Montana de Oro State Park is one of those places that beckons hikers to return again and again. Maybe it's the park's rolling Irish Hills that offer grand Central Coast panoramas. Or maybe it's the sea-scapes: dramatic reefs, broad sand dunes and bluffs smothered in mustard and poppies that give the park its "Mountain of Gold" name.
Most park visitors head for the well-known bluffs south of Spooners Cove and the park's visitors center; however, another attraction north of the cove awaits the adventuresome explorer--a magnificent coastline of reefs, ravines and dunes extending all the way to Morro Bay.
Dipping in and out of ravines just north of Spooners Cove are numerous trails used by hikers, surfers and equestrians. Your improvised route provides fine overlooks of handsome (and accessible) pocket beaches and rocky coves. If it's low tide, you might want to hike for stretches along the beach.
Bluff-top trails bring one to narrow Hazard Canyon, where you join a canyon trail, following it through aromatic eucalyptus, blessed in autumn with congregations of monarch butterflies, down to the beach.
The mighty cliffs and dunes here were the site of practice invasions launched by America's troops-in-training during World War II. In spring, 1995, the shores were again disturbed by explosions, this time by a bomb squad which located and detonated the last of the unexploded ordnance left behind from these war games of half a century ago.
For a shorter ramble you can walk as far as Hazard Canyon. To partake of more of the majesty of this coast, follow either bluff or beach to the southernmost tip of Morro Bay. This hike lends itself to improvisation. If it's low tide, be sure to walk the beach.
Directions to trail head: From U.S. 101 just south of San Luis Obispo, exit on Los Osos Road, heading west for 12 miles until the road turns south to become Pecho Valley Road, which leads to Montana de Oro State Park. Look for a small grassy parking area off Pecho Valley Road just north of Spooners Cove. It's just opposite the start of the Ridge Trail on the opposite side of the road. Alternative parking, if this small lot is full, is available at the horse trailer parking area a short distance north on Pecho Valley Road.
The hike: The signed Dune Trail has two branches: a left branch that makes a half-circle above Spooners Cove and a more direct right branch that heads north. The two join in a quarter mile.
Dune Trail stays behind (on the inland side) of the dunes. Several sandy side trails invite you to climb to the top of the dunes for a look at what's below. (The dunes are a fragile ecology; please heed park service signs and travel only where permitted.) After 1 3/4 miles of sandy trail, you'll reach Hazard Canyon Trail and descend a quarter-mile to the beach.
Along the shore of Hazard Canyon Beach are tide pools, flat rocks for picnicking 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.
Dune Trail continues north, but perhaps a more enjoyable walk is along the beach. You can beachcomb all the way to Sharks Inlet at the southern tip of Morro Bay. Extend your walk even farther by walking the sand spit.
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Dune and Hazard Canyon Trails
WHERE: Montana de Oro State Park, California's Central Coast.
DISTANCE: To Hazard Canyon Reef is 2 miles round trip; to Shark Inlet is 6 miles round trip.
TERRAIN: Bluffs, dunes, rocky reef.
HIGHLIGHTS: Hazard Canyon tide pools, lonely beach.
DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Moderate.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Montana de Oro State Park, Los Osos, CA 93402; tel. (805) 528-0513.