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A New Coastal Trail to Pt. San Luis Lighthouse

March 07, 1993|JOHN McKINNEY

Between Montana De Oro State Park and Avila Beach is 10 miles of Central California coast that nobody knows, and where nobody goes.

The reason for the area's obscurity is that this land has been privately held since Spanish Mission days. For the last quarter-century or so, public access has been strictly forbidden because of a very security-conscious landowner: Pacific Gas & Electric, whose Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant is in the middle of this pristine stretch of coast.

Newly constructed Pecho Coast Trail opens up part of this coast to limited public access. The new pathway climbs the steep bluffs above Avila Beach to the historic Pt. San Luis Lighthouse, then crosses a coastal terrace to an oak woodland. The Nature Conservancy, which provides interpretive services in this region and whose area office is in San Luis Obispo, leads twice-weekly hiking tours along the trail. Reservations are required.

At press time, Ken Wiley, Central Coast manager for The Nature Conservancy, reported a "temporary" cancellation of the group's guided hike program because of a dispute between the Conservancy and Pacific Gas & Electric over liability insurance for the hikes. However, both sides were optimisic that the Conservancy would resume accepting reservations for its docent-led hikes "within a week or so."

Diablo and the other coastal canyons were the hunting grounds of the Chumash Indians and their predecessors, who inhabited this region more than 9,000 years ago. In 1968, PG&E began construction of the controversial Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. Engineering difficulties and court challenges, as well as mass demonstrations over the building of reactors close to an active earthquake fault, slowed but did not stop the plant, which opened in 1986.

The $300,000 pathway project was funded by PG&E; the trail was a concession negotiated by the California Coastal Commission when it granted the utility permission for a 1983 construction project. The California Conservation Corps built and engineered Pecho Coast Trail. (The power plant, incidentally, is not visible from the trail, which dead-ends a couple miles away from it.)

A trail highlight is a tour of the old Pt. San Luis Lighthouse, built in 1890. The "Victorian Lady," as it's known to locals, warned ships of the rocky coast until 1975, when the facility was deactivated and replaced by an automated beacon.

The Nature Conservancy docents who lead the tours are enthusiastic folks who share lots of nature lore and local history. Those hikers who want a workout more than a nature walk are apt to get fidgety during the guided tour, which is geared to the slowest hikers and takes six to seven hours to cover seven miles.

A guided hike on the new trail, a post-hike visit to funky Avila Beach for burgers and beer, a soak in one of the hot tubs at nearby Sycamore Mineral Springs and an overnight stay at one of the San Luis Obispo area's many inns or B&Bs add up to a memorably mellow weekend on the Central Coast.

Directions to trail head: From U.S. 101, a little north of Pismo Beach and a little south of San Luis Obispo, exit on Avila Beach Drive and follow it four miles to the gated entrance road of the Diablo Nuclear Power Plant. Park along Avila Beach Drive and join one of The Nature Conservancy docents who will guide you along the hike.

The hike: Don't judge a trail by its trail head. At first, Pecho Coast Trail appears to be entering a minimum-security prison. However, it soon leaves the gates and barbed wire behind and begins ascending the dramatic bluffs above San Luis Obispo Bay via a narrow asphalt road.

Veering from the road, you'll join signed Pecho Coast Trail and get great over-the-shoulder views of the bay's three piers (from north to south: Harford, Unocal, Avila), as well as Avila Beach. Pacific currents carry sand past mostly rocky San Luis Obispo Bay, but deposits sand en masse at Pismo Beach and its southern neighbors, Grover Beach and Oceano. Forming a dramatic backdrop to these beaches are the sparkling Nipomo Dunes.

The trail climbs into an oak grove where a memorial plaque is dedicated to Pat Stebbins (1940-1990), a former California Coastal Commission official known for her tireless advocacy of public access and her encyclopedic knowledge of coastal politics.

The path rejoins the asphalt road for a short distance and soon reaches the lighthouse. After learning about the lonely lives of the lighthouse keepers and their families, you'll hit the trail again, traveling north atop the coastal bluffs.

Pecho Coast Trail dips down to the coastal terrace, where you'll pass among grazing cattle. Advancing very quietly, you'll sneak a peek at the harbor seals and sea otters that sometimes haul out at low tide on shore.

The path loops through an oak grove, where you'll take a lunch break. After lunch, you'll return the way you came. The panorama of San Luis Obispo Bay is even better on the way back.

Take a hike with John McKinney's guidebook: "Walk Los Angeles: Adventures on the Urban Edge " ($14.95). Send check or money order to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Dept. 1, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

Irish Hills, San Luis Obisop Bay / Pecho Coast Trail Where: Pt. San Luis, Avita Beach Distance: 7 1/4 miles round trip, with 400-foot elevation gain. Terrain: Green Irish Hills, dramatic coastal bluffs. Highlights: New trail with guided tour, historic lighthouse. Watchable wildlife includes seabirds, seals, otters. Degree of difficulty: Moderate, with a few short, strenuous stretches. Precautions: Dress warmly. Remember, reservations are needed for this hike. For more information: Write for a trail brochure and information about free hiking tours from The Nature Conservancy, Central Coast Preserves, P.O. Box 15810, San Luis Obispo, Calif. 93406, or call (805) 541-TREK: best time to call: 9 a.m.-noon, Monday-Thursday.

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