Future of the steep and dramatic Ontario Ridge Trail could be decided this week

Looming overhead, the Ontario Ridge Trail might as well be on the side of Mount Everest for how achievable it looks to the amateur hiker: a big, gray-brown path shooting almost vertically toward the sky, set against waves of green and yellow plants.

Despite that, there are those who not only enjoy, but fiercely defend the steep trail that has been the subject of much debate within the San Luis Obispo County government and California Coastal Commission.

They say the trail is home to one of the best views of the Pacific Ocean on the Central Coast, and the strenuous climb is well worth the effort.

The trail will once again enter the public arena this week, as a proposal to relocate it to a less steep and more winding path around the hillside is scheduled to go before the county Planning Commission on Thursday.

A trail ‘steeped’ in debate

The network of trails on Ontario Ridge — which stretches from Shell Beach to Avila Beach — offers sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and a path to Pirate’s Cove. Hikers access the network via the trail on landowner Rob McCarthy’s property above the Pirate’s Cove parking lot.

Some say this particular stretch of the trail has been used by the public since the 1960s.

That access was briefly interrupted in 2013 when McCarthy put up fences and signs blocking the trails; he eventually removed the fences after being told to do so by the California Coastal Commission. He has also long had an application with the Coastal Commission to build a home on the property, though that has been waylaid for more than seven years, he said.

McCarthy, who owns the property with his wife, Judi, said his primary concern with the current trail is safety.

“The existing trail was never designed to be a hiking trail,” he said. “I think it would be really nice and beneficial to the community to have a safe trail there.”

McCarthy has said that he worries the trail opens him up to a liability claim if a hiker falls and is injured.

Though the first stretch is relatively innocuous, halfway up the hill the path forks, with a flat lane leading off to a dead end on the right while the rocky main trail — which looks more like a wall than a place to walk because of the steep incline — continues all the way to the top. Coming back down is equally difficult along the slippery terrain.

To remedy this, McCarthy has been working for the past five years to propose a revised trail that would instead direct hikers around the hill, rather than straight up. The winding path would start on Cave Landing Road and loop up the back of the hill before connecting to the existing trail structure on the ridge.

He has proposed a 5-foot-wide pedestrian trail with signs, access features, and private property line fencing and notices, according to a county staff report. It would not be owned or maintained by the county, and the costs would all fall on McCarthy because it would be contained on his land. (He recently said that he did not yet know exactly how much it would cost, but that he was “willing to spend whatever it takes.”)

McCarthy requested the permit for his latest plan two years ago, but was delayed because county planning staffers said they needed more information. The county Board of Supervisors eventually approved a request to go through the county permitting process.

When the Planning Commission last considered the trail in January, several commissioners said they were concerned about the safety of the steep trail, sharing anecdotes of unlucky hikers slipping on the dusty terrain. Others were concerned about trail widening from hikers trampling surrounding grass as they attempted to avoid the steepest parts of the hill.

The commission didn’t make a decision at that meeting and instead continued the matter to Thursday.

Opposition to the plan

Some have spoken out against the proposal, saying relocating the trail would remove access that the public has had for decades, and would also take away some of the trail’s unique aspects, like its spectacular ocean views and strenuous climb.

Indeed, the view is one of the biggest arguments from supporters who want to keep the trail where it is.

At the top, the ocean spreads out as far as the eye can see.

To the south are the sandy Guadalupe and Oceano Dunes, with tiny car specks darting across them; to the north is the long, dark shape of the Port San Luis’ Harford Pier.

Opponents aren’t happy that the plan would send hikers north toward the Avila Valley and golf course and away from the ocean view. The final ascent would be on the back of the hill, with the panoramic ocean view returning only once hikers reached the crest.

“There’s absolutely no other advantage to moving the trail than to the McCarthys,” said Tarren Collins, a longtime advocate for keeping the trail open.

Collins has a counterproposal for how the county can address the safety concerns: stairs.

“That’s where people are really daunted — how steep it is,” Collins said. “We’re not reinventing the wheel here; other trails have similar stairs in portions.”

According to Collins, her group has drafted plans with the help of an engineer that would add steps along some of the trail’s steepest parts.

That proposal would be a hard sell to McCarthy.

When asked if he had considered stairs or other fixes to the existing trail rather than relocating it, he said it was a “crazy suggestion,” that “was never seriously considered by me or SLO County.”

The Planning Commission is expected to consider the trail relocation at the County Government Center Board Chambers, 1055 Monterey St., Room D-170, on Thursday at 9 a.m.

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928, @kaytyleslie