Henry Coe State Park Backpacking – Mississippi Lake

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Mississippi Lake in Henry Coe State Park.

 

Trip Overview: ~24 mile out and back backpacking trip from the Henry Coe State Park Headquarters to Mississippi Lake and back. +/- 6,000 feet of elevation with a starting elevation of 2,600 feet and a peak elevation of 2,630 feet. Highlights include rolling hills, large oak trees, and ponds/lakes full of fish. We did this hike in 3 days and 2 nights in February of 2015.

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General location of Henry Coe State Park in the Bay Area.
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Map of the northern portion of Henry Coe State Park. Headquarters in on the left and Mississippi Lake in on the Right.

Henry Coe Park Brochure and Map

Preparations:

Permits: To backpack in Henry Coe State Park, you must obtain a permit.  In the Western part of the park, backpackers must camp at the designated campsites shown in the park map above.  Permits for these sites cannot be reserved ahead of time and are given out on a 1st come-1st served basis each day.  In other zones of the park, backpackers can camp anywhere.  Backpacking fees are $5 per night per person and parking at the Headquarters is $8 per day.

Logistics: The park rangers limit the number of backpackers in each zone and at each designated campsite, so arrive early to secure a permit if you are looking to grab a particular campsite. The park is located about 40 minutes from Morgan Hill and is within an 1.5 hour drive from many areas in the Bay Area. Henry Coe is most popular in the spring when the temperatures are cooler and the hills are green and full of wild flowers. This time of the year is when you may have competition for permits at the best campsites.  In the summer, the crowds dwindle because the temperatures rise and many springs dry up.

The Headquarters/Visitor Center has bathrooms, water, and a few supplies for sale, so it makes a good starting off point.  They open up at 8 am and there is typically a ranger to get current information from.

You can also enter the park at the Hunting Hollow or Dowdy Ranch entrances.  The Hunting Hollow entrance has portable toilets but has no potable water.  The main advantage of this entrance is that you self-register your backcounty permits and there is no quota system. However, you must have cash to put in the envelope when you drop your permit into the lock box.  The Dowdy Ranch entrance is on the East side of the park.  This entrance is only open Sat-Sun and thus is only useful for 1 night trips or trips that last a full week (you cannot get your car out of the parking lot during the week).

Supplies: There are no bears in Henry Coe, so you will not need to bring a bear canister on your hike. This clears up space in your pack and makes things easier!

The key supplies you will need are related to heat, hydration, hills, and stream crossings. Henry Coe is a fairly low elevation park (2,000-3,000 feet) and can get extremely hot in the summer months. You should always be prepared to hike in hot temperatures and carry plenty of water. A large Camelback is a good idea because many of the springs dry up in the summer and you may have to hike long distances without coming across water sources. Many of the trails are very exposed as well, so a long sleeve hiking shirt or plenty of sunscreen are advised. Additionally, trekking poles are a life saver at Henry Coe. The trails in this park are very hilly and steep, so the poles help save your knees. Lastly, you will want a pair of sandals or watershoes if you plan to hike along The Narrows Trail. This trail meanders back and forth across a stream over the course of a mile or so (in the summer the stream may be mostly dried out, but in the winter you may need to cross water that is waist deep).

If you are in to fishing, you may also want to bring Boating and Fishing gear.  Mississippi Lake has some of the best bass fishing you can find in a small-to-moderate sized lake.  You likely will not catch anything bigger than ~15 inches long, but you can catch a bass on nearly every cast if you have a raft to fish from. I love throwing plastic frogs on top of the weeds and watching the bass explode through the surface of the water.

Weather and Trail Conditions: As stated above, this park can get extremely hot so plan accordingly.  The temperature at night will drop down significantly though, so be prepared to sleep in moderately low temperatures (30-50 degrees depending on the season).

The trails are well marked and generally easy to follow.  There is a great map available at the Visitor Center / Headquarters, so I highly recommend purchasing one of those.  You can take multiple routes to many of the lakes in the park.  When choosing your specific route, keep in mind that there are both jeep/fire roads and trails in the park.  The jeep/fire roads often get places in the shortest total distance, but are extremely hilly and steep.  The trails are usually longer in distance, but typically go through more scenic routes and utilize switchbacks.  In general, I would recommend not taking jeep/fire roads over long distances unless you have to.  Make sure to keep elevation in mind when selecting routes!  Hikes at Henry Coe often end up being more difficult than anticipated because the trails are hillier than many realize.

The last things to check are the water level in the The Narrows if you plan to hike on that trail and the status of the water sources along the trails.  In the Spring, the creek in The Narrows can be high and the trail may not be passable.  It’s best to check with the ranger before going this route so that you do not have to backtrack if the water is too high.  Additionally, in the Summer many of the springs  dry up, so you will want get up to date information on where you can grab water along the trek.

Many of the trails have poison oak, so make sure you to be aware while you are hiking.  I always wear pants to avoid exposure.

Maps:

I could not find any great map sources online, so I am posting a combination of maps.  The first ones are poor quality, but I was able to highlight routes on them.  On the hike back from Mississippi Lake we switched up the route and went via The Narrows and the China Hole Trail rather than taking Poverty Flats Road.  That is why the blue (hiking in) and red (hiking our) routes deviate in the middle.

The second set of maps are photos I took of my paper map. This is the map you can buy at the Headquarter / Visitor Center and it has mileage information on it.

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Map of the West portion of the Henry Coe – Mississippi Lake hike (blue line was our hike in, red line was our hike out)
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Map of the Eastern portion of the Henry Coe – Mississippi Lake hike (blue line was our hike in, red line was our hike out). The magenta line is our day hike around the lake on our second day.
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Map of the western portion of the park. The Park Headquarters is on the left.
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Map of the eastern portion of the hike.
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Map of the area around Mississippi Lake.  The vault toilets are marked by the two huts.

 

Day 1: 11.3 miles; +3,000 feet / -3,500 feet; Coe Headquarters to Mississippi Lake.

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Approximate elevation profile for the hike from Henry Coe Headquarters to Mississippi Lake.

We started Day 1 by driving to Coe Headquarters and grabbing a permit.  We arrived at about 8:45 am on Friday morning and were the first to request a permit for camping at Mississippi Lake. After paying, chatting with the ranger, and filling up our water, we started hiking at around 9:30 am.

The route we took was Corral Trail to Springs Trail to Poverty Flat Road to Willow Ridge Trail to Willow Ridge Road to the Mississippi Lake Dam. We picked this route because it seemed like the shortest distance, but in hindsight I would not recommend it.  Poverty Flat Road and Willow Ridge Road are both very hilly and steep and there are more interesting trails you can take instead.  Instead Poverty Flat Road, you can take Manzanita Point Road to China Hole Trail to The Narrows.  Instead of Willow Ridge Road the whole way, you can take Rat Spring Trail and Pacheco Creek Trail and then connect back with the road.

The Corral and Springs Trail are nice and largely downhill for the first 2 miles.  Poverty Flat Road starts with a steep 1.5 mile descent before climbing 600 feet up over a peak and then steeply descending down to the East Fork of the Coyote Creek at The Narrows.  The steep descents are very rough on the knees, which is typical of the jeep roads in the park.

The junction at the East Fork of the Coyote River makes for a nice lunch spot and allows you to rest up a bit before heading up hill again.  After resting we headed up Willow Springs Trail, which climbs 1,500 feet over the course of 1.7 miles.  The climb is tough, but it is necessary to get over to Mississippi Lake. For the last 4.5 miles you follow Willow Ridge Road.  The map doesn’t make this road look too bad, but in reality it is very hilly and repeatedly climbs up and down.

When we reached Mississippi Lake, we headed straight towards the Dam on the South side of the lake.  There is a nice flat spot near the dam and there is a vault toilet nearby.  There is also a nice campsite on the Northwest side of the lake, but we did not find this site until the next day.

Overall this is a very tough hike.  But, the lake is beautiful when you get there and you will not see too many people along the way.

Photo Feb 13, 9 39 43 AM
Hiking along the Corral Trail at Henry Coe State Park.
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Deer along the Corral Trail at Henry Coe.
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After the first descent on Poverty Flat Road you have to cross the Middle Fork of the Coyote River.  We had to take our shoes off to cross because the river was flowing ankle high in the Spring.
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Hiking along Poverty Flat Road near the Poverty Flat Camps in Henry Coe.
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Poverty Flat Road in Henry Coe.
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Hiking along Poverty Flat Road. (pictured: prAna Stretch Zion Pants)
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Descending down Poverty Flat after climbing over Jackass Peak.
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Final descent on Poverty Flat Road with the East Fork of the Coyote River in view.
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Poverty Flat Road runs into the East Fork of the Coyote River.  This is a good lunch spot before climbing up the Willow Ridge Trail.
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Looking up at the Willow Ridge Trail.
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The last 5.6 miles to Mississippi Lake are the toughest.
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Looking back towards the creek after beginning the ascent up Willow Ridge.
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Hiking up the steep Willow Ridge along the Willow Ridge Trail.
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Trees lining one side of the Willow Ridge Trail.
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The view of the park from near the top of Willow Ridge.
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View of the Eastern Portion of the park from Willow Ridge Road.
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The view along Willow Ridge Road.
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The first view of Mississippi Lake as seen from Willow Ridge Road.
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Our campsite near the Mississippi Lake Dam. (pictured: Coleman Sundome Tent and 2-Quart Covered Kettle)
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The view of the lake from our campsite.
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Sunset over Mississippi Lake in Henry Coe State Park.

 

Day 2: 3 miles; +/- 800 feet; Day hike and fishing around Mississippi Lake

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Approximate elevation profile for the hike around Mississippi Lake.

On the second day, we were pretty sore and decided to take it easy.  We did a slow walk around the lake, which totaled around 3 miles.  The lake is deceptively large because of all the narrow branches and inlets.

After the stroll, I got out my fishing pole and tried to catch some bass.  I caught around 8 bass using plastic worms and frogs.  Fishing from shore is a bit tough because weeds limit shore access in many places.  The lake seem very productive though, and there is a lot of habitat for bass.  Bringing a raft or float tube really would open up the fishing opportunities.

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Mississippi Lake in the morning.
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View of the lake while strolling around.
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Wildflowers on the hills surrounding Mississippi Lake.
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More wildflowers on the hills.
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Close up of the flowers.
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There were a bunch of newts in the damp areas around the lake.
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Fishing in a nearby opening in the weeds. (pictured: 4 piece travel fishing rod and Shimano Sedona Compact Spin Reel)
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There are a bunch of modest sized bass in the lake. (pictured: Zoom Horny Toad)

 

Day 3: 12 miles; +3,000 feet / -2550 feet; Mississippi Lake to Henry Coe State Park Headquarters.

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Approximate elevation profile for the hike from Mississippi Lake to Henry Coe Headquarters.

We decided to hike out using a slightly different route than we came in one.  Instead of taking Poverty Flat Road, we took The Narrows and China Hole Trail to get near the Headquarters.  These trails were much nicer than the road and had great views and scenery.

The Narrows is a really neat trail that meanders through the East Fork of the Coyote River.  You essentially walk along the creek and find the path of least resistance since there is no formal trail.  There are several great spots to take a swim or eat lunch along the way.

The China Hole Trail has a significant climb up to Coe Headquarters, but uses switch backs to make the trek less steep.  This trail is really nice and has lots of interesting trees and plants.  You also get nice views of the park when you reach the top of the trail.

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Hiking along the Willow Ridge Trail (pictured: Kelty Women’s 60 Backpack)
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View of Henry Coe State Park from Willow Ridge Road.
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View of the jeep road in the distance.  Note the absence of switchbacks.
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Looking at the map during our lunch break. (pictured: Under Armour Tech T-Shirt)
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View of flowers and trees along the Willow Ridge Trail.
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Wildflowers along the Willow Ridge Trail.
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Looking at the Coyote Creek and Poverty Flat Road in the distance.
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Descending down to the The Narrows Trail. (pictured: foam sleeping pad)
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Shoes off and ready to tackle The Narrows (pictured: Kelty Lakota 65 Backpack)
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Much of The Narrows involves hiking through the creek. (pictured: Smartwool Baselayer Long Sleeve)
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Looking forward through The Narrows.
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Occasionally there is a path alongside the creek.
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A turtle along the trail.
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We saw a lot of big frogs and toads.
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A nice swimming hole in The Narrows.
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An interesting rock structure ahead in The Narrows.
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Looking back after beginning the ascent up the China Hole Trail (pictured: Havaianas Flip Flops)
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Lots of white flowers along the China Hole Trail.
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The China Hole Trail quickly switches from one type of foliage to another.
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Hiking along the Manzanita Point Road.
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Getting closer to the park Headquarters.
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The sun began to set as we arrived back at the Henry Coe Park Headquarters.

Overall we really enjoyed this trek.  Besides taking trails instead of roads whenever possible, I would I also bring a raft or float tube next time.  The fishing from shore is a bit tough, so a raft would make a big difference.

(find other trip reports here!)

3 Replies to “Henry Coe State Park Backpacking – Mississippi Lake”

  1. Thanks for your report. I followed this route, mostly. I took China hole on the way in but missed the narrows and climbed up and over Poverty Flat road to Los Cruzeros and the TH of Willow Ridge. WR is a grind. Just sayin. I camped just across from your campsite at Mississippi lake but set up my stove and had my breakfast and coffee from your site. I too took a stroll, but only walked about half way around the lake, from the west side and found few campsites and all were right off the road. I would definitely go back though and leave more time for scouting. I hauled it back to Manzanita Point on day 2. I found the Narrows on my return which saved me some elevation gain on Poverty Flat road. Since we just reset our clocks for daylight savings, I had about an hour of night hiking up China Hole trail. That was fun. Basically had coffee then headed to HQ from Manzanita Point on day 3. It was a quick getaway ( I needed it) and all in all a real good hike with a great payoff of a beautiful lake on the end. Unfortunately, I snapped my rod trying to yank up from a snag in the weeds (third cast…. ugh!). I know better than to use my rod to pull but I did it anyway and alas, no fish for me. Thanks again. hike on!

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  2. Awesome – I hope you had a great time. I have gone back to Mississippi Lake a few times since this trip and always try to stay at the campsite on the Northwest part of the lake (so I would recommend that one next time!). There is a nice picnic table, a shade structure, easy water access, and a toilet nearby.

    Just curious, was there any water left in The Narrows or was it all dried up?

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