May These Quiet Hills Bring Peace – Lucas Winzenburg and Erik Nohlin

May These Quiet Hills Bring Peace
Words by Erik Nohlin, photos by Lucas Winzenburg.

“May these quiet hills bring peace to the souls of those who are seeking.”

May These Quiet Hills Bring Peace

These were Sada Coe’s words when she donated the ranch and surrounding land she inherited from her father, Henry W. Coe, to the people of California in 1953. She formed a deep understanding of our human need for wild places while growing up on the grassy hills around Pine Ridge Ranch. Five years after taking ownership of the ranch, Sada decided to give her property to Santa Clara County as a wilderness retreat, open to everyone. Sada’s spirit is the reason why the public now has unlimited access to the beautiful wilderness area today known as Henry W. Coe State Park.

May These Quiet Hills Bring Peace

Picture your fingers spread wide, raking half an inch of red dirt along a footlong track of earth. Now do that again right next to it. Scale that up a thousand times and you have a crude sketch of Henry W. Coe’s topography. You would be the size of an atom in this 87,000-acre Northern California wilderness.

May These Quiet Hills Bring Peace

Largely untouched by man, the flora and fauna remain intact the way they were before we managed to destroy much of the Californian nature. Ponderosa pines dominate parts of three major ridges stretching the full length of the park. Dense chaparral and vast grasslands speckle what’s between.

Coe is a hidden gem in one of the most densely populated areas of the country. Though the park sits just one ridge away from the 3,000,000 people in Silicon Valley, hardly any locals realize what they have only half an hour away from the valley floor.

May These Quiet Hills Bring Peace

Roads and trails can take you anywhere in Coe, but the decisive factor will always be water. Coe is vast and waterholes only a few, remote and seemingly random. A century ago ranchers built a handful of dams that still carry water year round, but you can never count on streams, especially in the summer, and will always need to filter water.

Enter the park from the west and ride in a latitudinal angle and you’ll be pushing your bike up steep hillsides for hours and riding down steep canyons for brief, exhilarating moments. Enter from the south and you’ll do some of that, but you’ll mostly ride on the Diablo Range’s lofty, unending ridges. There are about 200 miles of dirt roads and trails in the park. Some are manicured, but they’re often just overgrown jeep roads transformed into singletrack.

May These Quiet Hills Bring Peace

Our gang of four was prepared for a long weekend of traversing ridges. Our imagined speed was set to around six skids per hour and we were eager for an excursion into the hearts of Henry and Sada Coe. Our loose plan was to diagonally traverse as many ridges as we could, making our way deep into the park. We packed our bikes lightly in anticipation of Coe’s ruggedness, but you’re always in for a surprise when roaming around within her bounds. One thing is certain: Coe is never an easy ride. There will be equal time riding and pushing, regardless of your gearing. If you don’t give a shit about distance and have a flexible mind, there are tons of beautiful views and moments to take a break, smoke a pipe, write a poem, or just let Coe’s majesty soak in.

We entered the park from the Pine Ridge entrance in the west with a loosely defined route in our heads. Day one: Coe Headquarters to Coit Lake. Day 2: Coit Lake to Mississippi Lake with a detour to Pacheco Falls. Day 3: Mississippi Lake back to Coe Headquarters. A good mix of shred, chill, and pushing.

May These Quiet Hills Bring Peace

A couple of factors govern winter camp spot selection in Coe. Nights are cold and valleys are deep and dark. Ridges are exposed and windy. Pick your camp spot up high, but in a sheltered location where the morning sun will hit first. The difference in available light could be as much as two hours. This rules out all northern facing slopes. Orient your tent toward the sun so the morning light gets all the way into the back of your tent, first thing. This will do you good after a cold night and your tent will be dry just in time to break camp. A Protip for winter camping is to prepare your morning coffee before you go to bed. With your stash only an arm’s reach away you can drink coffee in your sleeping bag as the first sunbeams hit your face. Pure magic.

We roamed Coe’s vastness for three days and had such a good time along the way. We got it all: the larger than life sunsets and crisp sunrises, the wind-blown rain, the adrenaline, the cougar prints, the sweat, and the laughs.

May These Quiet Hills Bring Peace

During our many hike-a-bikes we had time to discuss the commonly held beliefs that good camp spots should be kept secret and the knowledge of how to access nature belongs only to a self-selected few. Consensus was that we don’t agree, but instead believe in spreading the gospel of backcountry bicycle travel. It’s a small and dedicated group of riders who would make their way into Coe, quite far from being mainstream. “Blowing up” a spot in the park would be in complete harmony with Sada Coe’s vision to bring peace to the souls of those who seek it. All the better if more folks get inspired to venture in. The park can accommodate us all.

Coe is one of the last sanctuaries in northern California where nature still dictate the rules. It’s a pristine wilderness area accessible to anyone with even a slightly adventurous heart. Henry W. Coe State Park, a bikepacker’s paradise, can be described with just a few words: intense quiet and openness.

My thanks to our gang of four: Lucas is the photographer and the man behind Bunyan Velo. Gabe is the eternal randonneur and designer of bicycles. Jake is the 4th generation apple farmer and cartographer, always wanting to know the lay of the land. Erik is the kreatör of stoke and adventure at Specialized who camped 30 nights in Coe last year, and also the man of these words.


Erik on Instagram and Lucas on Instagram


  • Jim Preston

    Good story! I did fly-in bike packing alone in an Alaska wilderness in 1991. 5 days. I had to deal with a lot of brush, beaver dams, glacial streams that are a torrent by the afternoon, far more biting bugs than Coe, and of course the threat of attack by moose and bears. It was a cherished adventure.

    Most riders seem afraid of Coe and the big ascents. I gave up encouraging people to ride there.

    Nice to see panniers! I used them on my Alaska trip and they worked fine, except in brush. I didn’t know that MTBers used them anymore.

    Hmmm, no mention of poison oak. Probably no ticks yet but they will be everywhere in the spring. Of course if you stick to the roads and wider trails these aren’t a problem.

    There are 212 springs in Coe and many have water even in a draught. Often they are off the trails a ways. I never worry about water there and bike even in 105 F heat.

    • iamxande

      Awesome tips Jim. I really want to do this to test my new Salsa Fargo. I live in Oakland. Do you think it is worth to use a day to ride there or just car to Coe then spend all 3 days in the wilderness?

      • Jim Preston

        I don’t ride roads so I would drive and have quality time in Coe. If you aren’t familiar with Coe you will want their excellent but big map. Order it from Pine Ridge Assoc. The visitor center at the north entrance is often closed. It is volunteer run.

        • North entrance should be open regular office hrs now but call in advance and the Coe map is DOPE!

    • Hey, The poison oak wasn’t a problem to us at all this time of thee year
      and I’d advice everyone to check with the rangers or staff at the
      ranger stations for good springs. Folks help report the status of
      springs and creeks in the park and if you tell them your plans, they can
      help out. My experience is to never trust that a spring is open,
      especially these days with savings when maintenance is limited to a

  • DamagedSurfer

    Stoked to see Coe mentioned here. I’m planning a similar 3-5 day trip out in spring to test some new gear. I haven’t had a chance to explore Coe much since moving to Santa Cruz.

    Erik, a bit off topic, but do you have any word when the Spec Pizza Rack will be available? I see it as the perfect rack for longer mixed terrain trips.

    • Hey, PR’s have been available during the winter and they sell out. They’re always higher in demand IRL than on the excel sheet in Morgan Hill

      • DamagedSurfer

        Erik, Thanks for taking the time to reply. I’ll keep an eye out for the PR. I hope I didn’t detract from this awesome post. I’m always stoked to read the trip reports on top of all the bike bling (that I admittedly also drool over). I was hoping to make it to Coe last year but ended up taking a few other trips. I’ll be going later next month or early March to help dial in my kit for a 2-3 week adventure in summer. I feel pretty blessed to have moved to the Central California region. So many rides, never enough free time. Cheers.

        • Sam LaClair

          Depending on the shop, some (Specialized dealers) may be willing to sell you one off of the base model AWOL for 2016..That’s what we have been doing, anyway.

          • DamagedSurfer

            Thanks for the heads up Sam. I’ll ask the next time I pop into my LBS.

  • boomforeal

    Lovely words Erik, thank you.

  • Great outlook and write up, one of my favorite posts the grace these pages.

  • westley

    What camera was this shot with? Interesting photos is all…

    • Black and white film is all I know.

      • westley

        yah i was gonna say, i liked the grain so i was interested

  • Brian MacKenzie

    How do you prep you coffee the night before? What do you use to heat it up in the morning?

  • Great story. Lucas, well done my friend.

  • DamagedSurfer

    I just completed a 4 night 5 day circumnavigation of Henry Coe. This article was spot on. Coe’s topography is insanely steep at times and with a bikepacking load you will be pushing up many of the grades, no matter how low your gears or how high your fitness level. I took a Surly Karate Monkey Ops with bikepacking bags and a UL minimalist kit (bivy instead of a tent, no rain gear), but still had to carry the necessary calories and usually had between 3-4 liters of water (my first visit to the park). Anyways, I thought I’d post some additional info for anybody who stumbles across this article. Mid May was hot at times, as Coe’s ridges are completely exposed. Water was easy to find as we had rain this year. Bring some type of treatment, whether filter, UV, pills etc. I only found 3 ticks on me. I rode Mon-Fri and saw only 3 other people on trail. Poison Oak is everywhere and I’m sure I’ll break out in a rash later this weekend. Navigation was easy with the Pine Ridge Trail map. Junctions were well sign posted. Day 2 I took a pedal strike on Vazquez Trail; it wrecked my leg and required me to Super glue it closed. (I always carry a decent first aid kit). You might get a cell signal with AT&T or Verizon on the higher peaks. Lots of wildlife; I saw coyotes, pigs, turkeys, turkey vultures, snakes, lizards, turtles, frogs, all types of marmots, deer, rabbits, birds beyond count, etc. No mountain lion sightings.

    In summary, I think this a great spot for bikepackers who don’t mind having to push their bikes. I’m really stoked at the prospect of getting back to the park for long day rides with an unloaded bike. If you’re curious for more info hit me up.

    • DamagedSurfer

      Also, I don’t think this park is in any danger of ‘blowing up’, hence my willingness to share info. Cheers.