There are days when the prospect of another walk on a trail you have trod many times before doesn’t have the allure. It is a lovely trail, but you know it like the back of your hand. So, the hiking shoes stay in the closet, and you stay on the sofa.
One way to add a bit of adventure to familiar territory is to travel off the trail. There are a few cautionary considerations, but the course of that creek or that trailless ridgetop might reveal surprising secrets in an area you thought you knew.
A recent spring hike reminded me of the sights and surprises hidden off trail. I love the trails out of the Hunting Hollow entrance to Henry Coe State Park east of Gilroy, but most of those trails are nearly as familiar to me as the route from my living room to the kitchen. How could I jazz things up a bit?
Along the course of Hunting Hollow Road, every ridge that ascends the hulk of Willson Peak has a trail that rises along its crest. Between each ridge is a seasonal creek. None have trails. From the Lyman Willson Trail, I have often gazed down—way down—into Coon Hunter’s Gulch. It is long, but not silly-steep like some others. What adventure awaits down in that creek bed? That was the jazzing up I needed.
Gardens of poppies and baby blue-eyes and the music of water greeted me at the entrance to Coon Hunter’s Gulch. The broad bench of alluvium at the mouth of the creek quickly pinched down to a narrow ravine. Around every bend, there was a new setting and a new challenge. I hopped from tussock to tussock to navigate through a wide wet marsh and a lovely series of quiet pools. Then, round the bend, I found tiers of cascades tumbling down massive boulders where the creek bed pinched down to a narrow fissure.
On a trail, we take each step thoughtlessly, but along Coon Hunter’s Gulch, I chose each one carefully. Walking through dry rocky streambeds or rock-hopping over wet boulders on countless creek crossings requires care and close attention. I scrambled over boulder bulwarks that blocked tight spots while avoiding encroaching tangles of poison oak vines.
I wanted adventure, something new and fresh, and I got it. At the top of Coon Hunter’s Gulch, I was very tired and still five miles from the car. But I knew for sure that I was alive.
Now, the caution part. Coe Park is larger and wilder than some preserves and parks that require people to stay on the trails. Honor their rules. Footing, poison oak, ticks and overhanging branches are faint hazards on trails but lurking dangers for cross-country hikers. It is easier to get lost, so know the territory or understand how to navigate.
Be safe, but if your hiking activities need a little hot sauce, venture off the trail and see familiar country in a fresh light.