To get to Oats Peak in Montaña de Oro State Park used to entail a pleasant, 3.5-mile hike through the chaparral. No more. If you haven’t hiked to the peak in a while, you ought to take extra food and water because you’ll probably get lost, thanks to hapless management of the trail system by State Parks.
The story is a bit complicated. It starts with the erosion on what is now called Old Oats Peak Trail. The original trail was pretty much a straight shot up the gentle canyon beside Valencia Peak. It developed some serious gullies and needed to be repaired. At the same time, the mountain biking community, which had lobbied for years to get access to this part of the park, convinced managers that the solution was a new trail for both hikers and bikers. The new trail would be considerably longer, yes, because of many additional turns and fun switchbacks, but it would be easier to maintain and thus better overall.
So the new trail was put in, largely with volunteer labor. The former trail has been closed in stages. If you walk on the new trail, the mountain bikers are polite, but you don’t feel entirely welcome — not to mention safe from being run over. As a result, most hikers going to Oats Peak now climb the steep Valencia Trail, and before getting to the top of Valencia, they veer off on a shoulder of the mountain toward Oats. This route is longer than before, but it’s OK.
More complications: The Valencia Trail has needed repair, its erosion aggravated by the extra foot traffic to Oats Peak. State Parks hasn’t the money to do the job right. Today on the bench between the new Oats Trail and the original Valencia Trail, there is a mishmash of paths, some meant for bikers, some for hikers, some trails ostensibly closed for revegetation, some just temporary detours and some trails that actually lead where you want to go. Signs and arrows, where you find them, are pointing every which way. This Labor Day weekend I watched a confused hiker — OK, it was me — walk in a quarter-mile circle before finding the correct way down. Trust me, it’s a mess, like the Morro Bay roundabout when all the drivers are from Bakersfield.
Well, the Old Oats Peak Trail isn’t coming back. What’s needed on Valencia are clear directions and firm barriers to off-limits pathways. Volunteer workers like the Black Hill Gang help, but their efforts are piecemeal and obviously insufficient. The remedy for everyone who uses Montaña de Oro is to lobby State Parks to impose a user fee.
That’s right — no more free rides (or hikes). Let State Parks do what they have wanted to do and charge us, and let part of the money be used to make the trails better.
Jeff Wheelwright is a Morro Bay writer whose interests include hiking. He has lived in Morro Bay since 1992.