Outdoors

Best Central Coast hikes

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.
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.

1. 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 on left. Follow paved road to hiker's parking lot.

Fees: $5 per vehicle

What to expect: Cerro Alto (elev. 2,624) is one of the region's highest peaks and affords panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean, Morro Bay and Santa Lucia mountains. But you'll have to earn your reward by climbing 1,600 feet 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 for the 1.2-mile summit push.

2. Estero Bluffs

Length: 3 miles

Difficulty: Easy

Directions: From Cayucos, take Highway 1 north for about 2 miles to an oceanside turnout north of San Geronimo Road. There are several turnouts along the road with trail access.

Fees: None

What to expect: One of the newest editions to California's state park system, Estero Bluffs consists of 355 acres of unspoiled coastline that slopes from Highway 1 to the Pacific Ocean. The diversity of the area is incredible and includes everything from tidepools to wetlands to grasslands and coastal terraces. There is even a pocket cove and beach at Villa Creek on the far northern end.

3. Cabrillo Peak

Length: 3 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

Directions: From Morro Bay, take Highway 1 south and exit at Los Osos/Baywood Park. Turn right and follow South Bay Boulevard for .75 miles (past the main entrance to Morro Bay State Park) until reaching Quarry Trail parking lot on left.

Fees: None

What to expect: Cabrillo Peak (elev. 911) is one the nine sisters or "morros" that lie in a loose chain between Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo. From the parking lot, you'll walk through coastal sage scrub (and spring wildflowers) before ascending steeply to the peak's shoulder. No trail leads to the summit, but it's a fairly easy scramble. Just bushwack straight up the gentle slope. Climbers also frequent the area.

4. Bishop Peak

Length: 4.4 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

Directions: From San Luis Obispo drive west on Foothill Boulevard toward Los Osos. Turn right on Patricia Drive and continue past Highland Drive until reaching trailhead on the left. Park across road from houses.

Fees: None

What to expect: Set apart from other "morros" by its rocky apex, Bishop Peak (elev. 1,559) was named by Spanish missionaries who thought it resembled a bishop's miter. The mountain, which serves as San Luis Obispo's signature backdrop in postcards, lies in a 350-acre natural preserve protected from development. The trail winds through grasslands and oak woodlands before becoming a scramble over massive boulders near the summit.

5. Valencia Oats Peaks

Length: 7 miles

Difficulty: Strenuous

Directions: From Highway 101 in San Luis Obispo, take the Los Osos exit and drive 12 miles on Los Osos Valley Road to Montana de Oro State Park. Park in small lot 100 yards past the visitor's center.

Fees: None

What to expect: Overlooking the big, blue Pacific, Valencia Peak (elev. 1,347) is a great place to soak up coastline views. On a clear day you can see from Piedra Blancas to the north and Point Sal to the south. The hike from the signed trailhead climbs 1,100 feet over 2 miles. To reach Oats Peak (elev. 1,373), you'll have to descend before climbing 1.2 miles on another trail to the summit. Both are well worth the sweat. Just be sure to bring plenty of water.

6. Coon Creek

Length: 4.7 miles

Difficulty: Easy

Directions: From Highway 101 in San Luis Obispo, take the Los Osos exit and drive 12 miles on Los Osos Valley Road to Montana de Oro State Park. Drive to parking lot at the end of Pecho Road.

Fees: None

What to expect: Montana de Oro State Park (Spanish for "mountains of gold") got its name for its incredible spring wildflower displays, and there's no better place to walk among them than on this trail. Just be sure to time your trip for March and April. Ocean spray, hummingbird sage, Johnny jumpups, Arroyo lupine and California figwort are just some of the varieties you'll see.

7. Duna Vista Loop

Length: 6.8 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

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

Fees: $7 per vehicle

What to expect: Known more for fishing and water skiing, Lopez Lake is also a pretty fair spot for hiking. Especially in the spring, when everything is green. Begin by walking down the Tuouski Trail (actually a dirt road) and follow signs to the end of a Boy Scout camp, where the road narrows to a trail. Hike above the shoreline to the Two Waters Trail, which climbs 0.8 miles to a ridge. Another 0.5 miles brings you to the Duna Vista overlook, where panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean, Pismo Dunes and Santa Lucia Mountains await.

8. Oso Flaco Lake

Length: 3 miles

Difficulty: Easy

Directions: From Highway 101 in Arroyo Grande, take the South Halycon Road exit south until reaching Highway 1. Turn left and continue south for 7 miles. Turn right at Oso Flaco Lake Road and drive 3 miles past lettuce fields to the trailhead.

Fees: $5 per vehicle

What to expect: Surrounded by cattails, sedges 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 wooden boardwalk leads through the dunes and wetland areas, minimizing damage to fragile plant life. When the boardwalk ends you can continue hiking on the dunes or head down to the beach.

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