Backpacking in Henry W. Coe State Park
Update for May 29-July 29, 2018: Access to the main Coe Ranch/HQ Entrance via Dunne Ave will be limited due to storm damage repairs. The road will be closed Sunday night through Thursday night, and also closed Friday and Saturday 8am-4pm. However, the road is open for a brief 15 minute window on Friday and Saturday from approx 12–12:15pm (not advertised). See the Coe website or call the visitor center for updates. Other entrances are open.
Saturday afternoon Anmol and I headed south on 101 to Henry W. Coe State Park. We had been planning to travel in the opposite direction to Snow Mountain in Mendocino Forest, but plans fell through at the last minute, and I dug up some nearby backpacking options I’d saved. Coe was a surprisingly great choice!
We were on the highway for just over an hour, and then turned off at Morgan Hill to head up the winding hill another 30 minutes to Coe Headquarters. It’s a bit of a steep, narrow, and winding road, but the views are beautiful and most drivers are good about sticking to their half when passing.
Backpacking sites at Coe are first-come, first-served, which is great when you take off on a last minute trip. We arrived around noon on a Saturday, so there were a fair amount of sites taken when we arrived. The park has a ton of sites as well as permits for camping wherever you like beyond the designated backpacking zones, so I don’t think you ever have to worry about being turned away. We took some recommendations from the friendly staff at the visitor center and ended up with night one at Skeels’ Meadow and night two at the coveted China Hole.
We set out for Skeels’ around 12:30pm in the sun. We took the Monument Trail through trees that gave way to tons of wildflowers and then connected to Hobbs Road at about 0.6 miles. We encountered one other couple backpacking on their way to Mexican Flat and a group of backpackers and a couple hiking back out to Headquarters. Hobbs Road rolls slightly up and down until the intersection with the Middle Ridge Trail at about 2.4 miles from HQ (Frog Lake Trail was closed) and then descends fairly steeply down towards Coyote Creek. At 3.9 miles we took a right towards Skeels’ Meadow and reached our destination about 4.2 miles and 2.5–3 hours from HQ.
There are supposed to be three campsites, but site #1 was nowhere to be found or at least not obvious to us. Site #3 was a pretty looking site tucked away in the shade with some privacy, but someone had already set up camp there, so we took site #2, just across from the meadow (don’t set up camp in the beautiful meadow!). We happily slung off our packs with a sigh and got to pitching our tent. If you’ve checked out our previous hikes, you might notice from the pictures that we got a new tent! Anmol decided it was time to upgrade from the heavy, square tent he’s had since the mid-90s and get something lighter and more functional, as well as a better fit to his 6’1” height. We ended up with this great MSR tent that’s a nice rectangle-ish shape with poles that are super light and practically put themselves together. This was our first use and it proved to be very functional all-around! Plus is has “stargazing mode” with lots of visibility when the rain fly is rolled back, but I digress on the fun new tent.
Skeels’ Meadow is a really peaceful, small wildflower meadow tucked along the side of Coyote Creek. The creek is accessible across the trail and down the bank and it’s beautiful down there. We splashed some water on our hands and faces to cool off and enjoyed the view. Didn’t see any frogs, but we heard a few at night.
Sunday morning I awoke with the sun and got up to heat water for coffee. We didn’t see any ticks on the hike the day before, but there on my backpack was the first tick of the trip. Don’t forget to check your things in the morning! We filtered some stream water, good coffee and oatmeal were had, and we explored the stream one last time. With less than 6 miles to travel to reach China Hole, we packed up and departed camp at a leisurely pace.
Hiking back up Hobbs Road to Middle Ridge in the sun took a fair amount of energy and water, but luckily it didn’t last too long. After about 1.8 mi, we took a left on Middle Ridge Trail and stepped onto a beautiful foot (and bike) trail that meandered along the ridge. I loved this section of trail! We passed a small troop of Boy Scouts heading back to HQ and one mountain biker sped past us while we were having a lunch snack — pretty quiet trail day again. Watch out for ticks here, and poison oak occasionally but more frequent on the descent from the ridge.
After about 2.7 miles (4.5 from Skeels’) the Middle Ridge Trail opens up to the junction of Little Fork Coyote Creek and Middle Fork Coyote Creek and your first creek crossing. This was probably my favorite area of the trip; it was lush and green surrounding the clear, sparkling water, wildflowers nearby, and green hills all the way up to the brilliant blue sky. Butterflies and dragonflies dancing about. Lovely! Here you cross the creek and follow the trail onto Poverty Flat Road and on as it crosses the river 2-3 more times, then take the Creekside Trail on the right, directly after Poverty Flat Camp. This section of trail is lined with poison oak, so keep your hands and feet to yourself! Follow the river for about 0.6 miles and reach China Hole (5.4 miles from Skeels’) just downstream from the intersection of the Middle Fork and East Fork of Coyote Creek. The single campsite is on the opposite side of the river, just upstream from the swimming hole.
We set up our tent and hit the water! The sun was blazing down and the water felt great, though it turned chilly when the wind picked up. There were a handful of visitors to the area throughout the afternoon and evening, but only the backpacker from the previous night and one other group ventured in the water. We saw what I now think is a kingsnake right before we entered the water; it slithered across the surface and then headed into the bushes downstream. We kept our eyes open, though didn’t see one again.
After a swim and snack, we hiked upstream along The Narrows/East Fork Coyote Creek and saw a couple turtles! We also saw a frog or two and definitely heard frogs/toads at night; quite the chorus! After about 7:00pm we had the place to ourselves and really enjoyed the solitude.
Monday morning we woke up to a light layer of fog that burned off with the sun. We had to pull ourselves away from the site when it was time to leave. We took the China Hole Trail and slowly wound up the hillside along easy switchbacks, reaching Manzanita Point Group Camps at about 2.6 miles. We stopped for a snack and then continued on Manzanita Point Road. At one of the campsites we passed three wild turkeys and saw another one bobbing through the tall grass about a half mile down the road.
We parted from the road and took the Corral Trail back to HQ. (Looking back, we likely should have broken off sooner and taken the Forest Trail at about 1.8 miles from HQ.) On the Corral Trail, there was a big oak snag — a granary tree — that had at least a half dozen acorn woodpeckers on it and flying around. After about 0.6 miles on the Corral Trail, we reached HQ (at about 5.1 miles total without detours) we saw a black-tailed deer bound up the hill.
Getting back to the car and opening the trunk, we found out that in three days, a squirrel could make a nest in our car. The helpful ranger at the visitor center thankfully helped us gently relocate three baby squirrels.
Overall this was a fantastic trip. We were delighted to find a great place to go backpacking nearby on short notice. We’ll definitely be back!
Date: May 14–16, 2016
Location: Henry W. Coe State Park, Skeels’ Meadow & China Hole Camps
Length: ~ 15 miles without side trips