The 100-mile-long San Luis Obispo County coast offers a lot of great hiking--across wide sandy beaches, dramatic dunes, around protected bays and over rugged headlands.
One of the gems of California's central coast is Montana de Oro State Park, near San Luis Obispo. The park includes two kinds of coastline. The southern part of the park has some theatrical, Big Sur-like cliffs, while the northern part is dominated by wind-swept sand dunes--great heaps of sand held in place by ice plant, verbena, grasses, sea rocket and silver lupine.
At the turn of the century, the greater portion of what is now known as Montana de Oro State Park was part of the Spooner Ranch. The most popular beach in the park is Spooner's Cove, whose isolation made it an ideal landing spot for contrabandistas during the Mission era and for bootleggers during Prohibition.
In the spring, atop the bluffs, grow fields of mustard and poppies, which give the park its "mountain of gold" name. While hiking the park's bluffs, you may see harbor seals venturing ashore or otters diving for food beyond the surf line. Bird watchers delight at the pelicans, albatross, cormorants and crimson-billed black oyster catchers.
Dune Trail meanders north from park headquarters atop bluffs and dunes. The trail is sometimes difficult to follow because a number of equestrian trails and other paths cross the main trail.
Not much is in bloom along Montana de Oro's coastline right now. However, the starkness of the dunes, the dramatic light and the special feeling of this beach during winter adds up to a splendid walk along land's end.
Intrepid hikers can extend this walk north to another state park--Morro Bay. A four-mile sand-spit trail crosses the sand dunes that separate Morro Bay on the inland side of the spit and Estero Bay on the ocean side.
Directions to trail head: From Highway 101 in San Luis Obispo, exit on Los Osos Valley Road and continue northwest for 12 miles until the road turns south to become Pecho Valley Road. That road leads to Montana de Oro State Park. Park in the lot at Spooner Cove.
The hike: Walk 75 yards north on Pecho Valley Road to a turnout on your left. You'll soon join signed Dune Trail.
Dune Trail, in the early going, doesn't seem too dunelike because there's ample vegetation anchoring the earth. However, the trail itself is sandy and gives your legs a good workout. Walk quietly and you may see deer browsing the bluffs.
From the bluffs, about 80 feet above sea level, you'll get good inland views of the Irish Hills, which extend across the park. After a lot of rain, the hills turn an emerald green that compares favorably with just about anything in Ireland.
You'll also get good vistas to the north of Morro Rock at Morro Bay, and even San Simeon.
Dominating the seascape of Morro Bay is the "Gibraltar of the Pacific," 576-foot-high Morro Rock, first sighted by Capt. Juan Cabrillo in 1542. It's quite photogenic from here. However, if you're in Morro Bay itself, the challenge is to frame a picture of the rock without including the unsightly, sky-scraping smoke stacks of the Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s power plant at water's edge.
A long mile from the trail head, you'll reach an unsigned intersection with a coastward-bound side trail that leads down narrow Hazzard Canyon. Dune Trail continues north through a eucaluptus grove, then back onto the dunes high above the surf line.
Most hikers will want to head for the coast, following the path west through aromatic eucalyptus--blessed in autumn with congregations of monarch butterflies--down to the beach.
Along the shore of Hazzard Canyon Beach are tide pools and superb surfing. Also at the beach are thousands of wave-polished sandstone rocks with Swiss-cheese-like holes in them. These holes are bored by the piddock, an industrious member of the mollusk family.
North of the tide pool area is a great beach, long and wide. Follow it for two miles until the bluffs on your right begin to recede. At this point, you can decide whether to march onward to the Morro Bay Sand Spit, return the same way or head inland and explore the dunes. I prefer poking around the dunes, but returning to the trail head via the beach.
Atop the dunes, you'll find not just Dune Trail but several paths that meander over the sand. Some improvisation will be required to get back to the trail head, but as long as you head south you won't get lost. The dune route dips in and out of, and circles around, a number of ravines on a series of horse and surfer trails.
Your improvised route provides fine overlooks and skirts the edge of the state park's nonnative, but nonetheless pleasant, eucalyptus woodland.
If you poke carefully around the dunes, you might find shell mounds left behind by the Chumash, who occupied this coast for centuries. They piled clams, cockles, snail and even land game in these kitchen middens. Inspect the shell mounds with care; all park archeological resources are protected by law.
HIKING / Coastal Dunes, San Luis Obispo County Dune Trail * Where: Montana de Oro State Park * Length: 7 miles round trip * Terrain: Beach, bluffs * Highlights: Splendid sand dunes, great views of Morro Bay * Degree of Difficulty: Moderate * Precautions: Poison oak, beach best at low tide * For more information: Call the Montana de Oro State Park c/o Morro Bay State Park at (805) 772-2560 / 772-8812.