Coe overnight outing

Backpackers trade modern life for the wilderness

Hikers in Henry Coe
MAGIC CHALLENGE Each year the Pine Ridge Association holds an overnight outing and two-day walk through Henry Coe State Park. Photo: Ron Erskine

The best thing about Henry Coe State Park is also the most challenging thing. It’s big … really big.

Imagine a wild area so vast it could swallow up three San Franciscos. Suppose this huge area had only two year-round entrances that barely pierce its boundary, and there, the road ends; no through road, no scenic driving loop. Any further exploration must be on horseback, on a bicycle, or on foot.

Coe Park’s immensity is both its magic and its challenge. In the remote east side of the park, there is a special solitude that is hard to find anywhere in the modern world, especially near an urban center of seven million people. It is indeed magical. Yet, if visitors must begin their journey at the edge of such a large park, and if they are limited to these primitive modes of travel, some of Coe Park’s most beautiful regions, places like Mustang Flat or the Rooster Comb, are simply too far away.

Several years ago, the Pine Ridge Association created a program designed to do just that. Coe Outings offers an annual guided backpack trip into the park’s secluded east side, but with a head start. Recently, Coe Park volunteer Heather Ambler and I led a group of 20 backpackers on a trip that began at a location deep inside the park, a place that would take two days to reach on foot. From there, Mustang Flat and the Rooster Comb are within easy reach.

The excited backpackers met early on a sunny Saturday morning at Bell’s Station on the Pacheco Pass portion of Highway 152. After some get-to-know-you chatter, we piled into our cars and drove 12 miles on park maintenance roads to the very edge of the Orestimba Wilderness where our backpack trip began. From either the park headquarters or the Hunting Hollow Entrance, this location is a difficult two-day walk through steeply and deeply corrugated country. All we had to do was step out of the car.

On the east side, Coe Park’s rough-and-tumble country relaxes into lazy, rolling terrain that slides gently toward the Central Valley. We walked a comfortable 5 miles along Orestimba Creek to a broad, sun-dappled bench of green grass and widely spaced blue oak trees, our home for the evening. With camp set up, some people relaxed under the oaks and some explored further downstream, carrying only a day pack.

The next morning, the first one awake, I sat warm in my sleeping bag and watched a golden eagle fly up the creek carrying something in its talons. As others rose, everyone buzzed with the same question, “Did you hear those coyotes howling?”

Even with a Coe Outings boost into the backcountry, visiting the remote east side of Henry Coe State Park remains an adventure, but one a mere mortal can do over a weekend. Look for next spring’s Coe Outing date near year’s end at