Escape the snow for San Luis Obispo Co. hikes

March 2, 2011 

The view looking north from the summit of Cerro Alto Peak in the Los Padres National Forest between Morro Bay and Atascadero. At 2,620 feet, Cerro Alto is one of the tallest peaks in the region. The area is popular with hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians.

MAREK WARSZAWSKI / THE FRESNO BEE

Winter can be a challenging time for Fresno-area hikers because all the best Sierra Nevada trails are buried in snow.

Need somewhere else to stretch those legs? Head over to the Central Coast.

Combining pristine shoreline, unique geological formations and a rugged interior, San Luis Obispo County features some of the state's most diverse hiking trails. And now is an excellent time to visit as recent rains have left the lush, green hills ready for the annual explosion of wildflowers.

To whet your appetite, here are five hikes guaranteed to tide you over until summer:

Cerro Alto Peak

Length: 4.4-5.8 miles

Difficulty: Strenuous

Directions: From Atascadero, take Highway 41 west toward Morro Bay and drive 8 miles to Cerro Alto Campground. Follow paved road to hiker's parking lot ($5 fee).

Overview: One of the region's highest peaks, Cerro Alto (elev. 2,624) overlooks Morro Bay and the Santa Lucia mountains. But it's a 1,600-foot climb from the parking lot. There are two trailheads, one marked "Cerro Alto" and another along the campground road that crosses Morro Creek on a footbridge. The latter is steeper but almost a mile shorter. Both trails start in bay and oak forests, graduating to chaparral the higher you go. The two paths eventually merge 1.2 miles before the summit.

Duna Vista Loop

Length: 6.8 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

Directions: From Highway 101 in Arroyo Grande, head east on Highway 227/Lopez Lake exit and drive 10.4 miles to Lopez Lake ($9 per vehicle). Drive 1.5 miles past park entrance to locked gate with sign for Tuouski Trail.

Overview: Lopez Lake is well known for its wild turkeys, and you're sure to pass a flock following the Tuouski Trail (actually a dirt road) through a Boy Scout camp. The trail then narrows as it traces the shoreline to the Two Waters Trail, which climbs 0.8 miles to a ridge. Another 0.5 miles leads to the Duna Vista overlook, where dazzling views of the Pacific, Pismo Dunes and Lopez Lake await.

Bishop Peak

Length: 4.4 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

Directions: From San Luis Obispo drive west on Foothill Blvd. toward Los Osos. Turn right on Patricia Drive and continue past Highland Drive until reaching trailhead on the left.

Overview: Bishop Peak (elev. 1,559) is the tallest of the "Nine Sisters" or morros that lie in a loose chain between Morro Bay and SLO. It's also the signature backdrop in many postcards. The trail winds through grasslands and oak woodlands before becoming a scramble over boulders near the summit.

Bluff Trail

Length: 3.4 miles

Difficulty: Easy

Directions: From Los Osos, drive 7 miles south on Pecho Road to Montaña de Oro State Park.

Overview: The popular Bluff Trail (can be crowded on weekends) follows some of Central California's prettiest coastline. The wide, flat pathway contours along shale and sediment bluffs above interesting rock formations and the big blue Pacific. You'll pass hidden coves, sea caves, sandy beaches, tidepools and crashing surf while sea otters and harbor seals bask in the sunshine on rocky reefs.

Oso Flaco Lake

Length: 3 miles

Difficulty: Easy

Directions: From Highway 101 in Arroyo Grande, take the South Halcyon Road exit south until Highway 1. Turn left and continue south for 7 miles. Turn right at Oso Flaco Lake Road and drive 3 miles to the trailhead ($5 per vehicle).

Overview: Surrounded by cattails and willows, Oso Flaco Lake is one of the few remaining freshwater dune lakes. It is also a great place for bird and wildlife watching. A boardwalk leads through the dunes and wetland areas, minimizing damage to plant life. When the boardwalk ends you can continue hiking the dunes or head down to the beach.

The reporter can be reached at marekw@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6218.

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