Backpacking Henry Coe: Mississippi Lake and Skeels Meadow

View of hills, yellow grass green tree hills in the foreground and more brownish mountains in the back

We planned a last minute trip to Henry Coe over Memorial Day weekend, which turns out to be very similar to what we did last year. The main goal was to go to Mississippi Lake. We decided to do a three day trip, with two 13-mile days and a short last day. We started at Coe Headquarters, and camped at Mississippi Lake and Skeels Meadow.

Approximate route

Trip Stats

Dates: May 25 - May 27, 2024
Distance: 30 miles
Elevation: +/-6800 ft
Weather: ~40-80F
Permits required: Self registered
Bear cans required: No


  • There is a lot of grass at Henry Coe. Unless you stick to strictly hiking the roads, you will not be able to avoid grass. Wear clothes that aren't prone to getting grass stuck in them. I find that sock material is the worst for this, so try to avoid letting the grass touch your socks.
  • Because of the tall grass, you probably also want to wear long pants to avoid ticks.
  • Poles are helpful for the steep downhills.
  • Trails that are called "roads" tend to be steeper and have more ups and downs than trails that are called "trails." "Roads" usually go straight over hills willy nilly with no regard to ease of hiking.
  • I liked having a GPS map for navigation because the trails are often overgrown.
  • There are a lot of water crossings in the narrows section, so consider bringing sandals.
  • The lakes are good for fishing.  


Permits at Henry Coe are first come, first serve. From the main entrance, you can register for a permit at the visitor center. The designated campsites near the entrance have a fixed number of sites, while the areas further out are divided into zones. Permits cost $5 per person per night, and $8 per vehicle per night, so out permit cost $36. If you start at Hunting Hollow, permits are self-registered with no quotas.

Trail Log

Day 1: Coe Headquarters to Mississippi Lake (13.6 miles, +2177 ft,  -2674 ft)

We started not too early on Friday morning. The last 30 minutes of the drive is on a windy road, where we saw a family of wild pigs. We had to park at a secondary parking lot that was a half mile walk from the visitor center, maybe because the main lot was full. I didn't have any plan for the second night's campsite, so I asked the ranger for a suggestion. She suggested Skeels Meadow, with a tip about how a good water access point is right beyond the "No Trespassing" sign. We started hiking at around 10:30am.

For some reason I always notice a lot of wildflowers and wildlife while in Henry Coe.

The first 3-4 miles of the hike to Manzanita Camp is easy and flat, and relatively shaded. After that there's a not too steep downhill section down to China Hole. China Hole is a great place to take a break. It's a wide section of the creek with a bunch of large boulders to sit on. There is also a campsite somewhere nearby.

After this is the Narrows, where the trail runs right next to the Coyote Creek. For this hike, we had about one mile in the Narrows before we turned off onto the Willow Ridge Trail. Last time we were in Henry Coe, in mid-August, the creek was mostly creek. This time the creek was definitely there. It was probably knee-deep at the highest, and usually more ankle-depth. It would be challenging to keep your shoes dry by rock hopping. I wore Chacos on this trip, which was a mistake for blister reasons, but they were great for the river sections.

After the Narrows it was a steep 2-mile climb to the top of the ridge via the Willow Ridge Trail. We stopped somewhere in the middle of this climb to eat lunch. The Narrows probably would have been a better lunch stop. At the top of the ridge, the trail junctions with Willow Ridge Road. This portion looked flat on the elevation profile map, but I thought this was the most annoying up and down section. Maybe I was just tired from the climb before, but the ups and downs here are steep.

Willow Ridge Road

Finally the trail descends to Mississippi Lake. We decided to camp at the upper end of the lake, since it would make the next day's hike shorter. There was a large group fishing here, and they took up all the sites next to the bathroom and picnic table. We found a reasonable site just past the creek at the top of the lake. The creek was also where we filtered water. It didn't look easy to access the lake itself because of the reeds, and the creek looked muddy but there was a trodden path in the grass that led to a section with clear water.

Mississippi Lake

There are tons of red-winged blackbirds around the lakes in Henry Coe. In this lake we also saw a few Ruddy Ducks. Their light blue beaks are very interesting. In the morning they were splashing around in the lake.

For dinner we had a box of instant mac and cheese with bagged chicken. I realized that we were lower on fuel than I thought. I also brought paper towels to clean out the pot so we wouldn't have to drink cold cheese water.

Day 2: Mississippi Lake to Skeels Meadow (12.7 miles, +2800 ft, -3870 ft)

We got up a little after 7am. I had my coffee, and we had Hawaiian rolls for breakfast. Today's hike would take us on a loop back toward the entrance via Blue Ridge Road and pass by Mt Sizer.

We started on Bear Spring Trail. The beginning section followed Mississippi Creek and was full of tall, wet grass. I got so many grass stickers in my socks in this section. Then we took the unnamed fork of the trail to the left, which climbed out of the creek area into another section of ups and downs over the hills. The greenery on these hills looked very different from the hills yesterday at Willow Ridge. The trail was sometimes hard to find in this section.

View of the Mt Hamilton Observatory

The trail junctions with Bear Mountain Road, which takes you back downhill to the creek. This area looked like a really nice camping spot. The trail followed the river for about a mile.

Looking down at East Fork Coyote Creek
Baby horned lizard

We originally meant to take Rock House Ridge Trail to Mt Sizer, but evidently missed the turn off to the trailhead and took Blue Ridge Road instead. I expected this to be a hard climb, but it actually wasn't so bad.

View from Mt Sizer

After this we turned onto Hobbs Road for an extremely steep descent to our campsite. I had blisters from wearing my Chacos for too long and I also regretfully did not bring poles, so I think this was the worst part of the entire hike.

Skeels' Meadow was a wooded area by Middle Fork Coyote Creek. There were a handful of designated camp sites each with a log for sitting. We set our stuff here and headed to the creek to get water. Like the ranger said, there was a No Trespassing (private property) sign, but the actual private property didn't begin until a bit after this. There was a trodden path to the left down to the creek. It was in fact a nice water spot, but unfortunately the water was too cold for me.

For dinner we had tortillas and summer sausage because I wanted to save fuel for coffee tomorrow morning.

Day 3: Skeels Meadow to Coe Headquarters (5 miles, +1900', -820)

For breakfast we had the Hawaiian rolls again, and I spent way too long picking pieces of grass out of my socks.

Hike started with a steep uphill on Hobbs Road, then a beautifully mild downhill on Frog Lake Trail to Frog Lake. There was someone fishing there. I was very happy to be back to the Visitor Center. Next time I'd like to go fishing and/or camp at some of the river sites, and/or hike past Mississippi Lake into Orestimba Wilderness.