By DENNIS WYATT
MORGAN HILL — Shangri-La does exist.
It’s a roughly two-hour drive from the Central Valley followed by a blissful five-mile hike to a spot that in another day and age one might aptly have called a swimming hole.
Once there you can reward yourself with a lazy nap, stretched out on a boulder at the edge of a 20-foot wide and 8-foot deep pool of clear water on Coyote Creek fed by early spring runoff. It’s hard to figure out what’s more rewarding — your eyelids getting heavy surrounded by rolling hills of stunning greenery unmarred by signs of civilization save the trail that brought you there or waking up from a mid-day nap to scenery that puts anything you can dream about to shame.
Welcome to China Hole, one of the gems you’ll find in Henry Coe State Park high above the Santa Clara Valley protected by the steep ridge lines of the Diablo Range.
There are a lot of reasons to venture to Northern California’s second largest state park with its 87,000 acres of seemingly endless hills, valleys, and mountain ridges without a structure, telephone pole or even fence in sight from as far as you can see from almost every vantage point you reach. Solitude, however, tops the list.
It’s a place that draws around 40,000 visitors a year — a mere pittance compared to those that venture to the 1.3 million acres found in state, regional, and county parks that ring the San Francisco Bay Area.
There are more than 250 miles of trails that include old ranch roads that lure hikers, backpackers, mountain bike enthusiasts, and equestrians.
Because of its low numbers, the park that has a true wilderness area – about a fourth of the park that’s devoid of trails – is the real McCoy when it comes to offering a visual taste of “wild” California in terms of the landscape that once was spread across much of the valleys and mountains of not just the East Bay and South Bay but the western edge of the Northern San Joaquin Valley as well. The park actually covers parts of two counties – Santa Clara and Stanislaus. Its highest point — Mt. Stakes at 3,804 feet — sits within Stanislaus County on the park’s northern boundary. Mt. Stakes is some 22 miles west of Newman also happens to be the highest point in Stanislaus County.
Most of the 40,000 visitors enter the park by taking the East Dunne Avenue exit on Highway 101 in Morgan Hill and driving 14 miles to its terminus at 2,664 feet above sea level. If you want even less solitude for a day hike there are three other seasonal, weekend entrances with two accesses from the Gilroy area and the other from the ridge line that runs from Livermore to Mt. Hamilton that can be accessed driving up Del Puerto Canyon out of Patterson.
The views along Dunne Avenue as you take a narrow windy road out of the Santa Clara Valley are impressive as well but pale in comparison with what you can find even on just a two mile or so walk-about from the park headquarters.
The most popular destination this time of year is China Hole. Coyote Creek will dry up as spring unfolds with China Hole itself likely to disappear by mid-June. It is comparable in a way to the popular Little Yosemite Valley swimming hole to the north in the Sunol Regional Park south of Pleasanton with a bit less trees overhanging the creek. China Hole is also a slightly longer hike without a relatively flat trail option you could take instead of crisscrossing hillsides where the effort is rewarded with striking vistas. The biggest difference is the depth of the wilderness and accompanying solitude thanks to the dearth of people.
On my visit a week ago I opted for a 10-mile loop that avoided ranch road segments as much as possible. That allowed for maximizing the hiking experience given narrow trails wed you with nature more so than a primitive dirt road that carries with it the knowledge that vehicles can travel it.
Given the tight space at the park headquarters for parking, you will likely end up parking at the entrance parking lot that affords you a stunning view in its own right of the southern Santa Clara Valley to the west and the park to the east. There is a pleasant half mile long trail dubbed Live Oak Trail that takes you from that parking lot right past the park headquarters building where you pay your $8 per vehicle entrance fee.
By opting to stay on trails I was able to enjoy 10 easy and slightly whimsical crossings of Soda Springs in a rugged canyon. It offered plenty of excuse to stop and take photos and video of the stream tumbling over rocks.
The most temperate times to visit the year round state park are spring and fall. Usually by now park rangers and volunteers will tell you the peak is ablaze in color. But the cooler weather and late rains delayed earnest blooming until now. That means there is a solid month-long window until perhaps mid-May to savor nature’s palette as it unfolds.
The scenery last week was in the “green mode” you’d expect to see in late January or early February during a normal winter at Mt. Diablo State Park.
Besides backpacker camping there are 20 drive-in campsites.
Given this is a wilderness area, Henry Coe State Park is home to mule deer and a variety of smaller animals such as black-tailed jackrabbits, raccoons, coyotes, bobcats, foxes, and rabbits, to name a few. There are even the elusive mountain lions roaming the park. During my visit I came across none of the aforementioned but there were a large number of hawks and other raptors as well as birds.
You need to carry adequate water with you and also dress accordingly. Even with temperatures starting to dance with the 80s, if you are out and about as sunset approaches it can get chilly.