Thar's gold in them hills--for the hiker.
One of the gems of the California state park system is Montana de Oro State Park. The park name, Mountain of Gold in Spanish, refers to the park's spring display of yellow wildflowers.
The park is located about 200 miles north of Los Angeles near San Luis Obispo. A day trip is not out of the question, but a weekend jaunt is far more relaxing.
To reach the park, take U.S. 101 to San Luis Obispo. Exit on Los Osos Road, driving 12 miles west. The road turns south to become Pecho Valley Road and leads into the park. Drive almost three miles past the park entrance sign to reach park headquarters, the campground, and Spooners Cove.
The trail debarks from the south side of Spooners Cove and travels atop rugged cliffs. The park service has placed several signs which state the obvious: "Danger, Sheer Cliffs." Some mustard now adorns the cliffs and reminds you of the park's name.
The hike: The trail begins a hundred yards south of the campground, on the west side of Pecho Valley Road. The path crosses a dry creek on a footbridge and leads up to the bluffs overlooking Spooners Cove.
A half mile from the trailhead, a short fork to the right leads to Corallina Cove, bedecked with sea-polished broken shells and beautiful beach pebbles. The crystal-clear tidepools are full of anemones, starfish, mussels and colorful snails.
Continuing on the Bluffs Trail, you'll cross a wooden bridge. A mile from the trailhead is Quarry Cove, also with fine tidepools. The wide trail, lined with thistle and New Zealand spinach, eventually brings you to an overlook above some sea caves. Beyond is Grotto Rock.
You may return the same way, or bear left and return to the trailhead via Pecho Valley Road, or cross Pecho Valley Road to the trailhead for Coon Creek Trail.
From a distance, you might suspect that 1,345-foot Valencia Peak is one of the morros-- those distinct cone-shaped mountains that dot the San Luis Obispo County coast south of Moro Bay. However, Valencia Peak rose out of the sea in relatively recent geologic time.
The peak's oceanic origins are revealed by its upper slopes, which were once beaches. You can find strands of beach sand, and rocks that have been bored out by clams. Atop the mountain are fossil shells. The hike: Valencia Peak Trail begins at the signed trailhead across the campground road from park headquarters. The trail follows a stretch of grass along Pecho Valley Road to the south a few hundred yards, then turns inland and starts upslope to the east. You'll soon be able to distinguish a series of marine terraces on the mountain.
After a half mile, the trail bears left and heads directly toward the peak. You dip in and out of a dry gully and begin switchbacking over outcroppings of Monterey shale--traces of former sea cliffs.
As the trail levels out you'll go left at a trail junction, then begin switchbacking again, more steeply this time. From the summit, you'll look out over the (mostly) unspoiled central coast. You can see the twenty-million-year-old volcanic peaks of Morro Rock, Hollister Peak, Black Mountain.
Enjoy the view and return the same way.
Coon Creek is a year-round creek that winds through the Irish Hills along a lush canyon to the sea. The vegetation is so thick in the canyon that hikers often pass within a few feet of the creek, hear its murmuring, yet are unable to see it. Ancient bishop pines line the banks. The canyon teems with wildlife--black-tailed deer, rabbits, possum, and, of course, raccoons.
This hike follows the creek, crossing it a half dozen times. The trail is very well groomed, but beware of the extraordinary amount of poison oak that grows alongside Coon Creek.
The hike: The trailhead is located at the end of Pecho Valley Road, one mile past the entrance to the campground. A parking area is next to the trailhead.
The trail soon descends into Coon Creek Canyon. Crossing and re-crossing the creek on good footbridges, you pass under moss-covered oaks. Trail's end occurs in a mixed stand of old oaks and cedars. Here you'll find the crumbling remains of an old shack.
Montana de Oro Bluffs Trail
Spooners Cove to Grotto Rock: four miles roundtrip.
Valencia Peak Trail
Montana de Oro State Park Headquarters to Valencia Peak: four miles roundtrip; 1,300-foot elevation gain.
Coon Creek Trail
Pecho Valley Road to Old Shack: five miles roundtrip; 200-foot elevation gain.