The passionate work of the PRA volunteers makes Backcountry Weekend possible
By Calvin Nuttall
The wilderness lies closer than you think.
Tucked away in a verdant valley at the heart of Henry W. Coe State Park, you will find a hidden retreat, accessible only once a year during spring’s Backcountry Weekend.
Organized by the volunteers of the nonprofit Pine Ridge Association, the event this year took place April 28-30. It’s the only time that Kaiser-Aetna Road is open to the public. This dirt road wanders through rolling ranchland as it connects Pacheco Pass Highway near Casa de Fruta to a remote region deep within the park known as the Orestimba Wilderness.
A Coe tradition since the mid-1980s, the event is centered on the Orestimba Corral historical site, where the park staff and volunteers assemble a base camp. Here, visitors can park their vehicles and pitch their tents in a communal setting. Volunteers organize family-oriented activities such as guided wildflower tours and old-fashioned campfire entertainment.
If you’re in search of a more solitary experience, plenty of other camping opportunities can be reached by backpacking deeper into the wilderness via one of the many hiking trails. During my visit, I made the trek from Orestimba Corral to Mississippi Lake, a 10-mile round trip following an upper ridge offering breathtaking vistas of the vast region of wildland encompassed by Coe’s southern reaches.
Though only an hour from South Valley, this serene escape couldn’t be further removed from the thrumming chaos of urban life. Despite having more than 600 guests, the popularity could not overpower the peaceful isolation of the wildflower-bedecked valley and the rolling hills beyond. From the base camp at the Corral, hikers, bikers and equestrians can reach parts of the park that would never be accessible from other entrances except by multi-day expeditions.
“It is an opportunity to see a side of the park that normally is closed to the public,” said PRA volunteer Manny Pitta. “Even before you get to the formal boundary of the park, the seven-mile drive from Highway 152 to the Dowdy Visitor’s Center is just spectacular. It is a beautiful drive through rolling, oak-studded hills. You get more open, wide-area views on that side of the park.”
As Backcountry Weekend coordinator, Pitta has managed the event since 2021. And as beautiful as the drive is, he said, the rugged nature of Kaiser-Aetna Road also created the volunteers’ and staff’s greatest challenge in preparing for the event.
“There was a lot of uncertainty regarding the road conditions,” he said. “The winter and early spring storms this year lasted a long time and made it difficult to get out there and work on the road. There was a lot of work done by volunteers and park staff in the last month and a half making sure the road was in shape prior to the event. The volunteer community at Coe is just wonderful.”
Thankfully, the rains ended. The sunshine not only allowed the event to move forward but also created the ideal conditions for the region to erupt with wildflowers. Vibrant purples, blues and yellows painted the hillsides in a dazzling display. After years of drought and wildfires, the lush foliage and brilliant blooms were a refreshing relief.
The passionate work of the PRA volunteers make unique events such as Backcountry Weekend possible, Pitta told me. And for him, the hard work is well worth it when he sees the smiles on park guests.
“Every year, it is always wonderful to see visitors as they leave,” he said. “They are beaming and thanking every volunteer they see. That’s how you know you had a wonderful event.
“In the end, what counts is the visitors’ experience, and you can just see how wonderful it was in their eyes.”
To minimize the human impact on the delicate natural setting, Backcountry Weekend has limited capacity. If you are inspired to attend the event next year, be sure to register in advance at coepark.net/bcw.
Calvin Nuttall is a freelance reporter and a frequent wanderer in the forests and hills of the South Valley and beyond.