Ranch Day on June 4 is one of many events to show off park’s beauty to the public

Photo courtesy Pine Ridge Association
Participants at a recent Ranch Days enjoy interacting with animals.

By Marty Cheek

For nearly 50 years, the Pine Ridge Association has served as a driving force in the preservation of Henry W. Coe State Park. Thanks to the unwavering dedication of the nonprofit’s volunteers, the 87,000-acre wilderness can keep its gates open for the public’s enjoyment.

The small army of people who are the backbone of Coe includes Chere Bargar. She chairs Ranch Day, a popular event with local families. It will be held at the Hunting Hollow entrance Sunday, June 4.

“If not for volunteers, the park would not be open. There would be no events,” the San Martin resident emphasized.

Ranch Day is a testament to the PRA’s commitment to providing accessible and engaging experiences for the public. The event is free for all attendees, with a nominal parking fee of $6. Families ranging from preschool to sixth grade are encouraged to attend and make cherished memories as they participate in activities from 100 years ago such as churning butter, making wool on a spinning wheel, roping a fake steer, and horse and pony rides. They can also watch a demonstration of a border collie herding sheep. Ranch Day also lets families learn about what life was like during the cattle days at the site of an old homestead.

Every year the event is held, Bargar eagerly awaits the opportunity to transport visitors back in time to the park’s ranching era. With a delightful array of activities and demonstrations, Ranch Day offers families a chance to immerse themselves in the rich history of the park while enjoying the breathtaking beauty of nature.

Besides Ranch Day, other annual events put on my PRA volunteers include the Raincoats and Rubber Boots children’s fun day in March, the Mother’s Day Breakfast, the Hunting Hollow 5K/10K run and walk in June, and the Tarantula Fest in October. For the more adventurous, the PRA puts on weekend camping events such as the Coit Camp Campout in late May. And the popular Backcountry Weekend in April lets visitors drive deep into the northeastern portion of the park to explore the remote Orestimba Wilderness, a 22,000-acre rugged landscape that’s hard to reach by hiking.

Photo by Marty Cheek
Morgan Hill resident Stu Nuttall rides his bike at Mississippi Lake during a Backcountry Weekend at Henry W. Coe State Park.

Throughout the year, volunteers conduct interpretative activities such as leading short walks to see the spring wildflowers in full bloom or see the variety of bird species residing in the park. They also connect with local schools to provide educational opportunities for young people to learn about the park’s natural history.

Coe has an excellent but small employed staff, so supporting such a large and varied park really “takes a village,” said Dan Beneficial, a Morgan Hill resident who serves as president of the Pine Ridge Association Board.

“The uniformed volunteers, managed by park staff and sponsored by the Pine Ridge Association, play a crucial role in helping visitors get the most from their experience,” he said. “They staff the Visitor Center, providing information about trails and camping and how to stay safe. They maintain trails and springs, and lead guided bird, geology, or wildflower hikes. Volunteers also provide skills and a wealth of knowledge to the website and park map, and a number of publications on history and wildlife, all aimed at enhancing visitors’ experiences.”

The PRA was started in 1975 as a component of the California State Parks system to help rangers and staff with the operation of the park. They also help raise funds for specific projects. The volunteers come from all around the Bay Area. San Jose resident Manny Pitta joined in 2009, and his passion for the park led him to take on various roles over the years, including coordinating volunteer training and chairing the volunteer committee. Today, as the Backcountry Weekend coordinator, he attests to the pivotal role played by PRA volunteers in organizing events, maintaining trails, and providing vital support that allows the park to flourish amidst limited staffing resources.

Pitta emphasized the symbiotic relationship between the PRA and Henry W. Coe State Park, highlighting the critical need for external support to ensure the park’s continued operation and accessibility.

“If you look at the state park’s staff, it’s pretty minimal,” he said. “Without outside support, there’s really nothing that can happen in the park. So the Pine Ridge Association provides the support and funding for operations like trail work, tools, and putting on events to draw attention and bring visitors into the park.”

This year’s Backcountry Weekend brought nearly 700 visitors into the park’s northeastern section. The efforts of volunteers ensured the smooth and safe operation of the event, which allows participants to traverse the Orestimba Wilderness, embark on scenic hikes, and engage in guided activities.

People who would like to join the PRA can apply now. They are required to go through training on three consecutive Saturdays in September. In October they spend a weekend on a “ride-along” where they travel through the park, camping overnight.

As the PRA gears up for its annual volunteer training program, Pitta encourages individuals passionate about nature and community involvement to join the cause. The training offers applicants the opportunity to become part of the state’s volunteer program and actively contribute to Henry W. Coe State Park’s continued success. Those interested can find more information and apply on the CoePark.net website.

In his commitment to the park’s preservation, Pitta has taken on a position as a park aid at the Coe Ranch Visitor Center, further highlighting the profound impact the PRA and its volunteers have on the park. Through their tireless efforts, this natural sanctuary continues to thrive, ensuring that future generations can experience its beauty for years to come.

Bargar also has a long-time passion for the park, going through the training as a volunteer more than 30 years ago. She hopes her work organizing 40 people to put on the annual Ranch Day event helps people throughout the county — and especially children and teens — learn about Coe and discover its wonders.

“I joined because I absolutely love that park,” she said. “So many people don’t know anything about the park, so I wanted to show people it’s there and they can have a really good time and they can learn things about nature . . .  I love to get families out here where they can open their eyes to the beauty of nature we have in our backyard.”