Located on the Central Coast of California half way between San Francisco and Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo (or SLO as the locals refer to it) is home to Cal Poly and an extensive trail system. Cuesta Ridge, a roughly 2000 foot high narrow strip of coastal chaparral that is part of the Los Padres National Forest, contains the town on the North East and the Irish Hills to the South East form the valley that the city lies within. Running the length of the valley is an ancient chain of volcanic plugs known as the Nine Sisters (or seven depending on who is counting) with summits rising 500 to 1500 above the ocean that laps at their northeast terminus. Perhaps the only thing lacking from the SLO trail system is more a than few miles of flat trail, but plenty of back roads and quite streets are available when one feels the need for a fast tempo run.
With a permanent Mediterranean climate and multiple trails systems located both in the middle of the town and in the surrounding hills, it’s no wonder that Running Warehouse is based out of San Luis Obispo. An active community of climbers, cyclists (HTC Highroad was based out of SLO until it dissolved in 2011), triathletes, roadrunners, trail runners, and ultra-runners keep the Strava segments competitive and the local community has supported and protected its open spaces and continues to improve and expand its trail systems.
- Bishop Peak
- Cerro San Luis
- High School Hill/Reservoir Canyo
- Poly Canyon
- Irish Hills Johnson Ranch
- Islay Hill
- South Hills
- Cuesta Ridge
- Montana de Oro State Park
- Lake Lopez
- Black Hill Elfin Forest
- Santa Margarita Lake
- Big Falls/High Mountain Road
- El Chorro Regional Park
- Morro Bay State Park
- Big Sur
- Pinnacle National Park
- Los Osos State Oaks Reserve
- Harmony Headlands State Park
photo by Ed Cox
“The trail brings the traveler suddenly in sight of Bishop Peak…
The town is fairly encircled with beautiful hills…
the one just named being most conspicuous.” – John Muir
Named for its rocky summit that resembles a bishop’s mitre, Bishop Peak at 1,559ft is the tallest of the Nine Sisters and is a popular hiking, climbing, and trail running destination located only miles from Cal Poly on the outskirts of the Highland neighborhood – be warned of the college crowds on the weekends though. Three separate trailheads offer routes that tackle the steep and rocky 1,200ft climb to the summit in under two miles. Outings can be extended by taking the two and half mile Felsmen Loop that meanders through the lower canyons passing through chaparral, oak woodland, and coastal sage scrub
Moderate: The Felsmen Loop is a 2.5-mile loop at the base of Bishop Peak with 700 feet of climbing. Take the loop counter clock wise for gradual climbs and steeper descents or switch if for the opposite. Park near 850 Patricia Drive to avoid the crowed at the main Bishop Peak trailhead (where Highland Drive deadends).
Challenging: Bishop Peak is a steep 4 miles round-trip with 1600ft of rocky switchbacks. Combine it with Felsmen Loop for a longer outing, Parking can be found at the dead end of Highland Drive or for a steeper scramble there is a parking area off Foothill Blvd.
Check out the city website for more info: http://www.slocity.org/parksandrecreation/bishop_peak.asp
Cerro San Luis / Laguna Lake Open Space
photo by Leif Arne Storset
Cerro San Luis is largely property of the now iconic Madonna Inn, but they have graciously allowed public access to the peak and a network of single track and dirt road offers multiple loops and paths to the summit. At the base of the peak is the Laguna Lake Open Space that offers some of the only flat dirt roads and trails in town. The city also own a parcel of land known as the Lemon Grove. Insider tip – the large “M” on the side of the mountain stands for Mission Prep High School, not Madonna as many people think.
Easy: Park at Laguna Lake Park and follow the paved path and dirt trails around the perimeter of the open space for a flat 2.5 miles.
Moderate: From the parking area at Fernandez Rd., follow the gravel road from the trailhead and take your first right on the Lemon Grove Loop singletrack. Keep the mountain to your left for a 3.7 mile loop with 900ft of gain.
Challenging: Take the main dirt road to the summit to add around 2 miles and an extra 600ft of climbing to the loop around the peak. For the adventurous, Rock Garden offers a shorter but much steeper singletrack path to the summit (keep your ears open for mountain bikers coming down).
Check out the maps and links below:
High School Hill / Reservoir Canyon
Bordering the North-West edge of SLO is a hill that has as many names as trails; High School Hill, Lookout Hill, Murray Hill, or simply Tower – no matter what you call it you’re in for some power hiking on these trails. Three trails ascend from town and climb steep and loose single track and power line access road to the top of the ridge. From the backside of the hill, Reservoir Canyon follows a streambed for a mile before climbing steeply two miles past a collection of metal sculptures and an amazing tree swing before arriving at the summit. An iconic orange lookout tower and a curved stone bench mark the two ends of the ridgeline.
Easy-to-Challenging: Park at the dead end on Reservoir Canyon Road, just North of town on the 101, and follow the out-and-back trail as far as you desire. The shaded trail climbs gradually for the first 1.25 miles following the all to often dry creek bed before climbing more steeply. A quarter mile of switchbacks brings you to a grassy opening with expansive views and a collection of scrap metal sculptures. From here it’s a little under a mile and 1000ft to summit via a steep rocky trail cut through the thick chaparral.
More info can be found here:
Irish Hills/Johnson Ranch
To the South East of SLO, Johnson Ranch and the Irish Hills have recently been connected with a singletrack trail and trail construction is ongoing to expand and improve the network that currently offers close to 15 miles of trail. Irish Hills is predominantly thick chaparral and the trails visit a number of old manganese mines from WWII, while Johnson Ranch offers smoother exposed dirt trails and rolling hills.
Easy: Take South Higuera south from town until passing underneath HW 101 and the parking lot for Johnson Ranch is on the right. A 3.7 mile loop that can be shortened via the cutoff to 2.5 miles that offers gradual climbs on smooth singletrack through rolling grassy hills with rocky outcroppings.
Challenging: Look for the small dirt parking lot off Perfumo Canyon Drive just North of town. From the trailhead climb up either Bog Thistle or XXX and drop down XX Canyon. At the bottom of the canyon cross the stream bed and climb back up … The recently completed singletrack trail takes you from the chaparral of Irish Hills/JSDKJF Ranch to the open grassy loop of Johnson Ranch. Run the loop at Johnson Ranch and then retrace your steps back to your car for a solid 15 miles of challenging rocky trails with lots of elevation.
Find out more here:
Cal Poly’s large agricultural land holding offers miles of singletrack and dirt road easily accessed at the edge of the campus. The Poly Canyon loop is a roughly 8 mile loop on dirt roads through the beautiful foothills that is popular with not only the D1 cross country team but also ultra-runners who use the loop to access trails that climb higher and further toward Cuesta Ridge. The Architectural Graveyard is a short but fun run that takes you to the mouth of Poly Canyon.
Medium: From the Cal Poly Campus take the dirt roadke
Find out more here:
Only six mile north of SLO on HW 101, Cuesta Ridge is a 2000ft tall narrow strip of chaparral that is part of the Los Padres National Forest. Parking is available at Cuesta Pass on the 101 and the once paved road to the West allows access to the prominent radio towers and to miles of technical singletrack that drop from the ridge towards Cal Poly. The adventurous can follow the ridgeline road 10 miles to Cerro Alto peak, the highest point in the county (the peak can also be accessed via its own local trail system). To the East, a gated dirt road climbs into a beautiful pine forest and takes you to the highest elevations near San Luis Obispo. From the public terminus of the road 4 miles in, singletrack trails drop further into the National Forest and offer routes that can easily push 20 miles and 5000ft of cumulative gain.
Check out the links below:
Other Nearby Trails
Montana De Oro State Park
photo by emdot
Only a short drive from San Luis Obispo, Montana de Oro State Park sits on directly on the coast and is a favorite spot to log long elevation filled runs. Coastal Trail Runs puts on a 5mi, 7mi, 25k, 50k race in January that offers a great cross section of the park’s trails.
Morro Bay State Park
Fifteen miles West of SLO is Lake Lopez. Although hard hit by the ongoing drought, the dusty single track rollercoasters along the edge of the lake is always a fun trail.
Santa Margarita Lake
Twenty-five miles away, Santa Margarita Lake offers smooth double track around the lakeshore and steep backcountry single track.
Morro Bay State Park
The nearby coastal community of Morro Bay has a small park with short punchy climbs including a trail to the high point of Black Hill (661ft). Be sure to check the rocky outcroppings for rock climbers and to enjoy the diverse birds the surrounding estuary provides protected habitat for.
A half days drive takes you to the Southern end of Big Sur. Trailheads abound in Big Sur, be prepared to battle the poison oak for what are some of the most amazing coastal views in all of California.
Pinnacles National Park
The nation’s newest national park is only two hours north, and offers trails both through caves and onto to thin rocky ridges where California Condors can be spotted ridding the thermal updrafts.
Just the Necessities
- Then Mountain Air located in downtown SLO is the local mountain shop for all your running, climbing, fastpacking, hiking, and backpacking needs.
- Running Warehouse has a local retail location and can get you most any running shoe from the most minimal to the super cushioned along with all your race fuel needs and running vests.
- For your pre-run caffeine needs you’ve got plenty of good options from the modern Scout, the classic Linnaea’s, the hole in a wall Bello Mundo oh and there’s also Kreuzberg, Blackhorse, Steynberg, and all the normal chain options as well.
- And for the post-run beer, check out Central Coast Brewery and pull up Yelp to find the food you’re craving cause there are too many good options to try and even list them here.
- And if you make it on any of these amazing trails be sure to thank Central Coast Concerned Mountain Bikers (CCMB) who have partnered with all types of trail users to protect and expand the amazing open spaces and trail systems in San Luis Obispo Country.