GETTING OUT: Coe Parks’ home to ‘Mother of all Madrones’

Mother of all Madrones

With the possible exception of clouds, few common sights in nature can inspire more awe than a tree. At 12,000 feet, in the dry desolation of the White Mountains, bristlecone pines grow that were 3,000 years old when Christ was born. The largest giant sequoia, the General Sherman tree in Sequoia National Park, weighs nearly 2,000 tons and is 104 feet around at the base. It grew from a seed the size of an oatmeal flake from a cone the size of a walnut.
Even trees without hall of fame stats can dazzle us. It was the prospect of seeing such a tree that recently drew me to Henry Coe State Park.
Libby Vincent, a volunteer at Coe and a tireless hiker, arranged a hike down Middle Ridge with two attractions in mind. The column of smoke you may have seen rising east of Morgan Hill in October was a prescribed burn that torched all of Middle Ridge. This would be an opportunity to see the results.
But for me, the main attraction was what Libby described as the “Mother of all Madrones.” Barry Breckling, the head ranger at Coe for 30 years, knows every pine needle in the park and found this massive madrone tree years ago. Libby knew its whereabouts and would guide us there.
We started down the Middle Ridge Trail where it intersects Hobbs Road not far above Frog Lake. This path is a delightful bob and roll along the ridge top with expansive views toward Pine Ridge on our right and imposing Blue Ridge on our left. At Poverty Flat that morning, it was bitter cold and the creek was frozen, but now it was shorts and T-shirt weather.
Walking through the aftermath of the burn, we could see that the fire had done its work well. Some areas of chaparral were black and bare while others areas had burned cool underneath barely-touched trees leaving behind a healthy mosaic of different habitats.
“There it is, over there!” Libby pointed to a tree barely visible in a clearing below the trail. We dropped down for a closer look.
It was quite a tree – perhaps 25 feet around at the base and 60 feet high. The large trunk split at head height, and the two parts shot skyward, each the size of a large tree in its own right. And what character! A long life in the forest left a record – twists and scars – of past battles to survive.
Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii) was first discovered by Archibald Menzies in Washington’s Puget Sound during the Vancouver expedition of 1792. The madrone is sometimes confused with manzanita because they both have smooth reddish bark that peels off in fine sheets. Each is in the same family, but the madrone is a tree with very broad leaves, and while manzanita can grow to tree-like proportions at Coe, it is a shrub.
If you walk the Middle Ridge Trail, once the trail leaves the ridge top and begins to descend toward the Middle Fork of the Coyote, keep an eye out for a flat bench below the trail. The tree is waiting for you on the edge of the bench.
Path of the Padres: If you have never been on the Path of the Padres excursion near Los Banos, it is a must. Trips will run Saturdays and Sundays this spring from March 3 through April 29. Beginning Feb. 1, reservations will be taken Mondays, Tuesday and Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tickets go fast. For reservations and information, call the San Luis Reservoir State Recreation Area at (209) 826-1197.

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