After saying good-bye to Ken and Julie, we stayed one more night in Calistoga and then spent the next day driving further south to Gilroy, California, visiting bookstores along the way. From Gilroy (“The Garlic Capital of the World”), we would explore – for the fourth hike in our week of wandering the Golden State – the southwest side of Henry W. Coe State Park. At 87,000 acres (35,000 hectares), Coe is the largest state park in northern California and the second-largest in the state after Anza-Borrego Desert State Park east of San Diego. Yet, despite all the years we lived and hiked in California, including time spent in San Francisco, we never once visted Coe. So sad.
Our plan was to park at the park’s Coyote Creek Entrance, hike up Grizzly Gulch, then over Willson Peak (Wilson Peak on the USGS map), then return via Steer Ridge Road and the Spike Jones Trail. When we got to Coyote Creek, there were other cars parked there, so we parked too and went on up the trail. There were no signs at Coyote Creek about parking or fees. Only after the hike did we discover, to our chagrin, that there’s: (a) no parking at Coyote Creek (your supposed to park at the Hunting Hollow Entrance and walk two miles up the road to Coyote Creek) and (b) a $6 day use fee for Hunting Hollow. OK, our bad for skipping an a priori read of the park’s website. But, by not knowing we were breaking some rules, we were able to start up the road toward Grizzly Gulch unburdened by guilt (actually this ignorance enabled us to do the whole hike guilt-free).
The road soon gives way to the Grizzly Gulch Trail and we followed that trail as it started climbing up the canyon. By now it was obvious we were going to have a full bluebird hiking day, with sunny skies, picturesque clouds, cooling breezes, and NO RAIN.
The wet winter that California had suffered through had nonetheless done wonders for the plant life – grasses and shrubs and wildflowers were bursting out all over. So was the poison oak, so we stayed on the trail. If there’s an optimal time to visit this park, it’s on a nice Spring day after a wet winter!
All the hillsides were covered with a soft, green blanket of fresh grasses and wildflowers.
We’d gone far enough south that our usual flower guides were not necessarily relevant and we were too cheap to buy new ones. So we identified what flowers we could and just appreciated the rest.
The butterflies were numerous and not their usual skittish selves, so they actually seemed to be posing,
or staring back at you.
After climbing up to about 1,800 feet, the Grizzly Gulch Trail starts contouring, which made for easy hiking through a beautiful green landscape.
We crossed a small intermittent creek which, again thanks to the wet winter, actually looked and sounded like a real creek. Too bad it won’t last into summer.
We continued along the almost level trail,
past a former stock pond now hosting redwinged blackbirds and frogs,
through some of the great old oaks shading the trail,
and across Grizzly Creek,
to a junction with the Willson Peak Trail. Here we turned on to the Willson, which didn’t waste any time gaining altitude, thus putting some strain on legs that had been lulled by the easy contouring along the Grizzly Peak Trail. The LovedOne, being younger and spryer, took off up the hill, leaving me to lumber on up as best I could.
Fortunately for my dignity, the steep part didn’t last and the trail eased off into a somewhat more pleasant uphill stroll through oaks,
past meadows bright with wildflowers,
and on to the summit ridge, with its expansive view to the south (actually in all directions).
The actual high point was about 100 yards to the west,
so we made our way over there to officially claim the summit – all 2,651 awesome feet of it.
After a snack near the summit, we started our loop back by going west on Steer Ridge Road,
past yet more magnificent oak trees,
and then further along, with views, to a junction with the Spike Jones Trail.
Then it was down the Spike Jones Trail,
past yet more great oaks,
to a junction with the road leading out to the Coyote Creek Entrance. A wonderful loop (8.3 miles total; 2,400 feet of elevation gain) in great weather and at the lushest time of the year. We’re not sure how hiking (or life) gets any better than this. Now we’re really sorry we passed this park by all these years. But, if we’re ever fortunate enough to make it back to Coe, we promise to read and follow all the rules (signs or no). Promise.