Montana De Oro

“Landmark Arch at San Luis Obispo Beach Crumbles in Storm,” read the headline in the Los Angeles Times on January 5, 2022. The recent collapse of the arch at Spooner’s Cove in Montaña de Oro State Park near Los Osos made news in California, briefly exposing to the world a rare, out-of-the-way beauty that craves little attention. Not every state park in California is easy to find, and that’s a good thing for those who believe that the most beautiful places in California should always be protected from the price of popularity. Montaña de Oro (“Mountain of Gold” in Spanish) is one of those special places, and today remains some of the most untouched publicly-owned land in the state.

Six miles southwest of Morro Bay and two miles south of Los Osos, Montaña de Oro, formed by centuries of volcano activity, plate movement, erosion and weather, reminds seasoned travelers of Maui and Big Sur rolled into one dramatic oceanfront amphitheater. Locals have long revered the park for its spectacular lookout points to watch sunsets on the Pacific, knowing that the Chumash and Salinians Indians practiced the same ritual 20,000 years ago, confirming little has changed over the millennia. Locals also know the secret shortcuts through brush and eucalyptus trees to the best beaches and surfing spots unknown to the general public.

Dedicated as a California State Park in 1965, Montaña de Oro has 8,000 acres of rough cliffs, seven miles of secluded shoreline, sandy beaches, coastal plains, streams, canyons and hills, including 1,347-foot Valencia Peak. The park has many hiking, mountain biking, equestrian trails and horse camps, as well as limited campground located across from Spooner’s Cove. The Bluff Trail is an easy and popular trail along the scenic coast. Trails lead to the summits of Valencia Peak, Oats Peak and Hazard Peak.

Here’s a brief rundown of some of the most popular hiking and biking trials in the park.

Bluff Trail. Difficulty: Easy. 3.4-mile out-and-back. Trail skirts rugged coastline, bluffs and tide pools. The trailhead is near the Montaña de Oro visitor center and Spooner Ranch House, and begins with a wooden bridge, followed by ocean vistas. After a half mile, stop at Corallina Cove or continue hiking on more native trail to Quarry Cove.

Valencia Peak Trail. Difficulty: Intermediate. At 4.5 miles round trip and 1,275 feet in elevation. Offers a 360-degree view in return for a hike. At 1,347 feet, the peak is one of the park’s tallest. Begins at the parking area just beyond Spooner’s Cove, across from the Bluff Trail trailhead. Take the single-track Valencia Peak Trail inland through wild sage, a series of switchbacks and some steep terrain. At the top, sit at the picnic table and enjoy views of Morro Rock, Cerro Cabrillo and Point Buchon. No fee or permit required on the trails, but no dogs. Bring sunscreen as there’s little shade.

Hazard Peak Trail. Difficulty: Easy/Intermediate. Essential Central Coast hike. Clear views of Morro Bay and beyond from its 1,076-foot peak. Roundtrip, the hike spans six miles and climbs an elevation of 950 feet. Unlike the Valencia Peak Trail, Hazard Peak Trail ascends steadily rather than steeply. Stay to the right and pass sagebrush, eucalyptus groves and expanding views of the ocean. At the top, find benches and a picnic table for taking in the 360-degree view. Just after entering the park find the trailhead on the left, before Spooner’s Cove.

Islay Creek Trail. Difficulty: Easy. Six miles round trip. Easy-going canyon hike with access to a small waterfall. Elevation gain is just 300 feet. Start the trail at the mouth of a stream at Spooner’s Cove. Take the dirt trail inland from Spooner’s Cove, past the Islay Creek Campground. Great views of both Valencia Peak and Hazard Peak. Find a waterfall after just 1.4 miles in Islay Creek. At three miles into the trail, turn at the abandoned barn for return lap.

Oats Peak Trail. Difficulty: Intermediate. At 1,373 feet tall, Oats Peak lies further inland from Valencia Peak but offers better views of the Irish Hills to the east. A gradual trail with plenty of switchbacks ascends 1,325 feet over 10.8 miles round trip. Wide-open views abound along the way. The trailhead begins behind the Spooner Ranch House along the road to Islay Creek Campground. A sign for the Reservoir Flats Trail and Oats Peak Trail stands beside a dirt trail. Junctions mention the “Old Oaks Peat Trail,” but stick with the New Oats Peak Trail, as it is complete and more gradual. (Most trail intersections are marked well along the way.) Find patches of shade along the ascent, a trickling stream and expansive views of the ocean. Note: the last 0.15 mile section of the trail is the steepest. At the summit find scenic views of Morro Rock and the San Simeon coastline beyond.

Reservoir Flats Trail. Difficulty: Easy/Intermediate. Two-mile loop takes in a 200-foot elevation gain and offers a variety of views. Find the trailhead between the Spooner Ranch House and the Islay Creek Campground entrance, marked by a sign. After 0.3 miles, bear left at the junction of Reservoir Flats Trail and Oats Peak Trail. Walk through the empty reservoir which once served the Spooner home below. Enjoy a forested walk through a canyon of cottonwood trees and oaks. At the edge of the Islay Creek Campground, walk through the campground to return to the trailhead to finish. Mountain Biking in the Park. Magnificent views and well-maintained trails make the park a mountain biker’s paradise. Depending on the trail, a full suspension bike is best (but not necessarily essential). Note: Hikers and bikers share trails, so please use a bell for the safety of everyone!