There seems to be a fundamental force of nature which requires that on the day you forget to take your camera along, the skies will be an impossible canvas of California blue, the clouds decorating these skies will billow in impossibly photogenic fashion, that interesting wildlife (and non-wild life) will appear within easy shooting distance, that it will be a day so perfect that grinding marches up terrible hillsides seem downright acceptable.
Photography wasn’t on my mind as I started throwing stuff into my daypack Saturday morning. Our hill was fogged in and for all I knew the whole Bay Area could’ve had similar weather. What I did know was that it was cool and breezy, which told me it was an opportune time to sneak one more Henry Coe State Park hike in before summer heat makes the place insufferable.
So off I went toward Morgan Hill and the 55,000 acres of Henry Coe. I was barely down the hill when the sun came out; about 15 miles down the road I realized I’d forgotten my camera but by then I was in Not Turning Back mode. What the heck, if my hill’s socked in, Coe will be socked in too, I figured.
This time I went to the park’s Hunting Hollow entrance, which is about 10 miles south of the park’s headquarters. A friendly park volunteer who was collecting day-use and camping fees handed me a small map of the nearby trails pointed out there was one easy possibility: a six-mile out-and-back (with several stream crossings) along the mostly flat Hunting Hollow Road. "Everything else is up the ridges," she said.
As I’ve mentioned before, Henry Coe is all ridges and creekbeds. Because it’s a former cattle ranch, many of its trails are old ranch roads that were never intended for human-powered travel. I’m fond of saying you never learn anything about yourself on flat trails; yesterday I learned that perhaps I have not given proper consideration to the merits of horse and saddle.
I didn’t know any of the trails in this part of the park, but I knew I’d just as soon get the ridges out the way first. Hell, after all, is best experienced on fresh legs. I passed through the gate at the trailhead and noticed a small cattle gate over to the left, and dirt going straight up the hillside behind it. There might as well be a sign saying "caution: demonic menace of a hill," but all there is is a brown square advertising the Steer Ridge Trail.
Steer Ridge Trail is classic Coe: Not quite straight up the hillside — a direct route would at least end the suffering soonest. No, a Coe trail must meander long enough to tattoo its name on your brain. I’ve learned not to hope that a Coe hill is ending soon; it will end, but never soon enough.
Up I went.
By now the sun had come out and puffy nimbus clouds formed blobs across the sky. Yes, the hill was hell — 1800 feet of elevation in about two miles — but I had two things going for me: a strong Pacific breeze and no hiking companions to make me feel like a total weakling when I slowed to a crawl after a mere 20 minutes on the trail. Like all the best hill hikes, this one rewards you with fantastic views of the surrounding countryside; the higher you hike, the better the views get.
I stayed on Steer Ridge Trail till it turned off at Wagon Road, near a place called Wilson Camp. A couple decrepit travel trailers and an abandoned cabin are about all that’s left of the old campsite. Wagon Road goes over to the Hunting Hollow Trail to complete a loop of about 11.5 miles.
With the monster hill out of the way, the rest of the hike was a breeze. I hiked more than six miles before I saw anybody else on the trail, not bad for Memorial Day Weekend. As I got closer to the park entrance I started seeing a few more hikers, including perhaps a half-dozen intrepid souls carrying full packs for overnight outings. What I saw the most of, though, was people on horseback. Four women were watering their horses at the Wagon Road-Hunting Hollow junction; one of them was carrying a great big cockatoo on one arm. Would’ve been a great picture, but…
On a day when every turn of the trail seemed to have a fantastic vista, picturesque dead tree or colorful wildflower, it had to figure that I would spot something gray moving about 30 yards up the trail. It moved fluidly like a cat, then turned at sat up, again catlike, at looked right at me. I was too far away to discern its face, and in a moment it it turned and disappeared back into the brush along the trail. It had a bobcat’s stubby tail; I’m sure my camera on full zoom would’ve confirmed as much. I’d trade all these words for one picture of that cat.