SLO County Hike of the Week: Reservoir Canyon

Hiking the Reservoir Canyon Trail

The Reservoir Canyon Trail is a 5.35-mile hike from the base of the Cuesta Grade to the top of a ridge overlooking San Luis Obispo.
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The Reservoir Canyon Trail is a 5.35-mile hike from the base of the Cuesta Grade to the top of a ridge overlooking San Luis Obispo.

The trail: Reservoir Canyon Trail. From San Luis Obispo, head north on Highway 101 and turn right on Reservoir Canyon Road before heading up the Cuesta Grade. Follow the road for about half a mile to the trailhead.

Distance: 5.35 miles roundtrip, rising 1,325 feet from the canyon floor to a ridgeline in the Santa Lucia foothills.

Difficulty: The first half of the hike is level and easy. The second half varies between moderate and difficult as you head up the back of the hill into a series of switchbacks and false summits.

Tips: Definitely bring water and a snack to enjoy at a good resting spot about halfway up or on the ridge above. The second half of the hike is open and sunny, so bring a hat. Also, watch out for poison oak, which grows in abundance along the canyon floor. Plan about three hours for this hike.

Dogs: Dogs are allowed on the trail. We brought two, and both made it to the top without collapsing in the heat.

Parking: Plenty of space is available in a dirt area to the left of the road just before the trailhead.

Facilities: No restrooms or drinking water.

Description: From the trailhead in the 520-acre Reservoir Canyon Natural Reserve, the first half of this hike follows Reservoir Creek in an easy, shady walk. Before you get going, you can choose to take short a detour off to the right to see a small waterfall. The trail then loops back and joins the main trail, which meanders along the canyon floor beside wildflowers and pasture land on the hills to the left. After a little more than a mile, the trail crosses the creek and turns up the backside of the hill. Shortly, you will come upon one of the highlights of this hike: a great resting spot in a clearing that features a giant eucalyptus tree with a rope swing and a collection of odd, scrap-metal sculptures. Catch your breath and enjoy a snack while taking a ride on the swing and enjoying the panoramic view of the Cuesta Grade. From this point on, the trail gets tough, moving into low chaparral and fully exposed to the sun. On warm days, be prepared to work up a sweat as you navigate a series of switchbacks. Over the last mile, you will gain 800 feet in elevation. At various points, you’ll think you’ve reached the top, only to see the trail continue up. At last, you’ll break out of the chaparral into an open field of grass, and within a couple minutes you will reach the ridge line, which tops out at an elevation of 1,715 feet and offers 360-degree views of San Luis Obispo, the Cuesta Grade and the coast in the distance. From here you can follow the trail in either direction along the ridge or just collapse in exhaustion and enjoy the view all the way to the ocean.