I hadn’t been to the Dowdy Ranch visitor’s center before. About 3 years ago Henry Coe state park opened the new day use area and ranger station in the far southeastern section of the park. Dowdy is open only on weekends between May and mid October, from 8:00 AM to sunset. You cannot self-register before 8:00 AM to get an early start because the gate is locked. I’ve been meaning to go on a hike there, but the longer drive usually puts me out. But I really felt like hiking some new (to me) trails this week, and with Coe again under threat of being closed, I thought this would be a good time before the summer heat kicks in, and hopefully not the last. So I made plans to visit Dowdy.
To get there, you have to use the unpaved Kaiser Aetna road which is accessed from Hwy 152, Pacheo Pass Hwy, just east of the junction with 156. I found the on-line driving directions to be right on the mark. No worries. The seven miles of dusty, twisty, road is not too rough, but it is just bumpy enough to be very slow. My poor car accumulated a thick coating of dust by the time I reached the parking lot. They’ve done a nice job on the new visitor’s center there. There are no campsites, but there are some covered picnic areas with a really nice view out over the washboard terrain at about 1600 feet. I went inside and paid my day use fee, and checked out some of the suggested hiking routes the rangers had marked on copied maps. But I had already decided to head for Mustang Peak. Somehow a name like Mustang Peak just sounds really cool, so I had to go. In keeping with Coe’s reputation, you begin high atop a ridge, and to get anywhere you begin by dropping down. So how do you know you’re at Coe? When it seems like it’s uphill in both directions, right? Kaiser Aetna road is too developed to be the best choice for hiking, so Max’s Corral trail was the only other choice for going that direction.
Unless you use the developed roads, this overall section of the park has relatively primitive trail markings. The familiar printed signs and posts are few. The trails are only marked along the way with colored plastic tape tied around tree branches, bushes, and stakes. Even some junctions are only marked with colored plastic tape. The tape markings are reassuring when you see them because all of the trails on my intended route are single tracks with some quite obscure sections. One good thing is the mostly open terrain which allows for good GPS satellite reception. Rolling up, down, and around this knarly serpentine landscape could get confusing if not for those markings. You would need to use some serious orienteering skills or rely on GPS to keep from getting confused.
Max’s Corral trail begins immediately downhill through grassy hills showing signs of historical ranching. Down you go through the partial tree cover loosing altitude all the way to the North Fork trail which runs along North Fork Pacheco creek. The creek is not running and is already down to scattered murky ponds, some of which are hosting tadpoles, and tiny frogs. You need to watch for the markers along this moderately interesting creek section to keep from loosing the trail. The junction with the Tie Down trail has a marker, but it’s not a crossover like shown on the map. It’s more of a Y. I already knew that for my route I was going to keep bearing right. Heading up the Tie Down trail you get your first view of Tie Down Peak. There is no trail to the summit but I suppose it wouldn’t take much to scramble to the top of this jagged rock outcrop, but at only 1480 feet, it hardly seems worth it to slog through tick infested high grass to get to it. Heck that’s not even as high as Dowdy. You could be sitting around on your derriere in the shade scarfing burgers and get equally captivating views.
Continuing on, Tie Down trail transitions into the Yellowjacket trail almost without notice. The junctions are marked only by colored tape (see my pictures). It would be easy to miss if you’re not really paying attention. I continued to just bear right knowing I had a track log to get me out of trouble. Soon I crossed another little creek and began climbing up to 1632 feet. Monitoring my GPS, I could see I was headed in the right direction, and was undoubtedly on Dutch’s trail, even thought I was not sure where the exact junctions were. I really enjoyed Dutch’s trail as it followed along the ridge top headed north. It had an almost familiar quality with its rolling profile and long range views reminiscent of the Westridge trail in Big Basin or Willow ridge trail on the other side of Coe. As I turned around and looked south, I could just make out Dowdy Ranch behind me on the far hillside, and looking north I had the first view to Mustang Peak. Further along I could see the large pond marked on the map, and the rabbit trail leading down there marked only by an easily unnoticed stone duck. At the junction with County Line road there was a real marker, and the road is good enough to drive on. This road provided a nice change in perspective with the views now mostly north and south.
When I reached Mustang Peak I could see there was a little spur trail leading up to the summit. It was nasty steep with thick vegetation, but no scrambling required. The skies had cleared quite a bit, and I enjoyed a nice panorama. I had not seen a sole since leaving Dowdy, and there are really no suggestions of human habitation out here. There aren’t any radio or TV towers, weather stations, microwave dishes, or any man made structures visible anywhere. Except for a few old roads carved into the ridgelines, and the occasional aircraft noise, there is only you. If you really enjoy having some isolation, this is it. So why hike to Mustang Peak? At 2263 feet, it’s probably not high enough to be a peak bagger’s goal. Some might say “because it’s there”! But really this is a hike for the true rambler. For me it’s the journey more than the destination that makes a hike worthwhile. You could get here by using boring roads, but that is not really hiking the way I like hiking. And of course the roads could be used for cycling or horseback, not that the single tracks are restricted. They’re not. The next human I saw was the same ranger I had been talking to before back at Dowdy. He said other visitors were there that day, but I was the first person there, and the last to leave. I wouldn't clasify this hike as a butt-kicker, but my GPS logged 16.9 miles and 4539 feet of total elevation gain, making it a pretty good country stroll. Definately a typical Coe hike.
Click here to see my photoset on flickr