Henry Coe State Park is a place that many, including myself, have a tough love relationship with. It’s a vast expanse of hills, creeks, and small lakes punctuated by poetic Oaks and mythical giant Madrones. In the cool months the rolling green hills go on and on, and if your legs could do the same, you might even be able to wander all 22,000 acres of the park! Alas, the hills… those damn hills, they’re efficient at sapping strength from the burliest of legs. In the summer add one part extra hot weather and one part constant sun exposure and you have a recipe for exhaustion and heat stroke. Coe is no joke! We love it for what it is though. Fall thru Spring are the best times to visit, and since the GGG 5 just wrapped up, it seemed like a perfect time to post this Henry Coe overnighter.
Destination: Soda Creek & China Hole, Henry Coe State Park
Trail Head: Corral Trail (from Park HQ)
Distance: 9 miles round trip, ~2600 ft gained/lost (~260 ft/mi avg)
Remoteness: Expect a few passing day hikers, the camp area at Madrone Soda Springs has only 2 designated sites
Motivation: Great views of the South Bay, a chance to camp with the turkeys
Notes: Water should not be a problem but a good rain almost always makes the creeks difficult or impassable.
The Report from Our Trip :: Jan 25-27, 2013
Consider this a fusion of trip reports in fact. My first time to Madrone Soda Springs was a short solo hike to test out some gear during a period of heavy rain back in 2012. As I drove over the Altamont the wind picked up and the sky grew dark – not gradually, but suddenly. This is what I wanted, a good test for my ZPacks Hexamid in some sloppy weather. As I merged onto 680 South the I was upon the rain, not the light sprinkly stuff, but really heavy stuff coming down in big droplets leaving standing water all over the highway. Oh, I was going to get my sloppy weather alright!
As I proceeded to roll up the road to Coe there was a short break in the weather and the sun even peaked through. A group of the ever present wild turkey’s was milling around by the road. I gave em a honk-honk and thumbs up as I motored by. I always have to say ‘hi’ to them from Sandra D, whom they gave chase to once when she tried to go all paparazzi on them. I checked in with the Rangers and as I expected not too many people out, they didn’t think anyone would be out at Madrone Soda Springs. They also mentioned they were running a search and rescue for a hiker who was reported by someone who walked out earlier; apparently the hiker was exhausted, couldn’t make the hill climb or move under his own power. The Rangers (volunteers) seemed to take the matter seriously and ‘had someone out searching for over a couple hours already’. I was perplexed, if the hiker in distress couldn’t move, how hard could he be to find? Well, I told them I’d keep an eye out for anyone in trouble, grabbed my gear and broke out.
The rain started in almost right away again, making the trails a bit mucky and the roads a big muddy mess. After hustling along for a few miles I came to the junction to head down towards Soda Creek just as a couple of other guys were climbing out of the gully. They were carrying massive packs, were totally soaked, and looked rather disgruntled. ‘You guys ok?’ I asked. They nodded. After catching their breath I learned that they actually planned to camp at the same place I was heading but didn’t come prepared with rain gear, got caught in the storm, and were now cold, wet, and miserable. I asked if they had seen the distressed hiker, which turned out to be one of these two guys. I found him! Haha… well, apparently whoever reported it may have been a little over-cautious; the guy was ok. He was just a bit tired from the hiking he had done earlier in the day and was taking a breather when our good Samaritan saw him, thus mentioning it to the volunteer Rangers who sprang into action. He was a bit worried they might send a chopper to look for him, fearing being stuck with some huge bill for any resources they might decide to call in, him and his buddy started humping it back to the HQ to put an end to the SAR. I was just glad it all turned out ok.
Despite the rain, I was able to cross Soda creek and make it to the camp area. Downstream from the confluence of Coyote Creek and Soda Creek is typically where things get dicey when there has been rain, but it can happen anywhere (this is always good to keep in mind). Worst case, I would have hoofed it back up the hill to the group camps, which were completely vacant. Ok, cool, I have the place all to myself. I made camp under a large tree draped in Spanish Moss. Durning a break in the rain I made my dinner on an old basin that was once part of a resort located there. Some steps and parts of the old structure are still around, as well as a root cellar just a little further down the Mile Trail which runs along the creek. It’s a nice place to explore; the creek is beautiful. I had quite the night with winds, more rain, and even hail. Morning came with the ridiculous sounds of wild turkeys doin their thang; it proved to be a successful gear test. It’s a great basecamp to use to hike (or run) along the creeks, explore The Narrows (creek levels permitting), China Hole, and the Los Cruzeros area. There is good swimming in late Spring thru mid Summer and plenty of wildlife around with the turkeys and blacktail deer being the most common.
I recently returned to the area with friends, and although I stayed at the Manzanita Point group camp this time, my friend David and I ran the 5-mile loop to Madrone Soda Springs, down the Mile Trail to China Hole, then back up the China Hole trail which eventually ends up near the group camps. What an awesome run! It’s like being a kid again, running through the wet leaves, jumping over logs and rocks, almost falling in the creek a few times… it’s all good. Be warned though, either way you climb out of the gully it’s steep switchbacks for a couple of miles. We ran maybe half of the 2-mile 1200 foot climb, and power hiked the rest.
A worthwhile distraction on the way home is the Lick Observatory which houses a couple of massive telescopes as well as a host of other historic buildings. The place is very photgenic, bring a camera! In the winter check the road conditions – snow is possible and you wouldn’t want to be on those slippery winding roads. In the summer it’s possible to peek into the telescope and view the galaxy (by advance schedule); what an amazing way that would be to cap off a great trip to Henry Coe, California’s second largest state park. -JD