Henry Coe's soft side

Enjoy uncrowded wildflower walks in this rugged park southeast of San Jose, Calif.
Harriot Manley

You'd think we were going to Latvia. Without exception, everyone who heard that my family was going camping at Henry W. Coe State Park asked, "Where's that?"

How an 87,000-acre preserve, the largest state park in Northern California, could elicit such universal shrugs is astonishing, especially when Henry Coe is just a half hour southeast of San Jose.

Yet the park, often labeled too rugged and too hot, is downright lovely in spring. Daytime highs barely brush the 70s, with 3,000-foot ridgelines catching cool ocean breezes. Runoff fills a filigree of creeks, and meadows are speckled with more than 100 species of wildflowers. Though many trails (open to hikers, mountain bikers, and horses) are decidedly steep, there are moderate options for family outings like ours.

When we arrived, we checked in at park headquarters, housed in turn-of-the-century barns that hint at the area's cattle ranch past. Rancher's daughter Sada Coe Robinson donated her inheritance — roughly 12,000 acres — to the public in 1953. Today the park comprises a sprawling wilderness of native grasslands and oak and pine forests.

Our campsite sat on the crown of a gentle hill, surrounded by flowering orange fiddlenecks. Tent pitched and water bottles filled (the park's only potable water is at headquarters), we asked ranger Barry Breckling about family-friendly hikes. He suggested Flat Frog Trail (named not in memory of amphibious roadkill but for the flattest route to modest Frog Lake) and the Springs Trail–Forest Trail loop. We opted for the latter, a 3 3/4-mile round-trip hike.

Buttercups and Johnny-jump-ups flanked the trail, and goldfinches twittered from sprawling valley oaks. The ground beneath these enormous trees looked rototilled — signs of damage caused by wild pigs. Later we heard rustling, then spied a family of the glossy black animals. The shy beasts turned on their trotters and disappeared into the manzanita shadows. A wild turkey gobbled, and we returned to camp for dinner beneath a full moon.

The next day, we hiked 1 1/2 miles from park headquarters to Frog Lake, taking Monument Trail 1/2 mile to decidedly not-flat Hobbs Road. The 1-mile trail can be a heart-pumper, but it's worth the climb to slim ponderosas. The view? Rolling green mountains and misty blue Monterey Bay in the distance, with not even a hint of the sprawling cities nearby.

It all felt so distant from the busy Bay Area, we might as well have been in Latvia.

Henry W. Coe State Park

WHERE: From U.S. 101 at Morgan Hill, take E. Dunne Ave. east 13 miles to park headquarters.

WHEN: Free wildflower walks at 11 and 2 on Sundays, through the end of May.

COST: Day-use parking at park headquarters, $4. Camping at headquarters, $7 per night.

FYI: Check out the new topographical map ($4), available at park headquarters.

CONTACT: Henry W. Coe State Park, (408) 779-2728.