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ADV NewsDebate Surges Over OHV Access In N. California’s Largest State Park

Debate Surges Over OHV Access In N. California’s Largest State Park

Over 87,000 acres could potentially open to off-road vehicles.

Published on 02.24.2023

Can anyone guess which of Northern California’s plentiful state parks is the largest? You’d think at 87,000 acres it would be one of the most famous, but nope, Henry W. Coe State Park, “Coe” to local users, is not heavily visited, despite its convenient position in San Francisco’s South Bay. This is on course to change, however, as the massive wilderness with a city view has been potentially slated to become the State’s latest and greatest OHV area, a motion stirring fiery debate among off-road advocates and environmental activists.

Henry Coe’s 136 square miles of open space consists of picturesque ridges, canyons and meadowy valleys dotted with ponds and remnants of hunting cabins and cattle ranching operations. Gray pines and thick stands of live and blue oaks line the sanctuary that hosts more wildlife than human visitors. This is due to the fact that Coe’s network of dirt roads and trails have long been limited to foot, bicycle and equestrian traffic. 

In the future that could change, thanks to Senate Bill 155, which was backed by companies like Honda, Yamaha and Firestone and signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom in 2021. The act requires the California State Parks department to investigate which parks could benefit from the expansion of OHV use. Henry Coe was mentioned in the bill’s wording as a prime example, with off-highway vehicle use advocates arguing there was plenty of room to share.  


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But with California, and especially the Bay Area region, being one of the nation’s leading seedbeds for environmental conservation, the gates will not come down easily. Groups like the Sierra Club argue that opening Coe to OHV usage will physically damage the biodiversity of the pristine landscape and invite waste and noise pollution. And since the vast Diablo range in which the park resides is sacred to several Native American tribes, there is the argument that sensitive sites and artifacts would be put at risk as more visitors frequent the park’s interior.

Over 87,000 acres could potentially open to off-road vehicles in Henry W. Coe State Park
Photo by cmansfield

Because today, only the hearty reach the core of Henry Coe by means of mountain bikes, horses or hiking boots, leaving many of the trails to become overgrown. According to an article on digital news site SF Gate some OHV activists, including Amy Granat, managing director of the California Off-Road Vehicle Association, believe the park’s tight restrictions are some kind of conspiracy created by the volunteer naturalists who make up the park’s Pine Ridge Association. Granat claims that members have access to certain dirt roads within the park and “use it as a kind of a private club. Their friends and family have access, but Californians are paying for it, and Californians don’t have access to it.”

What’s more likely is that opponents visualize the prototypical free-for-all OHV parks where off-road only dirt bikes and side-by-sides dominate the scene.  “People jump right to what they imagine as that dirt bike experience,” says Alex Stehl, the California State Parks system’s deputy director of strategic planning and recreation services, who reminds the public that “off-roading” is also done any time we take a street-legal vehicle onto a dirt road. 

Instead of “dirt bikes and ATVs crawling over boulders and up hillsides,” Stehl says expanded off-road usage in Coe, if it should happen, would look like cars — and of course street-legal dual sport and adventure motorcycles — being allowed to travel on dirt roads into the park’s deep interior.

And it’s true according to the State’s Off-Highway Vehicle Access Project’s website, that expansion of access to remote areas of Henry Coe would be focused on usage by “street legal vehicles for non-motorized activities,” and that that usage would be regulated in ways that limit environmental impact.

Over 87,000 acres could potentially open to off-road vehicles in Henry W. Coe State Park
Photo by Doug Greenberg

This would be unlike the nearby Hollister Hills OHV area, about than an hour from Coe, which features more than 6,800 acres and almost 200 miles of trails, that are open (with trail rating segregations) to all motorcycles, ATVs, side-by-sides and 4-wheelers.  

Off-road usage limited to street legal vehicles in Coe would be especially interesting to adventure bike riders, who could travel into the park and camp at remote sites currently accessed only by backpackers. Certainly there are lots of OHV-friendly areas in other states, and even other parts of California, including Lost Sierra and Sequoia National Forest, that are very successful at sharing multi-user trail systems. This, largely in part thanks to strong volunteer organizations that work to maintain and expand the trail systems for all types of outdoor enthusiasts.

On the other hand, a park with backcountry easily accessible to the Bay Area’s nearly eight million residents, not to mention it’s also day-trip distance from even more densely populated Southern California, and would become the closest OHV site to Central Valley cities like Fresno and Merced, means the true wilderness Henry W. Coe would be forever changed. 

Despite the recent uproar and debate about the underused park’s future, any changes to current restrictions are not going to happen immediately. The Off-Highway Vehicle Access Project’s first step is to gather information through public outreach and research, hence all the current surge in debate over the initiative. After public and expert opinions are weighed, the Parks Department states it will prepare a preliminary report, feasibility study and then work on strategies to implement the OHV Recreation Access Plan recommendations. All of which translates to bureaucratic quicksand.

As potential users we can all get involved. There will be virtual and in-person meetings this year and beyond, meetings where the public can express opinions or learn more about the project. All you need to do is email planning@parks.ca.gov to sign up for updates and be notified of upcoming meetings. There is also a survey online, and the OHV Access Project says your answers and shared experience with OHV recreation will help with future planning. 

And in the end, it might not even be Henry Coe that opens its gates to the public. But thanks to Senate Bill 155 and the corresponding Off-Road Access initiative, it will be a reality that eventually some state parks in California will expand off-road vehicle access, and on that news, we can all celebrate. 

Author: Jamie Elvidge

Jamie has been a motorcycle journalist for more than 30 years, testing the entire range of bikes for the major print magazines and specializing in adventure-travel related stories. To date she’s written and supplied photography for articles describing what it’s like to ride in all 50 states and 43 foreign countries, receiving two Lowell Thomas Society of American Travel Writer’s Awards along the way. Her most-challenging adventure yet has been riding in the 2018 GS Trophy in Mongolia as Team AusAmerica’s embedded journalist.

Author: Jamie Elvidge
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Scott T
Scott T
February 24, 2023 2:03 pm

As appealing as it is, it will NEVER happen. Ever. Wasting everyone’s time to even publicize this pipe dream.

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