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9 of San Luis Obispo County's Best Coastal Hikes

Flickinpicks via Flickr/ Creative Commons License
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This guide is part of KCET's California Coastal Trail project, which looks at the state's massive undertaking to build a trail over 1,000 miles in length along its whole coastline.

San Luis Obispo's rugged beauty extends all the way along its roughly 80-mile coast. There is no shortage of rocky headlands, stately bluffs, vast expanses of sand, river mouths, wetlands, or mountains along the Pacific. Driving might be a popular way to see this region, but hiking on the county's innumerable miles of trails takes in many more of the Central Coast's subtle beauties, from mountaintops to remote beaches.

Cave Landing

.5 miles, Easy

Cave Landing | Photo:Cat Burton/Flickr/Creative Commons License

 This is one of those hikes with a very high effort-to-reward ratio. Clocking in at a half-mile round trip, this flat trail is a snap for anyone, and grants dramatic coastal views just about the whole way. The culmination is threading through Pirate's Cave, a wide rock tunnel boring through the headland to an exposed viewing perch. The trail begins from a parking lot at end of Cave Landing Road in Avila Beach.

Bluff Trail

3.5 miles, Easy

The Bluff Trail at Montana de Oro State Beach | Photo:Linda Tanner/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The famously enchanting rocky Central Coast coastline is on full display here, on the headlands between Avila Beach and Morro Bay. The Bluff Trail gives hikers a lovely taste of it all. Tide pools, Spooner's Cove, and the resolute Grotto Rock, a tall outcropping with a cave eroded through its very base, all on the menu. At a flat three-and-a-half miles, it's an easy walk, to boot. Find a trailhead in a parking lot on Pecho Valley Road, near the state park visitor center. This hike is 3.5 miles, out and back.

Valencia Peak

3.7 miles, Easy

The view from Valencia Peak | Photo:Miguel Vieira/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Valencia Peak serves up enchanting coastal views during the hike to its 1,347-foot summit. And once there, it rewards with 360-degree views of the ocean and the rugged country to the east. The 3.7-mile roundtrip hike starts near sea level, at a parking area by the Montana de Oro State Park visitor center, so you have to earn nearly all the elevation.

Hazard Peak

6 miles, Moderate

Hazard Peak | Photo:Howard Ignatius/Flickr/Creative Commons License

At 1,076-feet, Hazard Peak is twice as tall as surrounding peaks, making it the ideal perch from which survey the coast and mountains. The 6-mile round-trip trudge passes through sagebrush and eucalyptus, and grants views of the Montana de Oro State Park backcountry, some of the Nine Sisters, and the ocean horizon.

Hazard Reef

2 miles, Easy

Hazard Reef | Photo:Ken-ichi Ueda/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The rocky point known as Hazard Reef hosts the best of both worlds -- rocky and sandy -- that make up most of the coast in this region. The rocky tidepools invite gazing upon sea stars, anemonies, barnacles and whatever other creatures they might hide. And a sandy beach nearby invites lounging on soft terrain. The short trail isn't much in its own right. This 2-mile round-trip trail is all about the destination. Find the trailhead on Pecho Valley Road, north of the Montana de Oro State Park visitor center.

Morro Strand Trail

3.5 miles, Easy

Morro Beach | Photo:Howard Ignatius/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Beginning from Cloisters Park in Morro Bay, this 3.5-mile round trip walk will lead you through wetlands, sand dunes, onto the beach and ultimately to the hulking mass that makes this stretch of coast so iconic. The 576-foot Morro Rock, a sanctuary for Peregrine falcons, is a paradise for birders and casual nature lovers alike. It's also the first of the Nine Sisters, volcanic formations in the area that were important navigational points for Juan Cabrillo, who spotted them in 1542.

Headlands Trail

4.5 miles, Easy

Harmony Headlands State Park | Photo:Chuck Abbe/Flickr/Creative Commons License

 While not the most dramatic coastal landscape in the county, Harmony Headlands State Park embodies the rolling coastal terrain that makes up parts of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. The Headlands Trail winds through the hills in a 4.5 mile loop before depositing hikers onto the rocky shores. The trail takes in some of the coast before looping back to the main branch.

Moonstone Beach Boardwalk

3 miles

Moonstone Beach Boardwalk | Photo:Don & Suzan Weller/Flickr/Creative Commons License

 This path is a portal to the Cambria coast, another appealing mix of rocky shore and sandy beaches, easily accessible by this flat, 3-mile round-trip trail and boardwalk. Somewhere just north of this spot is what most consider the beginning of Big Sur, a region defined more by ambience than geography. Find the trailhead near El Colibri Hotel and amble north, tidepooling, lounging on the beach, seal watching, or whatever strikes your fancy.

Piedras Blancas Rookery

3 miles

Elephant Seals at Piedras Blancas |
Elephant seals at Piedras Blancas | Photo:Amaury Laporte/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Wildlife is a defining factor of the Central Coast, from the Peregrine falcons of Morro Rock to the whales, dolphins, and the honking, stinking elephant seals of San Simeon. With the males clocking in at a slender 5,000 pounds, are a sight to behold. The blubbery beasts are there to mate, molt, and give birth, and their colony makes a fine place to begin a three-mile round-trip jaunt up the coast. A parking lot along the highway gives quick access to the rookery. A trail at the northern end hugs the coast to the picturesque Piedras Blancas Light Station.

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