Tuesday, March 28, 2023

A Déjà vu Spring Hike to Frog Lake at Henry W Coe State Park

Indian Warrior, Pedicularis densiflora
Date: March 17, 2023
Place: Henry W Coe State Park, Morgan Hill, California
Coordinates: 37.187606, -121.547104
Length: 8 miles
Level: strenuous
My first visit to Henry W Coe State Park was about 17 years ago with Pappa Quail and the elder chika who was just a toddler at the time, and a family friend. It was the end of November, just before the rains, and the park was dry and dreary, and the yellow grass was full of ticks. We camped there for one night which was cold and windy, and in the morning we hiked to Frog Lake which was very low and muddy. This wasn't a very good experience and it took me years to return to this park. My second visit there was fantastic, by all means a corrective experience. After that, followed many other visits, including a few camping trips and one backpacking trip. Yet, it was only last week that I finally hiked to Frog Lake again. 
My hike as captured by my GPS 
This winter of 2022-2023 is the wettest I've experienced ever since I moved to California in 2000. The hills were all green and lovely, and the spring bloom has begun, promising to be spectacular this year. I started my hike going up the service road and turning north on Monument Trail leading to Frog Lake Trail. 

My hike started with a good uphill stretch. I quickly rose above the Coe Ranch area and the trees that surrounded it. When I looked behind me I could see far to the southwest, all the way to Monterey Bay, and the adjacent fog-covered valleys.
View Southwest

I reached a trail junction with Ponderosa Trail, which is a side loop trail leading to a Vista Point. I had enough time for a little diversion so I turned west on the short, narrow trail connected me to the loop Under one of the trees I saw some pretty mushrooms. I expected to see many more for all the rain we got this winter, but there weren't that many of them. I looked for the blue caterpillar to but couldn't find him.

The high part of the Ponderosa Trail is all exposed and to my surprise was frosty. It was a chilly morning but it was already well above freezing when I started my hike. I guess that being in the shade has delayed the thaw.

I admired the contrast of the white frost on the charred log I found in that little savanna area.

The Vista Point didn't disappoint. Far in the valley below laid the town of Morgan Hill. Above town on the west I identified the Loma Prieta peak, the prominent peak of the Santa Cruz Mountains. 
Loma Prieta

After Completing the Ponderosa loop trail I joined Hobbs Road for the rest of the way to Frog Lake. Past the trail junction the road to the lake was all downhill. I had to watch my step though, because much of the dirt road was muddy and slippery.
Hobbs Road

Henry Coe is one of the best places in the South Bay to see spring wildflowers. It is higher and therefore colder than the valleys so the bloom peaks a bit later but it has already begun. I was glad to see all the ephemeral blooming along side the trail. There were many buttercups, some blooming in dense patches, some shining alone surrounded by the green grasses. 
Buttercup, Ranunculus sp. 

Another early bloomer I saw there was the miners lettuce. Like little white stars their bloom dotted the low grass near the trail. They looked so perfect and pretty so I resisted the temptation to pick some and munch. 
Miners Lettuce

There were more mushrooms too, but not as colorful and pretty as those I saw near the Ponderosa Trail.  

Much of the plant community at Henry Coe is that of an oak savanna. The trees I saw around me were mostly oaks of deciduous species (I'm not sure which), accompanied by Coulter pines, an occasional madrone, and some really tall manzanita that if judged by their height could be considered trees as well.  

The manzanita stand out amidst the gray, leafless oaks and the gray Coulter pines because of their shiny, dark red bark. It was below the manzanita however, that the the true red sensation was showing - the massive bloom of the Indian warrior flowers. Indian warrior is a saprophytic plant that depends on its connection with the manzanita roots. It's an early bloomer and this spring it's doing so well that it's simply off the charts. I chose top head this post with a nice Indian warrior display below the manzanita host.
Indian Warrior, Pedicularis densiflora

When I went inside the visitor center before starting my hike the attendant warned me that many trees collapsed during the winter storms and that I will likely need to bypass some. He was right, I did need to go under, over, or around fallen trees in many places on this hike, but none of them really slowed me down, thankfully.

What did slow me down was the creek crossing (which I've been warned about as well). Coyote Creek was swollen by the rains and there was no crossing it without wetting the feet so I took off my shoes and waded across the really cold water barefoot. After crossing I sat down to dry my feet and put on my shoes again. Before I crossed I saw another woman approaching the creek from the other side.  She was carrying a heavy backpack. She took her shoes off also, and crossed the creek. We exchanged greetings and she told me she had spent the night up by the lake. I felt a bit jealous, it would be so nice to backpack there at this time.
Little Fork Coyote Creek

As I was getting ready to cross the creek I noticed a patch of 'snow' on the ground nearby. The white dots that looked like little hailstones were dropped manzanita flowers. I've seen the manzanita flowers carpet on many occasions and I always find it really cute. 

Continuing on Hobbs Road would have brought me to Frog Lake but I chose to turn on the narrow foot path that followed the creek. Following this trail I was once again going uphill, on a mild grade. 

Although it was mid morning already the spiderwebs we still covered with glistening beads of dew. the fine dew droplets gave the webs the appearance of delicate lace. 

From my high place over the creek I had a nice view of the confluence of a smaller creek with the larger Coyote Creek that I crossed. The trail curved to follow the contour of the tributary, which was the one dammed to create Frog Lake.
Creek Confluence

I remembered Frog Lake being small and very muddy. This time the lake was full to the brim. The water however, was very murky and brown still. It was impossible seeing anything in the water but the surface was calm and reflected everything perfectly. There were frogs there, too. I didn't see any of them, but I could hear their quick jump in the water as I walked along the shore. 
Frog Lake

I sat down by the lake to rest and eat, and tho thing where I wanted to go next. While I was sitting there, gazing at the water, three mergansers floated by - a male and two females. They were the only waterfowl I saw in the lake. 
Hooded Merganser

At Frog Lake I needed to make a choice - to loop back on Frog Lake Trail directly to the Coe Ranch entrance or to continue up on the other side to the Middle Ridge Trail and loop back on Fish Trail. My dilemma was whether I'd be back on time to pick up my young chika from school. Eventually I decided that I had enough time to hike the longer trail. I finished my break and started hiking up the northeast bound Frog Lake Trail.

The trail uphill was muddy in sections and I had to watch my step so I won't slip. I crossed a small brook and looking uphill I saw two wood boxes with writing -  Pajahuello Spring. I guess the spring water is collected there.
Pajauello Spring

There were many birds all over the place, most of them too active and too far for my to take photos. The most dominant sound was the rusty hinge call of the acorn woodpeckers. Many if the dead trees that were still standing were all holed by the woodpeckers to serve as their acorn granaries. On my way uphill I came upon a family of acorn woodpeckers that was busy with internal politics and were very feisty. They were busy among themselves and completely ignored me. 
Acorn Woodpeckers

I reached the Middle Ridge Trail and turned right. The first thing that I saw was a wide view of the mountain ridges to the southeast. 

When using my strongest zoom I could see more details of the farthest ridge, with a very distinct pyramid-shaped peak in the center.  

The first stretch after turning on the Middle Ridge rail was a mild downhill. I was glad of that because I was still concerned about the time it would take me to complete the bigger lop. Up on the ridge the forest was more open and the trees smaller, and I enjoyed the sweeping views all around me.
Middle Ridge Trail

Hound's tongue is one of the early bloomers. In lower elevations they were already peaking but up on the Henry Coe mountains they were still at their early stages. Very lovely flowers. 
Houndstongue, Adelinia grandis

I was going uphill again, striving to maintain a good pace. Occasionally however, I did need to pause and catch my breath. On one of those instances I turned around and saw behind me a direct line of vision to Mount Hamilton and the Lick Observatory dome on its summit. There was no sign of the snow that covered its heights for three weeks. 
Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton 

Glad that my path was descending again I increased my pace. The forest receded and I made my way through high chaparral comprised mainly of small madrone and tall manzanita.

I made my way back into a patch of higher trees and the sight around the trail curve caused my to drop my jaw: the entire forest floor was covered by a carpet of blooming Indian warrior. I don't think I ever seen so many of them together. This was quite an incredible sight. In the photo there's only a small corner of the floral caret I saw there. 
Indian Warrior, Pedicularis densiflora

After the due pause to properly admire the Indian warrior bloom I felt obliged to quicken my pace even more, and soon I came to the trail junction with the Fish Trail that would take me down to Coyote Creek and over back to Manzanita Point Road and the Coe Ranch park entrance. From here to the creek it would be all downhill through the oak forest. 
Fish Trail

Below many the bare oak trees were dense bushes with many wiry stems. I new these plants to be poison oak even when winter-bare. As I made my way downhill I noticed that some of the poison oak was already budding. These plants are quite beautiful, despite the pain they can cause. 
Poison Oak, Toxicodendron diversilobum

In the open grass patches I started seeing other wildflowers that I expected to see there at this time of year. One of them was the delicate shooting star. 
Padre's Shooting Star, Primula clevelandii 

The manzanita too, were bigger on the lower part of the slope. Every time I walked past one of them I'd  stroke its smooth, red bark. 
Manzanita, Arctostaphylos sp. 

A tree that was more common on the lower slopes as well was the California buckeye. It too, was budding now. I think that the budding f the buckeye is one of the most distinctly 'Californian' signs of spring. 
California Buckeye, Aesculus californica

Wildlife isn't all that well represented in this blog post. Mostly because I didn't see many animals except for birds, and the birds weren't very cooperative. But I did see a cute ladybug that didn't run away from me. 

When I decided to hike the bigger loop I had one other concern besides the time it would take, and that was the second creek crossing. The attendant at the visitor center had warned me about the high water and the creek crossings but he also reassured me about the crossing near Frog Lake where I had first crossed Coyote Creek. I didn't know what would be the situation in the place where I'd need to cross the creek on the second time. When Coyote Creek finally came into my view I knew right away that there would be no 'dry' crossing here. I just hoped that the water won't be too high.  
Coyote Creek

The last downhill lag on my descent to the creek was in a well shaded forest. The forest floor was covered with a thick blanket of fallen leaves. Not much grew through the leaf blanket but milkmaids did. There were many of them blooming along that part of the trail.
Milkmaids, Cardamine californica

When I finally reached the creek I had to do some scouting along the bank and estimate where would be the best place to cross. Both banks were pretty steep so I didn't have many options. The creek run high and fast and I realized that even fording at the best spot would have water going above my knees. There was no one else around (and even if there was, I don't think I'd mind it) so I took off both my shoes and my pants and waded across the creek. 
2nd Crossing of Coyote Creek

The real challenge was actually to find a dry spot in which to don my pants and shoes again. The trail ascending from the creek on the west side was considerable steeper, and water was running on it as if it was another creek. Eventually I found  semi-dry stone to sit on while drying my legs and feet, and with some tight maneuvering I managed to reassemble myself in a mostly dry state.
California Laurel, Umbellularia californica

Ascending that trail was a bit of a challenge to because it was really wet and slippery. I was paying more attention to my feet and not so much to the rest of my surrounding and so it happened that a twig brushed against my bare arm. I was mortified to see that that twig belonged to a poison oak plant. There was nothing I could do about it then so I simply continued my hike and diverted my attention to the beauty of the abundance of water all around me, a truly rare sight in California of recent years.
A side creek waterfall

I was going uphill for some time and eventually I was high enough to see the Middle Ridge that I descended from across the deep creek gorge. I couldn't see the trail there, though.
Middle Ridge

Eventually the trail leveled off and once again I was walking through a loose forest. This forest however, was dominated by Coulter pines.

There were oak trees there too, and around one of them two hawks were having a very noisy aviary fight. Eventually one of the hawks settled on a dead oak branch and the other flew away.
Cooper's Hawk

At the trail junction with the Manzanita Point Road there is a single picnic table where I sat down for a short break. While drinking my water and I looked around. I returned to the part of the park that I usually hike, an area that I was very familiar with. Something looked off though and eventually I saw what it was - the huge dead oak that for many years stood across the dirt road where the Corral Trail split off had collapsed. That dead oak was an active acorn granary and every time I would hike near it I would pause to look at the busy family of woodpeckers bustling all over it. Now that tree was fallen, and the granary abandoned. I felt sorry for the woodpeckers having to find a new tree in which to store their acorns.It's not easy to find such a fine real estate with so many other woodpecker competitors around.

I had a bout two thirds of a mile left for my hike, all on the Corral Trail. I hiked this trail countless times already, but it had surprises for me still. Like the gorgeous patch of violets by the trail side.
California Golden Violet, Viola pedunculata

Little red maids added their joyful color to the early spring scenery where I'm more used to seeing lupine and poppies.
Red Maids, Calandrinia menziesii

I finished my hike with no time to spare. I had thought originally to go back into the visitor center and update the attendants about the trail conditions but I run out of time. I got into my car and drove off, making it exactly on time to pick up my chika from school.
Corral Trail

I washed my arm well with Tecnu soap that evening but still got some rash on my arm, an itchy reminder to pay attention to the trail side vegetation.



  1. Very nice hike. The Indian warrior carpet is amazing. Somehow I knew you will take the longer trail...

    1. Somehow I never manage to escape drive that pushes me to push my limits ... I'm glad I took the longer trail.