Hiking in San Luis Obispo County is a way of life. There are hundreds of trails to satisfy any number of desires when it comes to getting outside, whether it’s conquering a 1,000-plus-foot mountain or meandering along a shoreline path.
But when it comes to getting the whole family out, you’ll want to steer clear of the hikes that are more rock climbing than a casual stroll. Here are five hikes that are perfect for the kids and grandma and grandpa that still allow you to breathe in that fresh Central Coast air and soak in the area’s beautiful landscapes.
Getting there: Take Grand Avenue in San Luis Obispo into the Cal Poly campus. Turn right on South Perimeter Road and again on Village Drive. Find parking and begin walking on Poly Canyon Road.
Distance: About 3 miles round trip; about a two- to three-hour hike total.
Difficulty: Easy. The walk out is flat and covers about 300 feet of elevation gain — mostly at the end. The walk back is slightly uphill.
Tips: Bring a camera to snap some pictures of the 15 design projects of former architecture and engineering students. Water is recommended; much of the hike out is exposed and the water available in the Design Village is nonpotable.
Parking: If there’s parking near the entrance to Poly Canyon, it’s a short walk to the start of the trail. Otherwise it might be a bit farther to the entrance. Temporary parking passes run $3 for two hours, $4 for three hours and $5 for the day.
Facilities: No bathrooms or drinking fountains. The bathrooms were boarded up as of printing date. No garbage cans.
Description: Stay on Poly Canyon Road until you reach a stone arch. A map of the “Architectural Graveyard” will be to the left. Pass through the stone walls and across the bridge to the Graveyard. If you’re feeling adventurous, cross Brizzioli Creek — which runs parallel to the road — and walk along the running water to the entrance. Just past the Poly Canyon Village there should be a well-worn path leading across the creek. The other side isn’t as flat, so be warned. This is a family-friendly hike that is great for all ages.
Getting there: Take Highway 1 from San Luis Obispo for 46 miles, past San Simeon, until you reach Elephant Seal Vista Point.
Distance: 3.8 miles out and back.
Difficulty: Easy. As far as hikes go, this is as easy as it gets, with grassy, wide, well-marked and well-maintained trails. It’s more about the views and wildlife than the workout.
Tips: It only takes about an hour and a half to complete the out-and-back hike, so you might want to bring a small snack and a little bit of water, but nothing major.
Dogs: Dogs are not allowed.
Parking: You can either park at the main Elephant Seal Vista point parking lot or another parking lot about a quarter-mile north. Parking at the main parking lot will add a little distance to your hike, but the northernmost parking lot is usually less crowded and is where the Boucher Trail officially starts. There is also a third parking lot at the very end of the trail 2 miles north that provides a third option. All parking is free.
Facilities: There are no bathrooms or garbage cans on the trail.
Description: This leisurely stroll along the cliffs of Piedras Blancas is the perfect hike for anyone who wants to add a little something extra to their elephant seal visit. There are two lookout spots along the hike that offer great views of the elephant seals without the crowds usually found at the main vista. The first spot is about a 10-minute walk and the next spot is about 15 minutes later. If you really want to make a day of it, take a guided tour of the Piedras Blancas Light Station, which sits right in the middle of the trail. The tour costs $10 for adults and is offered every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 9:45 a.m.
Johnson Ranch Open Space
Getting there: Take Highway 101 from San Luis Obispo for about 5 miles to the South Higuera Street exit on the south edge of town. The trailhead is .6 from the offramp.
Distance: 3.7-mile loop
Difficulty: Easy. With only about 200 feet of elevation gain, this short hike rates as one of the easier treks in San Luis Obispo County.
Tips: A water bottle is recommended, particularly on warm summer days. The trail is flat enough in most places to run, mountain bike or take the dog out for an evening hike.
Dogs: Dogs are allowed, and quite popular, but must remain on a leash.
Parking: There is plenty of available parking at the bottom of the horseshoe bend, though it does fill up in the evenings around sunset.
Facilities: There are no public restrooms or drinking water available.
Description: Conveniently located just off Highway 101 between San Luis Obispo and Pismo Beach, the Johnson Ranch Open Space offers a peaceful getaway that doesn’t require much preparation. The rolling hills and grassy slopes snake through a line of sycamores leading up to a small footbridge over Dry Creek. While the panoramic views don’t compare to Bishop Peak or Cerro Alto, the Johnson Ranch Open Space provides a visually pleasing destination for an after-work hike or potentially challenging mountain bike ride.
Getting there: From San Luis Obispo, take Highway 101 north to Paso Robles. Take the Spring Street exit, turn right on Niblick Road, and then take another right on S. River Road. Turn right on Riverbank Lane and follow that to Lawrence Moore Park, where there is plenty of street parking.
Distance: 2 miles from Lawrence Moore Park to the Charolais Road.
Tips: It can get very hot in Paso Robles, which is the most difficult part of the walk, so don’t forget your water.
Dogs: Allowed on a leash. Poop baggies available on the route.
Parking: Free street parking at Lawrence Moore Park, at the south end of the River Walk.
Facilities: Bathrooms available in Lawrence Moore Park, but they’re closed on weekdays.
Description: The Salinas River Walk is a flat, wheelchair-accessible hike along a stretch of the Salinas River in Paso Robles. You can choose to hike the full 2 miles up to north Paso, or wander around the meandering trails and loops near Lawrence Moore Park if you prefer a shorter hike. It’s a simple and picturesque walk, with plenty of song birds, chirping insects and flowering poppies to stimulate the senses and views of the Salinas riverbed.
Getting there: From San Luis Obispo, take Highway 1 about 5 miles north of Cayucos. When you see the Linn’s of Cambria billboard in the distance, you’re almost to the trailhead. Resist following your sweet tooth to Cambria, and turn left into the trailhead parking lot across from the billboard.
Distance: 4.5-mile lollipop loop; it’s about 1.5 to 2 miles from parking lot to Pacific Ocean view.
Difficulty: Easy and fairly flat. You’ll see 7-year-olds, 70-year-olds and moms with BOB strollers.
Tips: If it’s whale-migration season, you may see a few spouts out at sea (or, if you are lucky, a whale breaching), so bring binoculars to get a closer look at the show. It’s always a good idea to bring along water on any hike, and because the beginning of the Headlands Trail is sometimes much sunnier and warmer than the often windy and foggy conditions right along the coastline, dress in layers. Last but not least, as a sign at the trail’s entrance warns, beware of ticks.
Dogs: Leave your four-legged best friends at home. (Bicycles are also not allowed.)
Parking: The parking lot just off Highway 1 can accommodate about 10 vehicles.
Facilities: There is a portable toilet near the beginning of the hike next to a historic ranch house. Need to take a rest? There are a couple of benches along the way.
Description: This easy hike has a big payoff: panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. But you wouldn’t necessarily know that when you take your first steps west. The trail in the 784-acre coastal park starts in a grassland valley that was once a cattle ranch and a dairy. Follow the relatively wide trail through several habitats between ridges. In addition to the grasslands, you’ll encounter a corridor of thistle, rocky outcrops, a manmade pond and coastal scrub. Along the way, songbirds will serenade you, and you’ll likely spot some lizards and maybe even a brush rabbit.
As you near the ocean, the cool breeze will kick in. The ocean will stay mostly hidden until you round a corner marked by a single tree.
And then there it is: arguably one of the best views along San Luis Obispo County’s coast. Marvel at the beauty of the terrace dropping off into the ocean, where there are otters at play — or even whales. If you follow the trail to its end, you hit a lollipop loop and can walk at the continent’s edge (there isn’t a route down to the water). The full hike doesn’t take more than two hours to complete, unless you take a seat and watch the waves.