Changes planned at SLO's Bishop Peak amid growing popularity

Alan Houser hikes a little ahead of wife Helene Gordon. They celebrated their 37-year anniversary hiking Bishop Peak on Thursday.
Alan Houser hikes a little ahead of wife Helene Gordon. They celebrated their 37-year anniversary hiking Bishop Peak on Thursday. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Hikers climbing Bishop Peak in San Luis Obispo may soon see some changes at the iconic recreational landmark.

The destination has grown so popular, the city says, that it needs more oversight, improved trail maintenance and better access for emergency responders. It’s even considering no longer advertising the city’s most recognizable peak as a hiking destination.

A proposed conservation update for Bishop Peak Natural Reserve will go before the City Council on Tuesday, and includes recommendations to hire additional rangers to patrol and maintain the area’s network of trails.

“Basically, you’ll see a lot more city presence on Bishop Peak,” said Robert Hill, the city’s natural resource manager.

Public workshops held

The official access point for a two-mile hiking trail to the 1,546-foot peak is at Patricia and Highland drives in a residential neighborhood off Foothill Boulevard.

The trail begins its ascent on the mountain’s tree-shaded north side, then winds around to the rocky, exposed south face, where hikers negotiate a series of switchbacks to reach the summit and its spectacular 360-degree view of San Luis Obispo County.

The city’s first and last conservation plan for Bishop Peak was adopted in 2004. For the 2015 update, city staff hosted two public workshops in May to gather resident input. The proposed update was adopted by both the city Planning Commission and the Parks and Recreation Commission.

Good neighbor policy

In response, the city proposes installing animal-proof trash receptacles at trailheads and “mutt mitt” dispensers for dog owners.

With no dedicated parking for hikers, their parked cars routinely line the neighborhood streets around the mountain. Nighttime hiking, which is banned, also remains a problem.

In response, the city is proposing a Good Neighbor Policy that includes better communication with residents, more parking enforcement on Patricia and Highland drives and clearly marked signs warning of fines for overnight parking.

The city has also pledged to cease promotion of Bishop Peak as a tourist destination in its advertisements and publications.

Major issues affecting the preserve also include trail degradation due to erosion, poor signage and use of unofficial trails.

To help hikers navigate the peak, the city proposes upgrading trail signs, making trail maps more available and installing two informational kiosks.

Erosion will be addressed through continued trail rehabilitation projects, which will be monitored for their effectiveness, according to the staff report.

Climbers as stewards

The Parks and Recreation Commission has proposed appointing a committee of climbers to advise on the management and inspection of climbing walls and how to clamp down on unauthorized installation of climbing bolts.

Many hikers access Bishop Peak from Foothill Boulevard, but that is an unofficial trailhead. The update recommends the city create a formal trailhead and parking area. Hill said such a project is in early stages and will require coordination with the county.

With an average of two to three calls for emergency assistance on the trail every month, as well as fire danger from the current drought, improvements for emergency vehicle access was also taken into consideration in the update.

As a result, the city considered a new drive-able trail approximately 580 feet long and eight feet wide above Patricia Drive — a proposal that drew the ire of many neighborhood residents. The city is no longer recommending that trail but urges a study of alternative locations.

According to the staff report, the owner of property above Brittany Court, which has historically been used as an emergency access point, is no longer willing to allow access through his property. The city anticipates pursuing negotiations to expand an existing easement used for utility maintenance.

Hiring rangers

“That was the predominant piece of public comment we received, the need for more rangers up there,” Hill said.

Hiking enthusiast Gary Felsman, for whom the Felsman Loop trail is named, expressed support for the update, namely the proposed trash receptacles at the trailheads.

“No ifs, ands, or buts about it — if you put garbage cans outside of the trails, people don’t use them,” Felsman said.

Mary Ciesinski, executive director of the Environment Center of San Luis Obispo County, which leads docent-led hikes on Bishop Peak, said the organization also supports the update after being heavily involved in the public process.

“What we’ve seen is overuse and a lack of enforcement with the existing rules there. (Hikers) can kind of love it to death, so to speak,” Ciesinski said. “We’re seeing a lot of trash on the trails, off-trail use, dogs left off the leash. More rangers are a necessity.”