That's SLO Weird

Why does SLO’s Terrace Hill look so flat on the top?

Editor’s note: “That’s SLO Weird” explores the things that make San Luis Obispo County so wonderful and so ... well ... weird. Wondering about something weird in SLO County? Send your tips to Gabby Ferreira at or @Its_GabbyF on Twitter.

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If you’ve lived in San Luis Obispo County for any length of time, you’re familiar with the area’s morros, or, volcanic plugs, which jut distinctively out of the rolling hills.

Geologically, the morros include Bishop Peak, Cerro San Luis, and smaller hills such as Islay Hill and Terrace Hill.

You may have noticed that Terrace Hill is flat on the top and doesn’t rise to any sort of peak like the others. But why?

According to the city of San Luis Obispo’s 2015 conservation plan for the Terrace Hill Open Space, Terrace Hill was originally conical, like its sisters.

Terrace Hill075
Laura Dickinson

And then humans came into the picture.

“Much of the top of the hill was excavated and removed to provide fill for construction projects elsewhere in town,” according to the city report.

In the 1880s, as the Southern Pacific Railroad expanded through the area, land speculators began buying up parcels of land and dividing them into subdivisions, according to the conservation plan. One of those subdivisions, the Buena Vista Addition, was to be built on Terrace Hill.

But houses were never built on the top of the hill, though “rough grading was done to install roads and water tanks,” the report said. The land went into foreclosure in 1912.

Terrace Hill was later used as a lookout for enemy aircraft during World War II, and Caltrans took “earthen fill and rock” from the hill for use in constructing Highway 101 in 1948, according to the city plan.

A postcard features a picture of San Luis Obispo taken from Terrace Hill. The Tribune

Around the 1950s, some of the property on the hill was sold to a gravel operation, which extracted more earth, according to the city report.

In the early 1970s, Cuesta Valley Properties, owned by John and Charles French, bought the land. More earth was excavated from the hill and used to construct the French Hospital parking lot, the city report said.

Telegram-Tribune archives from the late 1970s and early 1980s indicate that housing developments were proposed on Terrace Hill, but nothing came of them.

“We want to do a good job and to take care of the problems we created on Terrace Hill,” Charles French said in a Dec. 15, 1979 article. “We’ve got an obligation to get it put back in shape.”

The development plans drew public outcry, according to Telegram-Tribune archives from the period.

Terrace Hill070
Laura Dickinson

A group called People Appreciating Terrace Hill (PATH) was formed over concerns that “a proposed development of 92 housing units on Terrace Hill would drastically change the hill,” and affect city traffic patterns, as well as diminish quality of life, according to a March 1979 advertisement in the Telegram-Tribune.

In 1986, Terrace Hill came under the city’s ownership, according to the city report. To this day, it’s available to the public as an open space, with trails for hiking and biking.

“This oversized grassy knoll is surrounded by the history of the community — the downtown and Cal Poly to the north, the railroad to the east and the ever-growing new development to the south,” said a 1993 Telegram-Tribune column. “Terrace Hill is both a nearby refuge from the city and a unique vantage point from which to witness the evolution of San Luis Obispo.”

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Gabby Ferreira is a breaking news and general assignment reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo. A native of Houston, Texas, she was a reporter in Tucson, Arizona; Indianapolis, Indiana; and Palm Springs, California, before moving to San Luis Obispo County in 2016.