as good as the dried apricots.  I did go with conventional, preservative-laden pita pockets from Safeway rather than the fresh and natural ones from TJ's; on my prior trip, the pitas had started looking a touch moldy by the second day.  I also picked up my first-ever bag of beef jerky, reasoning that it was the most rational way to add lightweight protein to my diet.  It turns out that (1) rational does not equal tasty, and (2) not EVERYTHING you eat on a backpacking trip tastes delicious.  I made myself eat a few pieces of jerky at meals, but didn't enjoy it.  I still have most of the bag left now, six months later.  Oh, and I also brought some chocolate.  That was a stranger reaction... I took a bite, and thought, "Mmm, that tastes good.  I don't want to eat any more."  Even though I could eat seemingly unlimited quantities of, for example, almond butter on pita bread.  I'm pretty baffled at the reason for this... I eventually decided that my body was trying to tell me something and I should pay attention to it, whether I understood it or not.

When I arrived in the Hunting Hollow parking lot, only four other vehicles were there.  Judging from the condensation on the windshields it looked like they had been there overnight.  The entrance wasn't staffed so I self-registered and paid with one of the envelopes, hoisted my pack, and struck off.

I hiked and hiked.  The first part was somewhat familiar to me, although I hadn't been there in years.  I missed my very first turn, up the Steer Ridge Trail, but fortunately there are a lot of trails in that area, and I could just pick up the next trail up the hills.  I kept diving deeper into the park, rejoicing silently with each new vista.  When I reached Kelly Lake I felt the weirdest sense of... I dunno, it felt like deja vu, even though I knew that, yes, I really had seen it before.  I just stopped and stared, drinking it in, remembering the excitement I had felt when I first saw it, and feeling the excitement I felt then.

I pressed on to Coit Lake, then took a right and headed to the pond.  I ran into a group of three fishermen hikers; we greeted each other, they asked where I was headed, and they pointed me up the hill.  I kept going.  "Oh, that can't be the Fish and Game Pond," I thought.  "It's way too small."  I kept going.  After a mile I had to admit that, yes, that had been the Fish and Game Pond, just like the fishermen had said, and so I returned.

I found a decent spot on the far side of the lake and set about pitching my tent.  It wasn't completely ideal - the spot was very visible from the trail, which I'd like to avoid, and the ground wasn't quite as flat as I had imagined - but it was still quite good.  I collapsed inside for a little while, then collected myself and headed out again.  Thanks to the longer daylight, I had more hours for exploring in the day.  I had resolved that, if I made it to camp at a decent time, I would check out Pacheco Falls, a landmark deep within the park.

I took a lot of pictures of the falls, but they don't begin to do it justice.  Wow.  "Edenic" is the word that I keep thinking of when I remember the Falls.  It's amazingly hidden, you don't have any impression of it until you enter the vale.  In there, everything is intense and peaceful and quiet and loud at the same time.  The water is incredibly clear, the vegetation impressive, the wildlife vibrant.  I carefully walked around to the far side, close to the waterfall, and soaked up the atmosphere for... I don't know how long.  When I felt full, I took a last, lingering glance around, then thoughtfully returned to camp.

My second day, I had an epic loop planned.  I would try to reach the park's eastern border, hiking along a ranch road down into a creek bed, even further east to the Dowdy Ranch, then swing back up and return to camp along (you guessed it!) a ridge.  It was a good plan, but it failed.  I missed a sharp fishhook turn when coming down to the creek, and ended up following said creek downstream for close to an hour before realizing my error.  By the time I made it back, I had to admit that I would be cutting it tight to continue my original plan.  I glumly ate lunch by the creek and then took a cut-off road back up to short-circuit my loop and get back on track, minus Dowdy Ranch.  Along the way, I realized that my originally planned route was an obscure trail, and not something I wanted to hike anyways.

So, on each trip to Coe, I vividly learned how to interpret a particular term.  On my first trip, that term had been "spring."  When I heard the word "spring," my mental image is of crystal clear water gushing from the earth or from a stone.  In reality, a "spring" in Coe is an awful, dirty, encrusted pit  that holds a stagnant collection of slimy water with hordes of bugs fouling the surface.  On this trip, the term was "obscure."  I had previously thought that "obscure" meant the road less traveled - a trail that didn't see as much traffic and so was overgrown.  In reality, "obscure" means invisible.  It's the trail that you think of, not the trail that you see.  Here, I had focused on the dotted line and imagined that I could, you know, walk on it.  Obscure trails aren't signed, so you can't know for sure where the trailheads are; similarly, there's no visible marking of a trail, so you need to bushwhack your way through if you choose to follow.  Obscure trails would be great if you were interested in orienteering, but for my style of hiking, they will be non-starters from now on.

One of the minor ironies of this leg was that, in order to account for my lost time and get back to camp safely, I ended up hiking up the hottest, steepest, least shaded portion of my entire route during the hottest part of the day.  I slipped into a minor state of delirium, my mind wandering everywhere even as my feet faithfully trudged higher and higher.  Eventually I reclaimed the high ground, and gladly turned back west to return to camp.  I came across an unsigned intersection that didn't appear on my map; I opted to take the right turn, which proved to not be the main trail but did act as a shortcut and so got me back more quickly.

This trip was much hotter than my previous one; I didn't have a thermometer with me, but I believe that it got above 80 each day, and the totally clear sky was gorgeous but did not provide even momentary cloud cover.  As a direct result of this heat, I focused much more on water, and was very glad that we had had so much late-season rain.  I couldn't be nearly as picky this time around, and quite often refilled from lakes and ponds.  With my water treatment kit, I didn't worry too much about the quality, but it still wasn't nearly as nice-looking as the fresh, cool, clear water that you get from the creeks and streams.

I took it easy that night, enjoying a full dinner and taking a slow walk at dusk between Fish and Game and Coit lakes.  I had a much better view of the sky than I had had at Lost Spring, but I felt so tired by the time the sun went down that I turned in without much star-gazing.

On my last day, I woke up at the dawn, struck the tent, and headed back out.  I dislike out-and-back routes and always prefer loops, so my return path was a bit more complex than the way out.  Along the way, I got to see virtually every water feature in the area that I hadn't already passed.  I followed the first part of my previous day's path, south along Wagon Road, then past Wasno Pond I did a little jog west and down to Tule Pond.  I took the Serpentine Trail steeply uphill back to my last ridge, then followed the Steer Ridge Road back west.  This time I stayed on Steer Ridge all the way back to Hunting Hollow, returning on the road I had originally planned to head out on.

Along the way I passed many more hikers and campers.  The second day of hiking into the park's interior had been almost entirely solitary, only crossing a few mountain bikers, but the first and third days near the entrance involved meeting many more people out for Memorial Day Weekend fun.  I didn't chat too long with anyone, but everyone seemed to be having fun... and I certainly can't blame them!


Day 1 Morning:
  • Park at Hunting Hollow
  • East along Lyman Willson Ridge Trail
  • Left up Middle Steer Ridge Trail
  • Right on Steer Ridge Road
  • Left on Willson Peak Trail
  • Left on Grizzly Gulch Trail
  • East on Dexter Trail
  • Left on Wasno Road
  • Right on Kelly Lake Trail
  • Left towards the outhouse
  • Right on Coit Road
  • Skirt the edge of Coit Lake and continue on Coit Road
  • Fish and Game Pond is to the right
  • Set up camp

Day 1 Late Afternoon:
  • East along Coit Road
  • Right on Wagon Road
  • Left on Live Oak Spring Trail
  • Left to visit Live Oak Spring, then retrace steps and continue north along Live Oak Spring Trail
  • Right on trail down to Pacheco Falls
  • Retrace steps to camp.  (Can return along Fish & Game Trail instead of Wagon Road, but this trail is obscure and you will pick up many burrs and stuff.)

Day 2:
  • East along Coit Road
  • Right at Wagon Road
  • Continue south past Wasno Pond and past Rodeo Pond
  • Left on Vasquez Road
  • Stay left to continue down Vasquez Road
(I accidentally went up Canada de Dormida creek for a long ways.  Keep your eyes sharply open - the road makes a sharp and unmarked turn to the right as you approach the creek, even though it looks like you can continue straight.)
  Following is the planned route that I did not take:
  •   Go northeast along Dormida Trail - This is an obscure road, so may be more difficult than I had thought.
  •   Turn right on Burra Burra Trail
  •   Turn left on Kaiser Aetna Road
  •   Visit Dowdy Ranch, to the right
  •   Return to the road and turn right to continue northwest
  •   Left on Hersman Pond Trail
  •   Left on Center Flats Road
Instead of the above section, I reached Center Flats Road by continuing up Vasquez Trail and turning left.  In either case, once you are heading west on Center Flats Road:
  • Turn right at Wagon Road
  • Left at Coit Road
  • Return to camp

Day 3:
  • East along Coit Road
  • Right on Wagon Road
  • Right on Wasno Road
  • Left on Tule Pond Trail
  • Left on Grizzly Gulch Road
  • Right on Serpentine Trail
  • Right on Steer Ridge Road
  • Continue straight down Steer Ridge Trail
  • Return to parking lot at Hunting Hollow

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Pack a back!

This comes nearly six months late, but it suddenly occurred to me that it might be worthwhile to briefly (ha!) write up my backpacking experiences.  I had previously posted a Picasa album for each one, and sort of mentally said, "Well, that's that!", but in reality, even the tiny number of people who might be interested in the trip and experience will probably not want to click through several hundred photos to clean information about the outing.

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:

  • 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