With 87,000 acres of terrain, Henry W. Coe State Park is the second largest state park in California and one of the largest tracts of wild land adjacent to the urban sprawl of Silicon Valley. Once an expansive private cattle ranch, the core of the property was donated to the state of California in the 1950’s and then expanded through the purchase of additional tracts of land in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
A good friend and I recently ventured to “Coe Park,” as the locals call it, for an exploratory mountain biking mission. We were armed with little information beyond an internet-based confirmation that, yes, mountain biking was legal, and yes, there were plenty of trails (over 250 miles of them, in fact). I try not to read too many descriptions of other people’s rides on the various mountain bike-oriented chat rooms that exist these days; taking a virtual trip with someone else is a bit of a spoiler for this exploration-addicted girl. That said, it is obviously helpful to have an idea of what you’re getting yourself into when adventure riding is on the docket, so I did just enough scanning of ride descriptions to get the feel for what was out there. “The general themes I picked up were steep, rugged, and not-for-the-faint-of-heart,” I told my companion.
“Sounds perfect for us,” he replied.
“Oh yeah, there were also more than a few mentions of heat and poison oak,” I added, and we made a point to stop at the pharmacy to pick up some technu (that substance that supposedly dissolves the toxic oils that cause the poison oak rash – although you’d never know it from the looks of my legs today) and extra ice.
I have to admit, I can be more than a bit skeptical about the “wilderness” quality of any tract of land in coastal California. Having spent over a decade living in the Tetons and over 160 weeks of my life camping in vast wilderness areas from Alaska to Patagonia, I tend to look at California parks as “nature lite.” These areas tend to have lots of paved camping spots, infrastrucutural “improvements” like pit toilets and fire roads, and a few too many signs and rules for my liking. This park did not fail to deliver these supposed amenities, nor did it fail to deliver the crowds characteristic of California recreation – at least on Sunday afternoon, when we arrived.
And yet, I found this park to be a remarkably striking place. I have seen acres and acres of oak-studded California hills over the years, but they have always been dotted with dwellings. In the course of our two days of riding, we were surrounded by views of steep tree-covered ridges as far as the eye could see, without a structure in sight. The vibrant green ridges of the Diablo Mountain Range alternated with deep canyons, whose lowest points cradled cool, clear creeks. All of the water sources in Henry Coe are seasonal, but given the time of year and the fortuitous rainfall pattern California has experienced of late, the volume of the creeks accommodated full-body mid-ride relief dips quite well. The abundance of recent rainfall has also spawned the eruption of glorious wildflower patches throughout the park, and it was a treat to take in the brushstrokes of color that splashed the sides of the hills. The collections of California poppies were particularly spectacular; despite their stereotypical presentation, they are stunning to see in their full glory.
We did encounter a few outhouses on our rides, and one particularly silly sign warning us to “walk our bikes” in a spot where neither of us even bothered to slow down. There were other places where I actually did need to walk my bike for twenty straight minutes thanks to the ridiculously steep and consistent grade of the trail (something I have since discovered is referred to by regular riders as “the Coe factor”) – no signs advised me there. There were copious trail markers at junctions, and there were potable water tanks positioned strategically near the camping areas. But, we both conceded that there were plenty of spots where getting hurt would have been more than a little inconvenient – they felt relatively remote and hard to escape from in an emergency.
We camped in the park’s campground, which, ironically, affords a view of nearby Morgan Hill, CA, a city of 40,000 people that serves largely as a bedroom community for Silicon Valley tech workers. It’s California after all; you can never really escape the reality of population density. Still, on Sunday night there were only a few other people up there with us, and being nestled in the oaks 2000 feet above the valley floor made me feel like the settlement below existed in another world. It got chilly at night, and I have seen pictures of the park’s historic barn buildings covered in snow in winter.
I so rarely camp out close to my home, regardless of where it is that I am calling home. I somehow get it into my head that wilderness is always a day’s travel away no matter where I am. Sitting alone in silence looking from the Diablo Range over to the Coastal Range, I was reminded that you can find wildness – if not wilderness – anywhere you look for it. What I seek in these adventures is a sense of otherness from my usual surroundings, as well as a sense of connection to the land I am moving through and the person I am experiencing the place with. It doesn’t necessarily take untrammeled alpine landscape to create that. In fact, with lower expectations and the right intentions, you can be pleasantly surprised by what you stumble across.