Monday, March 14, 2011

Mississippi Lake

Manzanita Point Road (view east)
The historical roller coaster ranchlands of Henry W. Coe State Park are a great place to spend some trail time, especially during the late winter and spring when you get the cooler temperatures. Beside all the natural runoff in the streams and creeks, the entire sprawling tract is dotted with man-made bodies of water, usually created by a strategically placed earthen dam. They range in size from small, forgotten, murky ponds, some of which are putridly stagnant, to larger “lakes” which are actually inviting enough to support water foul and possibly even fish. Mississippi Lake is the largest of these lakes. It’s nearly a half mile long, and with an altitude of 2100 feet it’s the highest lake in the park. Whatever was its original purpose, Mississippi Lake today is mostly a popular destination for backpackers, horse riders, and hardy mountain bikers. A few day hikers also make it out there, albeit not for long. It’s so far from any trailhead, the out and back trek will take from 10 to 12 hours depending on route. If you linger too long, you’ll need either a headlamp, or some camping gear, ‘cause it’s a long way back. Whatever the route, the constant elevation changes make it a very strenuous ramble. In the vernacular; it’s a real “butt kicker”.

The last time I completed a day hike out there was in April of 2006. Last year about this time I was thinking about it, but I only made it to the Summit of Willow Ridge before realizing that I didn’t have enough daylight left to complete the hike. But it was cool, because I really like the views from up there, and actually wasn’t relishing the thought of having to make time over the washboard terrain along Willow Ridge Trail. I had a time anyway, but without pushing my luck with the daylight. But a few times a year I need to do an epic day hike just for sheer challenge of it. Sometimes, nothing provides hiking satisfaction like sore quads. So I decided it was due time to head back to Mississippi Lake.

Distant peaks to the east
I began hiking from the park headquarters complex about 7am. I was going to use the most direct route to Mississippi Lake without looping around to Bear Mountain or anything crazy like that. There are other possible routes, but this is the route I have used before, and I already knew it was about 22.6 miles round trip with somewhere over 6000 feet of total elevation gain. With terrain like this, those 22 odd miles are tough miles, because there really isn’t any section along the route that is flat for very far. On this hike, you are always on a grade, either up or down. It’s just a question of how steep. The Corral Trail leads out to Manzanita Point Road, which is the quickest way to the junction with Poverty Flat Road. From there the trail drops down from 2500 feet all the way to Middle Fork Coyote Creek at 1170 feet where you need to cross the creek. I was changing my footgear to make crossings. This time of year the creeks are running strong. Almost immediately you begin climbing again, up past Jackass Peak with the trail reaching 1750 feet. Turning on Mahoney Meadows Trail you hike steeply back down to East Fork Coyote Creek near Los Cruzeros at 1203 feet. After another creek crossing, you pick up the Willow Ridge Trail and immediately begin climbing again up to Willow Ridge Road. Willow Ridge tops out at about 2590 feet. The views from here are really nice. If it’s clear enough you can see to the east all the way to the Sierras. The next section of Willow Ridge Road is like a snaking roller coaster. You really have to see the elevation profile to appreciate it. Graphically it looks like a bowed saw blade. There’s a whole lot of elevation change along those 3.7 miles from the top of Willow Ridge to Mississippi Lake, even though there is only 275 feet of elevation difference between the two points as the crow flies. The constant up and down will test your lower extremities like nothing else.

Mississippi Lake
As I reached the Lake I had mild sunshine, and fairly clear skies. I had time enough to hike along the trail at the side of the lake watching the water foul, and sat for a spell along the banks enjoying the cool breeze before turning around and heading back. A few wildflowers are beginning to bloom, and I couldn't help spending some time admiring them also. This area is actually a lot nicer than I remembered it was. It would be great to camp out here for a few days and hike around more. I had passed one group of backpackers on my way there, and saw one lone biker on the other side of the lake the whole time. I did pass some other backpackers as I was headed back out, but mostly it was a very solitary day. My GPS shows the final trip odometer at 23.2 miles with 6484 feet of total elevation gain for the round trip. This time of year with the creeks running as clear and strong as they are, the crossings make a convenient place to filter water, even though I wouldn’t normally want to trust any natural water at Coe, filter or not. I was using a lot of water even though it wasn’t very hot. It was another memorable hike at one of my most favorite parks. Let’s all hope that it won’t fall to the budget axe due to Sacramento’s incompetence. 

Click here to view my trip report and track log at Every Trail
Click here to view my photos on flickr

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