San Luis Obispo is a city in Central California with an abundance of natural beauty, great weather, and friendly people. The numerous options for hiking in San Luis Obispo make this place a perfect playground for outdoor enthusiasts. Where else can you start the day by eating a wholesome meal downtown, maybe even indulging in some shopping, and then walk over or take a short ride to hike one of its beautiful mountains? Whether you’re looking for a gentle climb with a view, or a strenuous climb to get that heart rate up, there is a San Luis Obispo hike just for you.
The city is the pulsing heart of San Luis Obispo County which also includes breathtaking coastal locales like Morro Bay, Cambria, and Pismo Beach. The city and county’s acronym SLO reflects the true spirit of a slower, relaxed, and neighborly side of California. It is a California that is less traveled, perhaps overshadowed by the more famed northern region.
It can be tough to decide where to head with your hiking boots with more than 50 miles of trails. Here is a breakdown of the six main trails and regions for hiking in San Luis Obispo to get you started.
1. Irish Hills Open Space – Best Moderate San Luis Obispo Hike
Recommended Trail: Froom Creek, Poppy, Morro View, Quickshot, Mariposa, and King Trail Loop
Distance: 5.3 miles loop
Irish Hills is a great natural reserve with 11 interconnected moderate trails stretching for more than eight miles.
These allow for great hiking in San Luis Obispo either individually or in various permutations and combinations. We opted for the Froom Creek, Poppy, Morro View, Quickshot, Mariposa, and King Trail Loop which offers a little bit of everything.
It might be hard to take a trail seriously that starts with views of a Costco parking lot. But stick with it and you will soon find yourself in a different world of wooded oaks, canyons, and seasonal wildflowers.
This trail starts close to civilization and slowly rises above the rooftops of houses where solar panels are catching some of that eternal SLO sunshine. You can see the stores and parking lots of Irish Hills Plaza along the King Trail and Fromm Connector Trail portions in the beginning.
It is a gradual elevation gain for the entire 954 feet and you can opt for clockwise or counterclockwise hiking without much difference. Alltrails marks the start at Fromm connector Trail behind Irish Hills Plaza but we found it easier to begin with the King Trail at the proper trailhead on Devaul Ranch Dr.
The King Trail, Mariposa Trail, Poppy, and Fromm Canyon trail sections connect to form a loop that takes you further up into the hills with picturesque views of the city, Laguna Lake, Cerro San Luis, Bishop Peak, and Los Osos Valley.
The last segment of the trail along Quickshot and Morro View is a perfect cherry on the cake. Take the trail all the way to the end of the Morro View trail until you reach the bench (the Alltrails route stops a little short of that).
On a clear day, you can see the tiny bump of Morro Rock surrounded by the ocean in the distance. It makes for a humbling view to see the towering 576-foot Morro Rock from this perspective versus seeing it from close quarters when you explore the city of Morro Bay.
2. Terrace Hill – Best Easy San Luis Obispo Hike
Distance: 1 mile out and back
Terrace Hill is a great easy hike to get started in SLO and offers the most return on investment in terms of views. This 499 feet hill offers a large flat, open space at the top giving it this name. It lies on the other side of the railroad if you’re coming from downtown and is a perfect spot for watching sunsets. This was my favorite place for easy hiking in San Luis Obispo.
There are two options to scale the hill when starting from the Jennifer St trailhead. There is a straight but very steep path that offers the shortest route if you’re feeling adventurous. Or there is a gentler path to your left that takes you along the periphery of the hill with easier inclines as you rise in altitude. This longer route also offers an opportunity to soak in the views of the surrounding mountains and city as you gingerly climb up.
Terrace Hill is technically one of the nine Morros or ancient volcanic peaks that have eroded leaving their core volcanic plugs. Volcanic plugs are created when lava hardens within a vent in an active volcano. These morros were formed between 20 to 25 million years ago and there is a chain of nine stretching between San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay referred to as the Nine Sisters or Seven Sisters.
As soon as you reach the top, your eyes will be drawn to the quintessential SLO view of two of these morros – Cerro San Luis and Bishop Peak – rising in the distance with the city of San Luis Obispo neatly laid out before them. Everywhere you turn, you’ll be greeted by uninterrupted views of layered mountains with markers of civilization – houses, tree-lined streets, and roadways – assembled at their feet.
Take a walk along the perimeter of the hilltop and it’s easy to see why this place was used as an army aircraft lookout during World War II. There are a few benches near the edge for you to rest and enjoy the views. Or you can bring your own picnic blanket and watch the orange, golden light of the setting sun permeate across the mountains.
3. Bishop Peak – Best Challenging San Luis Obispo Hike
Distance: 3.4 miles out and back
Difficulty: Moderately strenuous
Bishop Peak at 1559 feet is the highest of the Nine Sisters or Morros and the most popular hike in San Luis Obispo. The peak is distinguishable even from a distance with its rocky crown shaped like a Bishop’s miter rising above the surrounding mountains and valleys.
There are a couple of ways to start this trail. Opt for the entrance from Patricia Drive in the Bishop Peak Natural Area for the full 3.4 miles or head to Highland Drive for a slightly shorter version of the hike.
Bring ample water and good sun protection on this hike. There is some shade at the very beginning of the trail but it quickly opens up as you start scaling the morro.
This is a moderately strenuous hike given the terrain and the fact that you are gaining more than 1,100 feet in a short distance. You will walk around and climb over jagged ochre boulders as you near the top. Along the way, you will find sweeping views of downtown SLO, the Laguna Lake area, Irish Hills, and perhaps the best views of the neighboring morro Cerro San Luis.
There are benches at the top and additional rocks that you can scramble over to get uninterrupted views of the east and west. This is a hike that will make you earn every one of those picturesque views while hiking in San Luis Obispo.
4. Cerro San Luis – Best Winter San Luis Obispo Hike
Recommended trail: Cerro San Luis Obispo Trail
Distance: 3.9 miles out and back
An outdoorsy San Luis Obispo trip is incomplete without scaling a Morro. Cerro San Luis at 1,292 feet is another one of these volcanic plugs in the chain of the Nine Sisters (or Seven Sisters) easily recognizable by its wavy terrain.
There are a handful of trail options around Cerro San Luis that start literally down the street from downtown at the Charles A and Mary R Maine Open Space. Go take a hike takes on a very literal meaning here!
You will start along the Lemon Grove Loop then take a left to connect to the Cerro San Luis Trail all the way to the top. This was one of the widest trails I’ve ever hiked. It has a gradual incline throughout and is an easier climb compared to Bishop Peak.
That makes this hike even more appealing if you don’t have the full appetite for Bishop Peak but want a slice of the same views. There are beautiful views of the city of San Luis Obispo, Laguna Lake, and Irish Hills along the trail and at the top. The distinguished miter top of Bishop Peak rises in the distance followed by the rest of the morros Chumash Peak, Cerro Ramuldo, and Hollister Peak lined up in a row.
There is a wide terrace-like area near the top where you can walk around and admire the views from all sides except one. A final short rocky section takes you to the peak if you’d like to see truly panoramic views.
An 80-foot Christmas tree of lights is set up by the Madonna Inn staff on the peak from December to early January. This tradition has been going on for more than 40 years. Many locals choose to hike this trail after dark with friends and family as a cherished tradition during that period. A fun fact is that the lights don’t turn on automatically every night with a timer. A staff member at Madonna Inn makes the trek every night to manually turn it on!
There are a few other trails if you wish to return and explore more. There is the M loop named after Mission High School or the Lemon Grove loop if you’re looking for shorter hikes from the same starting point. Or you could do a longer but relatively easier hike along the perimeter of the morro instead of the scaling the peak.
5. Peterson Ranch at Cal Poly – Best University San Luis Obispo Hike
Recommended trail: Serenity Swing
Distance: 3.5 miles out and back
Serenity Swing is a popular hike in the Peterson Ranch area near the Cal Poly campus that will make you envy the university students. It is a very good ranch hike with a view of rolling hills culminating at a swing on a shaded tree overlooking the city below.
The first 0.3 miles are along the Poly Canyon road so you’ll need to be patient to hit the real trail. The next 0.3 miles can be continued on the same road or you can take a small diversion to walk along a creek in the woods. The two sections converge so we ended up taking the creekside path on our way in and stuck to the road on our way out.
The true rewards start once you get to the hills past the barn buildings of the university’s Animal Science department where you might spot turkeys ambling about. It is the green rolling hills that stay with you throughout the hike from hereon that make this hike special. You’ll see cattle from afar grazing or drinking water at a tank along the way. The challenge on this hike is to keep your eyes on the ground and not get too distracted by the perennial views, or else you might slip and land on your behind as I did!
The last 0.3 miles are very steep so consider bringing your hiking poles if you’re planning to tackle that stretch. You can also take a longer roundabout by following the Tough and Dirty trail on your right for 0.6 miles and then walking left for another 0.3 miles to reach the top.
Peterson Ranch also has a couple of other trails like The P, if you’re looking for a short hike just short of a mile, or the 6-plus miles Poly Canyon loop trail if you’re looking for something more substantial.
6. Laguna Lake – Best Lake San Luis Obispo Hike
Recommended Trail: Lake Side Trail to Allen K. Settle Trail
Distance: 1.4 miles loop
Laguna Lake Park and Open Space is located between Irish Hills and Cerro San Luis. There are four trail options in this area so you can choose if you’d like to stay near the lake or ascend the hill.
I’d recommend sticking to the easy loop along the Lake Side Trail and Allen K. Kettle Trail. Segments of the Upper Loop Trail were fenced at the time of our visit so we couldn’t come back down that side and had to retrace our steps.
A section of the trail runs alongside Lake Laguna where you can stop at the small dock. Further ahead, you’ll see horses grazing along behind a wire fence at the end of the Allen K. Settle Trail. There are constant views of the hills rising up in all directions, especially of the nearest morro Cerro San Luis. For a longer and more challenging hike, you can take a right at the end to continue along the Allen K. Settle Trail and connect to the Cerro San Luis Trail.
So that’s my recommendation of 6 incredible places for hiking in San Luis Obispo. All of these are easily accessible from downtown by a short drive, a quick bus ride, or just a walk down the street. SLO Transit provides good hourly bus service around the city but please be mindful of temporary stop closures due to driver shortages.
SLO is a unique destination that combines the perks of city living with a plethora of natural spaces right outside your doorstep. This enables outdoor activities like hiking and mountain biking to become a part of everyday life rather than just being reserved for the weekends. It is definitely one of the places that I would return to in a heartbeat!
Hope this list was helpful in getting started. Are you headed to SLO anytime soon? Would love to hear about your favorite hikes in the comments if you’ve visited or lived in SLO.