An Excellent Introduction to the Wildest Park in the San Francisco Bay Area
Tarantulas are unloved. Frequently cast as monsters in horror films, these unusually large and hairy arachnids are actually quite common in California. About 18 different species of tarantulas can be found in the state, including several species that are found in the coastal ranges of central California. Because they’re mainly nocturnal, it’s unusual to see them during the daytime – except from about mid-August to early October, when the mating season occurs and the males are active during both the daytime and at night. Unfortunately, for the male tarantulas the mating season represents a last chance to party hard, gorging on whatever food they can find and searching for a female tarantula to mate with before their short time on Earth is over. Most of the adult male tarantulas that are active during the mating season will die of natural causes within the following two months.
Located barely 30 miles south of San Jose, 89,164-acre Henry W. Coe State Park is the second-largest park in the California State Park system, and the largest state park in northern California. Despite its proximity to the teeming masses in the Bay Area, the park isn’t nearly as over-crowded as you might expect. The main reason for this seems to be that it lacks a network of paved roads within its boundaries. While you can easily drive to any one of the park’s four entrances, you’ll be on your own beyond that. While it doesn’t offer much to casual windshield tourists, Coe Park is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts, with over 250 miles of trails and old ranch roads open to hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians.
My first visit to the park was back in 1988 when I lived in Sacramento. Along with several friends, I drove to the park’s Coe Ranch Visitor Center (at the time the only developed facility in the park) and hiked an extensive loop down to Coyote Creek and Poverty Flat. Although I’d long wanted to go back, this was the first time I was finally able to return to the park. While the area around the Visitor Center hasn’t changed much over the years, the rest of the park has been significantly expanded since my first visit. Many acres of old ranch lands have been added to the park, as well as a second visitor center at Dowdy Ranch and two additional park entrances. In the northeast corner of the park, the 23,300-acre Orestimba State Wilderness provides additional protection for sensitive natural and cultural features that have somehow managed to survive the massive wave of development just over the hill in nearby Silicon Valley.
Formed in 1975, the Pine Ridge Association is a non-profit corporation that provides support to the park through a network of volunteers. PRA members provide educational and interpretive programs, assist with trail maintenance, and sponsor special events within the park. Perhaps one of the most well-known and, ah… unique events is the annual Coe Park Tarantula Fest. Usually held on the first Saturday in October, the Tarantula Fest coincides with the tail end of the annual tarantula mating season, when male tarantulas leave their burrows and set out on the prowl in search of food… and female tarantulas.
Whether tarantulas are your thing or not, the Tarantula Fest offers a wide variety of activities for adults and kids alike. Naturally, live tarantulas are on display at the park’s Coe Ranch Visitor Center, along with volunteer naturalists to answer any questions you might have about them. Unfortunately, the native tarantulas found within the park don’t do well in captivity, and don’t make good pets. So, what you’ll see instead are Chilean rose-haired tarantulas (Grammostola rosea), a species from Chile that’s commonly sold in pet stores. Visitors aren’t allowed to handle the tarantulas – just in case you were worried about that.
Besides getting up close and personal with the tarantulas, there are also several other displays of local and exotic wildlife. The Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center of Morgan Hill puts on an impressive display of several local raptors and other birds that they are taking care of. Due to their injuries, many of these birds cannot be released back into the wild. My son was particularly impressed with the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), as we see them flying over our house in northern San Luis Obispo County almost every day. Birds on display also included a Great horned owl, an American kestrel, and several others.
In the metal barn just down the road from the Visitor Center, there was a reptile display where you were allowed to hold the animals, if you wanted to. My son wasn’t the least bit squeamish, and really enjoyed holding the python. Besides wildlife displays, the Tarantula Fest also features an excellent barbeque lunch, a raffle, and live music performed by the Sada Springs Jug Band, whose members include park rangers and volunteers from the Pine Ridge Association. Docents also lead short hikes along the nearby trails radiating out from the Visitor Center to look for tarantulas.
The rugged corner of the Diablo Range that would eventually become Henry W. Coe State Park was originally inhabited by the Ohlone and Northern Valley Yokuts tribes. Abundant game, a virtually unlimited supply of acorns from the area’s numerous species of oak trees, and generally mild weather made it a choice location for the tribes’ semi-nomadic lifestyle. This pastoral way of life came to an abrupt end in the late 18th Century with the arrival of the Spanish missionaries and soldiers. Following the founding of Mission Santa Clara de Asis in 1777 and Mission San Juan Bautista in 1797, the native inhabitants were relocated to live at the missions and converted to Christianity. Not all went willingly, and the rugged terrain of the Diablo Range provided a secure refuge for resistors to Spanish rule.
The lands that would form the future park would later pass from Spanish to Mexican control, before eventually becoming part of the United States with the admission of California to the Union in 1850. By this time, Henry W. Coe, Sr., originally from New Hampshire, would begin acquiring lands in the area that would eventually expand to include the original core of the park. Henry W. Coe, Jr., for whom the park is named, would later inherit a portion of these lands, establishing the Pine Ridge Ranch and living there from 1905 until his death in 1943. Although his daughter, Sada Coe Robinson, had been managing the ranch with her husband since 1932, Henry’s son inherited the property and promptly sold it to the Beach Land and Cattle Company in 1948. Sada bought the property back the following year and managed it as a working cattle ranch for several years.
In 1953, Sada deeded the entire Pine Ranch property (now 12,230 acres) to the County of Santa Clara, on the condition that it be preserved in its natural state and used as a public park. The county in turn transferred ownership of the property to the State of California in 1958, and Henry W. Coe State Park was born. The park has expanded dramatically since then to its current 87,000 acres through a series of land acquisitions to the north, south, and east of the original Pine Ridge Ranch. These acquisitions include the Gilroy Yamato Hot Springs property and the Gill-Mustang, Redfern, Mahoney, Coit, and Dowdy Ranch properties. Today, the park stretches from the original Coe Ranch property eastward across the Diablo Range into Stanislaus County and nearly to the San Joaquin Valley.
Distance: 2.8 miles round trip
Elevation gain/loss: +480’/-480′
Hiking time: About 1-2 hours
Permits and fees: While admission to the Tarantula Fest is free, you will have to pay a Day Use Entrance Fee (currently $8.00 per vehicle) at the Coe Ranch Entrance. Tickets for the barbeque lunch at the Tarantula Fest can be ordered online or purchased at the event. Campsites at the small campground at Coe Ranch (the only car-camping site in the park) may be reserved online. Camping overnight in the park’s backcountry requires a Backcountry Permit, which is printed on the back side of your entrance fee receipt. See the park website for more information about fees.
Maps: The best and most detailed map of the park is the Henry W. Coe State Park map published by the Pine Ridge Association. While you would need many USGS 7.5’ topo maps to cover the entire park, the Mount Sizer 7.5’ quadrangle covers the area around Coe Ranch, including the Live Oak and Corral Trails described below. Neither trail is shown on the quad, so use the GPX track provided below to print your own map!
Best time to go: The Coe Ranch entrance to the park is open year-round. If you’re coming for the annual Tarantula Fest, it’s usually held on the first Saturday in October. While this is still late summer in these parts, the park’s relatively high elevation means you’ll usually have pleasant, sunny weather that’s suitable for hiking. Autumn is generally very pleasant, although it can get quite cold at night and many of the park’s backcountry water sources have dried up by this time of year. If you come during the winter, be prepared for both the occasional winter rains and sub-freezing temperatures at night. The park is one of the very few places in the Bay Area that occasionally sees several inches of snow during the winter, although it quickly melts away. Spring is easily the best time for a visit, as the park will be green and the spring wildflower display is usually very impressive. For backcountry visitors, be aware that stream crossings can be very challenging during the winter and spring. Summers are dry and hot, although the park’s relatively high elevation alleviates this to a degree.
Regardless of where you’re coming from, there’s only one way to get to the park’s headquarters at Coe Ranch. From either the north or the south, make your way on Highway 101 to the town of Morgan Hill (approximately 21 miles south of San Jose, or 10 miles north of Gilroy) to the exit for East Dunne Avenue. Once off the freeway, proceed eastbound on East Dunne Avenue through Morgan Hill. The road narrows as it leaves the city limits and begins a slow, windy climb into the hills outside of town. At 12.1 miles from Highway 101, pass the entrance sign for Henry W. Coe State Park and come to a gravel overflow parking lot on your right. You’ll be parking here during the Tarantula Fest and at any other time when the parking at Coe Ranch itself is full. If parking is available at Coe Ranch itself, continue about 0.5 miles up the road to its end at the Coe Ranch Visitor Center. The drive up to the park entrance takes about 30 minutes from Highway 101.
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: N37-11.226, W121-33.061. Elevation 2610’. (NOTE: These coordinates are for the overflow parking lot and the start of the Live Oak Trail.)
This post covers the Live Oak and Corral Trails, two very short trails near the Coe Ranch Visitor Center that give you an excellent introduction to the park’s natural features. The Live Oak Trail runs between the overflow parking area and Coe Ranch, while the Corral Trail begins across the road from the visitor center and leads east into the park’s extensive backcountry. If you’re here during the mating season (about mid-August to early October), keep your eyes peeled for male tarantulas out on the prowl. During our visit, we saw our first tarantula right next to the parking lot within a few minutes of our arrival. We also saw a female hiding in her burrow along the Corral Trail.
The Live Oak Trail runs from the lower parking lot below the Coe Ranch Visitor Center on East Dunne Avenue up to the visitor center itself. Parking is very limited up at Coe Ranch, and when the Tarantula Fest is happening, it’s reserved for volunteers helping with the event. Park visitors will be directed to the gravel overflow parking lot about a half-mile below the end of the road at Coe Ranch. Besides during the Tarantula Fest, this parking lot is also used whenever parking up at Coe Ranch is full.
At the far end of the parking lot you’ll find a single picnic table set under a live oak tree. This site offers a splendid view of the southern end of the Santa Clara Valley below you. From here, walk back up toward East Dunne Avenue and find the unsigned start of the Live Oak Trail to the right of the lot’s entrance kiosk. The Live Oak Trail runs on a mostly level course for 0.5 miles just below East Dunne Avenue, eventually terminating behind the Coe Ranch Visitor Center. Pay attention to this spot, as you’ll be returning to your car via this route at the end of your visit.
While the Live Oak Trail isn’t laid out as a nature trail, with numbered posts or signs explaining the park’s natural features, it nonetheless makes an excellent introduction to the park. Traversing through an open forest of oak trees and grey pines, the trail offers sweeping views of the surrounding countryside and introduces you to many of the more common plants that make up the park’s predominant oak woodland plant community.
As you’re hiking, keep an eye out on the uphill slopes above the trail, where the round openings of tarantula burrows are frequently seen. These openings are usually about two inches in diameter. The Live Oak Trail ends at a junction with East Dunne Avenue, adjacent to the Coe Ranch Visitor Center. While there isn’t much reason to hike this trail for its own sake, it’s much more pleasant than simply walking up to Coe Ranch along the side of the narrow, paved road.
If you’re here for the Tarantula Fest, you’ll want to spend some time at Coe Ranch. Check out the numerous exhibits and say hello to the tarantulas. The park docents and volunteers working the exhibits are a wealth of knowledge, and can answer any question you might have about the tarantulas and other wildlife found in the park. Check out the park’s small bookstore, where the Pine Ridge Association offers a special discount on their products. It’s a great chance to pick up maps and a guidebook to the park. Children love seeing the live animals on display (well, not all kids will like seeing the tarantulas…). The trails in this area are easy enough for them to stretch their legs and get some exercise. A barbecue lunch is also available. The Tarantula Fest usually opens at 10:00 AM and runs until 4:00 PM.
Park docents offer guided nature walks on several of the trails that begin at Coe Ranch, including the Corral Trail. While you can hike the trail on your own or as part of a guided hike, you might have a better chance of seeing a tarantula if you go with a guided trip. The docents are particularly good at spotting the tarantula burrows.
The Corral Trail begins, naturally enough, next to an old wooden horse corral located directly across the road from the Coe Ranch Visitor Center. The trailhead is well-signed and lists mileages for landmarks deeper within the park, such as Poverty Flat and China Hole. Remember this spot well, for the Corral Trail leads to a network of trails that run throughout the entire park. It’s theoretically possible to reach virtually any location within the vast Coe Park backcountry from here.
At its start, the Corral Trail drops below the nearby paved road and dips into a gully behind the Coe Ranch area. The narrow trail descends gradually as it undulates through a shady forest of live oaks and other trees. Slopes are very steep here, so watch your step and be careful not to fall off the trail.
The trail then levels off and enters into a more open mixed-oak woodland. Grassy slopes in this area are a brilliant green during the winter and spring, but turn to a golden light brown during the hot summers and into autumn. Fortunately, Coe Ranch lies at 2600 feet above sea level, so afternoon temperatures are fairly moderate by early October when the Tarantula Fest is held. The Ranch’s relatively high elevation also means that it occasionally receives measurable snowfall during the cold winter months. While this isn’t common, it does occur every few years.
At about 0.8 miles from Coe Ranch, the Corral Trail reaches a three-way trail junction in the middle of a grassy meadow. To your right, the Springs Trail leads down to the Manzanita Point Group Campground at Manzanita Point in 2.1 miles. If you were to continue straight ahead, you would quickly reach the dirt Manzanita Point Road (which you can see from here), which also leads down to Manzanita Point in 1.6 miles. Instead, turn left onto the Fish Trail and reach Manzanita Point Road in about 30 yards or so.
On the opposite side of Manzanita Point Road, the Fish Trail quickly reaches a junction with the Flat Frog and Forest Trails, on your left and right, respectively. While the Fish Trail eventually descends down to Coyote Creek, this is a good place to turn around if you’re pressed for time. Retrace your steps on the Corral Trail to return to the Coe Park Visitor Center. Manzanita Point Road also leads back to Coe Ranch, but it’s slightly longer. The road is also open to vehicles (with some restrictions) for those camping at the Manzanita Point Group Campground, as well as to park rangers patrolling this area. It’s also popular with mountain bikers.
If you’re parked down at the overflow parking lot, you’ll want to pick up the Live Oak Trail behind the Coe Ranch Visitor Center for the final leg of your return trip to your waiting vehicle.
- The overflow parking lot has a single picnic table and (sometimes) a portable toilet, but no other facilities. Up at Coe Ranch, you’ll find toilets, drinking water, paved parking, a small bookstore and museum, and numerous displays of equipment from the park’s days as a working cattle ranch.
- Dogs must be leashed, and are only allowed on the Live Oak Trail, along paved roads, and within the campground. Mountain bikes are generally allowed, except within the Orestimba Wilderness. Some designated trails outside the wilderness are also closed to bicycles. Horses are generally allowed on most trails.
- Both the Live Oak and Corral Trails are highly suitable for children.
- As with most public parks in the coast ranges, hazards at Henry W. Coe State Park include ticks, rattlesnakes, and poison oak. Wild pigs and mountain lions also inhabit the park, but are rarely seen. The park’s tarantulas aren’t considered hazardous, but can inflict a painful bite if aggravated.
Also in the Area
The two trails described here provide just a brief introduction to the park. There are also many other hiking trails that begin from Coe Ranch, allowing for long day hikes or extended backpacking trips deeper into the park’s backcountry. Popular destinations that are suitable for day hikes include Frog Lake, Poverty Flat, China Hole, and Madrone Soda Springs.
Car-camping is available right at the campground at Coe Ranch, and this location makes an excellent base camp for day hikes starting from the ranch. The campground has twenty sites, ten of which are tent-only and ten that are suitable for either tents or a small RV (25 feet or less). Amenities include picnic tables, fire pits, drinking water, and toilets. Some sites have cabanas for shade, while others are shaded by oak trees. Showers are not available.
Other than the barbeque lunch provided during the Tarantula Fest, food is not available within the park, so be sure to bring everything you need. Morgan Hill has the usual assortment of fast-food joints, restaurants, and grocery stores.
The official California State Parks website for Henry W. Coe State Park has a lot of useful information about the park, including the latest conditions. Sites at the park campground may be reserved through Reserve America. The Pine Ridge Association website is also filled with plenty of information about both the park and the Tarantula Fest.
For more information about the other hiking opportunities within the park, the best guidebook available is The Trail of Henry W. Coe State Park, written by Winslow R. Briggs and published by the Pine Ridge Association. This incredibly detailed guide covers most of the trails radiating out from Coe Ranch. It also includes a ton of information about the park’s natural history. Another excellent guidebook is South Bay Trails, by Jean Rusmore, Betsy Crowder, and Frances Spangle. It includes an excellent chapter on Henry W. Coe State Park, and describes ten hikes in both the original Coe Ranch area and also the more recent expansions.
NOTE: This year’s Tarantula Fest will be held on Saturday, October 1, 2016. See you there!