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

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