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Weekend Escape: San Luis Obispo

Central Coasting

Sampling a 'new' bike trail and the bounty of orchards

October 18, 1998|NANCY L. BLACKBURN | Blackburn is a Central California-based freelance writer

Just a few miles south of San Luis Obispo--sometimes called SLO Town--flourishes the little-known Avila Valley. For 13 years, this area has invited our family's active exploration as we wandered over trails, traipsed the back roads and tasted the fruit of the land. By midsummer, local orchards of apples, apricots and plums are bringing forth fruit ready to be eaten, and the coveted Gravenstein apples begin to ripen in nearby See Canyon. Through Thanksgiving, farms offer a wide variety of apples: Gala, Matzu, Jona-Gold, Empire, Golden Delicious, Bellflower, Laura Red, Braeburn and Fuji.

For an active outdoor weekend, tote your bike, bring hiking shoes or pack your in-line skates. We had been wanting to pedal the four-mile Avila Valley Bike Trail, which opened in late '96 and joined a pleasing web of country roads and bike trails that already existed in the area. Several resort hotels convenient to bike and hiking trails and area farm stands are perched along the steep bluffs of Pismo Beach, about 10 miles south of SLO. They include Shore Cliff, Shelter Cove Lodge, The Cliffs and the brand-new English-cottage-style Cottage Inn by the Sea. The Cliffs offers a boardwalk stairway down to the rocky beach, while Shelter Cove boasts a private beach. Norm and I booked an ocean-view room at The Cliffs.

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Early Saturday morning we heard the foghorn in the distance--common this time of year. Although drippy fog often hugs the coast, just two miles away Avila Valley burns warm and clear.

We threw our bikes into the car and drove to the Custom House, on Front Street in Avila Beach. Renowned for its hearty meals, this beachfront restaurant features omelets accompanied by San Luis Sourdough toast, a local bread that San Franciscans are known to buy and take home. Over steaming coffee, we pondered the rest of our day's activities.

One choice was to bike north along Avila Beach, turn left at Avila Beach Drive and continue west past a blue-green serpentine rock formation near the entrance to Diablo Nuclear Power Plant. If you do this, inhale the salt air and listen to sea gulls squawking and workers sanding down ships in dry-dock. Fat Cats 24-Hour Cafe in the bustling port area is good eating: Fishermen hunkering over bowls of steaming clam chowder mingle with university students building their own omelets.

Another option: Conditioned bicyclists can make their way to See Canyon Road and pump up the hills of the canyon's apple-growing areas, where warm days and nights with the snap of cold air make for good fruit. See Canyon Road becomes a dirt road (Perfumo Canyon Road) that crests near an old-fashioned windmill. Riders often stop here to admire the view before beginning their descent through the Irish Hills into San Luis Obispo and completing the loop back to Avila Valley.

We decided to set out along the new bike trail, which occupies the old Pacific Coast Railway right-of-way from Avila Beach to Ontario Road, the frontage road for California 1 and U.S. 101--one and the same at that point. Traversing ancestral Chumash Indian grounds, the trail took us through areas of diverse ecology and geology. Heading north up Avila Beach's waterfront, we crossed the bridge where San Luis Creek empties into the Pacific. Past the San Luis Bay Inn and golf course, old dunes turn to coastal sage shrub and chaparral growth, with rolling grasslands stretching behind. In the distance spreads an oak-grassland mixture, with oak woodlands at the horizon.

Pedaling along San Luis Creek, we glimpsed great blue herons, white egrets and black cormorants, as well as other wading shorebirds. The clattering cry of blue herons alerted us to a rookery high in a stand of oaks. For several minutes we gazed upward, fascinated by the graceful flight of herons with 6-foot wingspans silhouetted against the blue sky.

The sound of a waterfall signaled a small dam and fish ladder just around the bend. If you look carefully into the water on a bright day, you may be able to see suckers, trout or salmon swimming upstream. To the north, sparse ferns poke out of rocky crevices, while dried liverwort and moss line shadowy hollows created when ground water formed rounded "solution caves."

We reveled in the abundance of wildflowers. Late summer and autumn bring sprays of peach-colored flowers blossoming on dusty-grey dudleya. Black sage's pink dingleberries dry to a brittle brown, while chamise, coyote bush and yellow sticky monkey flowers dominate the terrain. Beware, and be able to identify poison oak; it abounds here.

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