Bills Hill at Henry Coe State Park

Bills Hill at Henry Coe State Park
 

FINALLY we were able to tackle a new Nifty Ninety Peak. And it was great fun! The peaks in Henry Coe have posed, and continue to pose, a challenge to us for several reasons. They are all rated as difficult. Most of the trails are steep and long.

Timing can be tricky. Spring can be beautiful with wildflowers galore, but the trails can be slippery and water crossings difficult. Summer days can easily hit 100 or more and water sources can be limited. Fall is usually great, but wildfires become a concern. Winter temperatures often drop below freezing. 

And even though Henry Coe is the largest state park in Northern California, it is more than 1.5 hours from us. Some of the trailheads are even farther, and not all of peaks are accessible from the same entrances. 

But the first week of December, Ralph and I decided to scout out Bills Hill. I, for one, couldn’t stand waiting any longer to resume the Nifty Ninety challenge. We entered at the Hunting Hollow entrance (about 10 miles east of Gilroy, CA) and parked in the large, unpaved parking area. We then took the Hunting Hollow Trail out through the valley for about two miles. 

We initially missed the turnoff to the Bills Hill’s narrow dirt trail. The large pile of rocks that had indicated the turn at one time had been scattered. Ralph rebuilt the cairn and then we turned to head back to our car. We wanted to come back when our hiking buddies — Tom Coroneos and Patricia Schaffarczyk — could come with us.

‘Scouting’ has its rewards
Though this was not the day to hike to the peak, it did have some peak moments. On the way in, we were stopped dead in our tracks when we spotted a bobcat in a large grassy field. At first the cat was crouched next to the entrance of a squirrel’s tunnel. Then it casually walked through the short, tan grass to the far end of the football-sized field and disappeared into the scrubby brush.


Bobcat in Henry Coe SP

On the way back out,near an old, weather-beaten windmill pumping water into a nearby tank, we saw the largest covey of California Quail we’d ever been lucky enough to see. We  estimated 60-80 of these tufted, handsomely feathered birds. They were running about peeping, whistling, calling, and making their barking alarm sounds. (Click here for a good display: “The California Quail” by Peter Steuart. Click here.) 

When we got back to the dirt parking area, I got to talking with another hiker who was returning from a hike to another Coe peak — Willson’s. He had done Bills Hill previously so I asked him about it. “It requires some scrambling,” he said. 

In the week that followed, I kicked myself for not asking for clarification. How much scrambling? Did he mean the whole distance, or did he mean the last 20 feet to the peak? It had been so long since we had done a hike rated as difficult that I wasn’t sure if I could do it. The question about the scrambling bothered me as well as reading that there was lots of poison oak and ticks. 

Later we climbed the last leg of the route to Bills Hill using the fire road.

Finally...
we set a date and Tom and Patricia were enthusiastic. Per the COVID-19 restrictions at the time, we drove in different cars, wore our masks or distanced depending on what was appropriate. We couldn’t have picked a better day. This is a park that can be brutally hot in summer, freezing in winter. This day it was 50s and 60s — perfect for an ambitious hike. 

We set out again on the Hunters Hollow Trail and then turned right onto the Bills Hills Trail (the rock cairn was still there). We had to duck under a few low oak tree branches, but it was easy to follow the trail — for a while. It helped that there were green or pink ribbons indicating the trail from time to time.

Where did it go?
And then, with Patricia in the lead, we ran out of trail. She continued ahead, descended several feet into a steep canyon, but then came to a stop. We considered the cross-country ascent that would be required on the far side. This could NOT be right! Maybe the others could have climbed up the other side, but I doubted that I could. 

We backtracked, looked around, and saw that far off to the right was a barbed-wire fence. We decided to follow it up the hill. And sure enough the plastic trail ribbons once again began to appear. The trail was moderately steep and I was very glad I had my hiking poles — especially along the stretches where the trail was covered with a couple of inches of leaves.

We tried to avoid the thin, bare branches that hung over the trail — not able to determine which were poison oak and which were other scrub. We never did see any sign of ticks. 

Ralph holds the wire while Tom crawls under.

We reached Osos Ridge

From Osos Ridge, we could see Bills Hill a short distance to the south. Our narrow trail continued along to our left (south), but we had read that the barbed wire fence just ahead of us was not the park’s boundary. It was still park property, not private, making it was legal to crawl under the fence to follow the wide dirt fire road south to Bills Hill. Trail ribbons confirmed our choice. 

With our goal in sight, we followed the undulating road and made the last steep ascent to the summit — a flat, rather bare area except for a few oak trees bent over time by the wind. In the spring the area would likely be covered with bright  grasses and wildflowers and on a clear day it would offer extensive views to such regional peaks as Pinnacles, Mount Umunhum, and Mount Hamilton.

But this day it was hazy, and we didn’t care a bit — we were quite content basking in the bit of sunshine we found, eating our well-earned lunches, and taking photos. Ralph and I were very happy that we had checked #80 off our list of challenging Nifty Ninety Peaks.

Coming back down the hill went quickly. We tied some plastic ribbons to mark the turn in the trail that we hadn’t seen when we went up. In a few places we slowed to search for bare dirt to walk on rather than slippery leaves, but it went without incident. Back on Hunting Hollow, Tom and Patricia were again in the lead and they managed to see the bobcat where Ralph and I had seen it previously.

Hiked Dec. 6, 2020. Approx. 7.5 miles rt.

Taste Testing at Kelly Brewing Company

Patricia and Tom get the sampler.

As has been our custom after our hike, we looked for a brewery on the way back home. A stop in Morgan Hill at Kelly Brewing Company for beer accompanied by pizza from the food truck out front hit the spot. It happened to be the final day that outdoor dining was allowed before another of the COVID-19 shutdowns in the SF Bay Area. So, another perfect day on the trail — and at a brewpub!

Planning for Berryessa Peak

Summer hills on Berryessa Peak Trail

Ok, perhaps tackling Berryessa isn’t exactly a major expedition, but for us it requires some extra planning. The peak, at 3,057 feet, isn’t the highest of the  ‘Nifty Ninety’ Peaks, but the elevation gain is given as 3,500-feet. That, with its distance out and back of 14.5 miles, is a bit too much for a day hike for us. On top of that, our driving time from home is two hours each way. What to do?  

Lake Berryessa and vicinity

Ralph, probably because he is raring to do this peak, drove up to the Wine Country to get a lay of the land in early August. Summers in the area can be hot–they regularly hit the 90s and 100s. Nevertheless, he set out–very early and with adequate water–that fine day.

Oak trees give some shade

He didn’t plan to do the entire hike; he wanted to figure out where we could camp partway along. When he came home, he reported that he had found a place where we could camp. It was up a draw to a flat area about four miles along.

After hiking a quarter-mile in from the highway, camping within the Knoxville Wildlife Area or the BLM lands is legal. But further along, hikers have to stay within an easement area for a short distance as the trail goes through private property.

Ralph’s main concern remains the lack of water. If we camp, we will either need to carry all we need or cache some ahead of time because there is none in the area when the creeks are dry. 

Exploring Berryessa Peak Trail again

In early September, we decided to go up again. I had never been to Lake Berryessa and looked forward to seeing both the lake and the first part of the trail. The trailhead, which starts in the Knoxville State Wildlife Area, is next to a pullout alongside the Knoxville Road and is marked Berryessa Peak Trail. Because it was forecast to be hot again, we planned only to get in our 10,000 steps while enjoying the hike.

Star Thistle can be wicked!

The first 1.6 miles of the trail was easy. And the recent, short-duration hunting season (check the website for future dates!) probably improved the conditions, because the awful Star Thistle had been somewhat flattened by the increased foot traffic along the route.

As we followed the dirt track of the old ranch road, we tried to avoid bumping into the Star Thistle. We had worn long pants to protect our legs from the sharp spines. I had even dug out my Dirty Girl Gaiters for added protection

We passed the occasional oak tree, which provided welcome shade, and watched butterflies flitting toward stone-filled creek beds that must have supplied the water they needed, but wouldn’t have sustained our lives. 

We reached an intersection marked with a 4×4 lettered “BPT” (Berryessa Peak Trail). While the ranch road continued ahead, we turned right (south) to start some climbing into the hills. We continued another mile or so, then found a good place to sit under an oak tree and have our lunch.

View of Lake Berryessa from the peak trail

We’ll return when it’s cooler

It was time for us to turn back so we would miss the worst of any commute traffic. We noted that it was 97 degrees–and as we had read, “THIS IS NOT A SUMMER HIKE.”

We both felt that we had been prepared for the high temperature, but we would have needed much more water than the two liters we were carrying to safely go much further. Besides, we want to do this peak, and camp out, with our hiking buddies Tom and Patricia under more favorable hiking conditions!

Meanwhile, if you decide to go for it, click here for details, maps, and more. 

Our Strategy for Nifty Ninety

Mural in Coit Tower, Telegraph Hill, S.F.

It wasn’t very long after Ralph and I started doing some of the high points on the ‘Nifty Ninety’ Peaks challenge that our friend Patricia became interested. Like us, she wanted to do some new local hikes on a regular basis, found the selection of peaks on the list interesting and within our hiking abilities, and wanted to spend time with friends.

Choosing which peaks to do first…

Patricia suggested a strategy—that we do all of the peaks within a category on the list and then go on to another category. For example, we could do do all of the National Parks peaks, then all of the California State Parks, and then those of the North Bay, etc. 

We toyed with her idea for a bit, but then decided that other factors should be prioritized—such things as the difficulty of a hike, the weather, and the time needed to commute back and forth. We also considered such things as when the wildflowers would be out or the waterfalls flowing. After all, the peak hikes were supposed to be fun as well as good exercise, so we wanted to optimize the conditions whenever possible.

Mount Tamalpais, Mt. Tamalpais State Park, Marin County.

We get on the way

With those considerations in mind, we started out by doing the shorter or less strenuous hikes first. We figured we would get stronger and more confident over time. Sometimes we were able to do two, even three peaks, in a day—such as when we did San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill, Russian Hill, and Nob Hill. 

The hardest ones may be ahead!

Now that we have reached more than 75 peaks, we have done most of the easy and moderate ones—which means, of course, that the peaks remaining on our list are more difficult to reach. Namely they will require hiking more miles or driving a longer distance, will be more technically difficult because of the trail’s steepness or slippery nature, or the elevation gain to the peak.

However, we are now stronger and feel more confident. We think that all are now within our capabilities. So, it is we hope, just a matter of waiting for the weather we prefer and the time needed to get to the destinations.

Time will tell!
Happy trails,
Susan Alcorn, aka backpack45

Consider the ‘Nifty Ninety”

Consider the Nifty Ninety

We have now completed more than 75 of the #Nifty Ninety peaks. I know that there are some summits ahead that are even more difficult than those we have encountered so far, but we have gradually become more confident and strong as we have met the hikes’ challenges. We continue to consider the terrain, the mileage, the time required, and the weather conditions when selecting our next hike—and are growing more and more captivated by the parks, trails, and  high points we are discovering.

As a long-distance hiker, I’ve spent a lot of time at high elevation (John Muir Trail being a prime example) so it is exciting to have some of the same joy exploring the peaks of the Bay Area—the far-reaching views and the sense of accomplishment that getting to high points in this area brings.

If, like me, you don’t like to always do the same trails, check out the Nifty Ninety Peak challenge. Link here! You will also find a great deal of information about the peaks on peakbagger.com and you can also record your achievements at this easy to use website.

Happy trails and travels!
Susan “backpack45” Alcorn