Until I saw an online article recently in, of all places, Reader’s Digest, I hadn’t realized that San Luis Obispo ranks right up there with Singapore, Arthus, Denmark, and Monterrey, Mexico, as the four happiest cities on Earth.
According to the article, a 2008 Gallup-Healthways study found that “People who live in San Luis Obispo are more likely than residents of other U.S. cities to smile and experience joy and are less likely to experience pain or depression.”
Sounds like my kind of city, and I think I know exactly why people there are so happy. I’m not sure I could put this into the right kind of equation, but if I tried it might be something like “true happiness can be measured as a function in inverse proportion to the distance required to reach the nearest trail.
Recently Yvonne and I headed up to San Luis Obispo to discover why everyone who lives in SLO City are so danged happy. Well, there’s the college, which is much closer to town than our UCSB and much more integrated into the culture. Everyone know that kids are way more fun than us stodgy adults
There’s the downtown center, which I think has more charm than Santa Barbara’s and way fewer vacant storefronts.
It’s kind of cool, too, that the mission is right in the heart of town and that SLO Creek not only runs right through itm but you can stroll along the banks, have a picnic along it or have lunch in one of a number of restaurants that look out over it.
And of course there’s the trails, the open spaces, the state parks, the forest access and the nearby beaches as well.
So Near and So Nice
We’d barely checked in for a two-night stay at the Holiday Inn Express on upper Monterey Street when the clerk asked us what we were here for.
“The trails,” I let him know.
“I’ve got one for you,” he replied quickly. “It’s not more than a mile from here and the scenery is the best.”
Turns out he was referring to the South Hills, which I found out later was one of a number of open space areas within the city that are within minutes of downtown.
South Hills Open Space
The main trailhead is located just off South Street in a residential area in the eastern part of town. The area was once known as Cheapskate Hill because the locals could watch the car racing at the Exposition Park race track below without having to pay for the privilege.
Kinda like the area right above the County Bowl.
The open space area totals 131 acres and consists of a series of bumpy hills that form a mile-long ridgeline that rises just under 600 feet in the air. It is composed mainly of sharp-edged serpentine rock that is highly fractured. The result is a trail system that is extremely rocky, with poor soils that support few trees and lots of grassland. This makes for absolutely stunning views and intensely green hillsides in the spring but almost no shade in the hotter summer months.
The main trailhead leads from the Exposition Drive and heads uphill almost immediately along an old jeep road that is in pretty poor condition. Just at the point when we are both wondering if the hike is worth it, the road levels out and the hiking becomes easier.
Fifty yards further we come to a small sign that simply says “Trail” with an arrow pointing to the left.
Within minutes, we find ourselves climbing quickly, gaining elevation with every switchback. Though it’s a steep hike, working our way through the rocky terrain requires enough attention that it’s easy to forget that we’re starting to sweat a bit. To say we’re getting a pretty good workout is a bit of an understatement.
What we’re also getting are some pretty fantastic 360-degree views over the entire San Luis Obispo area. It turns out that many of the grass-covered hills we can spot from here are also designated open spaces.
Included among them are two major peaks that dominate the valley: Cerro San Luis Obispo, which overlooks Madonna Inn, and Bishop Peak, just across Highway 1 from Cal Poly.
From the top of South Hills, we’re looking west towards both of these peaks. Each of them beckons. But the hotel clerk also told us that the hike to the top of Bishop Peak is a must hike so we resolve to tackle the climb up it in the morning.
At 1,559 feet elevation, Bishop Peak is tallest summit in the area. It is third of SLO’s nine sisters.
They are known as the “Morros” — Spanish for noses or small rounded hills. They run through the San Luis valley basin southeast from the 775-foot Islay Peak (also open to hiking) northwest to the 576-foot Morro Rock.
The result of ancient volcanic activity, the Morros were formed by eruptions along a 15-mile line stretching from San Luis Obispo to Morro Bay, then plugged up as the magma beneath them cooled.
They were described aptly by Professor William Brewer of Yale whose narratives provided a wealth of geologic information about this area as well as our own. Of the Sisters he noted:
“Through the plain arise many sharp peaks or rocky—buttes—rocky, conical, very steep hills, from a few feet to two thousand feet, mostly volcanic origin, directly or indirectly. These buttes are a peculiar feature, their sharp, rugged outlines standing so clear against the sky, their sides sloping from thirty to fifty degrees …. [extending] in a line northwest to the sea, about twenty miles distant, one standing in the sea the Morro Rock rising like a pyramid from the waters.”
—See Santa Lucia Chapter Sierra Club article on the Nine Sisters
Bishop Peak or Bust
We’re on the road early the next morning. The excitement of the hike to the top of Bishop Peak is building.
It’s a foggy morning and the peak is shrouded in mist. It is much cooler than yesterday and a welcome change given the difficulty of the hike.
Access to the main trail is from Highway 1 via Highland and Patricia avenues. The huffing and puffing begins right from the car door, with a steep climb up a fire access road, and then a series of more gentle switchbacks leading up to the base of the peak where the really hiking begins.
From this point, the trail gradually leads clockwise around the peak for a half-mile then transitions to what seem like an interminable number of switchbacks. Being the slow pokes, we’ve already had dozens of hikers pass us, some families even with small kids strapped in packs on their backs. My knees are hurting just watching them.
For many of them, it’s a power walk up to the top that they’ve probably done a hundred times. A trail that has become an old friend.
In another 20 minutes, we’re starting to get close enough to the top that we can see blue sky over the top of the ridge. Quite a of few of those who’ve passed us earlier are now squeezing back by us on their way down.
As they continue on, I can hear them greeting others they apparently know. Hiking Bishop Peak is quite a community event.
The fog begins to clear even more as we reach the top and the views are as advertised. There is a nice bench for a rest, and plenty of rocks to kick back on. I’m pretty happy staying right where I am for quite a bit longer, and I know Yvonne is loving rest time just as much as I am.
But then my stomach starts to rumble. I mention to her that it might be time for lunch and she let’s me know she’s got the perfect place in mind after an epic workout like this.
Bayside Café Delight
Though it isn’t exactly close by, the Bayside Café is one of those places you’d recommend without question.
We take Los Osos Valley Road towards the coast, then South Bay Road to the turnoff to Morro Bay State Park. The café is located along a small inlet that houses the Park Marina and what on first glance looks like a pretty crusty diner.
Upon closer inspection, I’m impressed: the windows are large; the views excellent and best of all they offer what they call the best fish and chips in town.
Even better, as we’re waiting for our table, a ’30s roadster with orange-and-yellow flames covering its hood and sides comes rumbling towards us. The driver cuts a sharp turn then backs into a space within feet of us.
The driver isn’t much. It’s the guy sitting next to him that captures my attention. Curly golden brown fur covers his body, studded chain surrounds his neck and the coolest sunglasses give him a stylish look. That’s Rufus and he loves to ride.
We sit chatting with the owner for a bit, discover Rufus has his own YouTube video, and snap a few photos. Rufus doesn’t seem to mind.
Finally we head off when our name is called to an absolutely great meal. The fish is excellent and the coleslaw as good as it can get.
Over the next few days we enjoyed a number of walks in other parts of San Luis Obispo. We’d planned on at least one hike at Montaña de Oro, but discovered we’d have to save that for another day. Too much to do without leaving the city.
It’s easy to see why SLO Town just might be the happiest city in America.
If You Go
Two other areas we spent time that offer some of the best hiking and riding are Johnson Ranch, which is located at the lower end of Higuera Street, and the Irish Hills, which you can access from the south end of Madonna Road.
Both offer miles of hiking opportunities and some of the best mountain biking in the area.
The Irish Hills consists of just over 1,100 acres of beautiful rolling grass hills, oak forest and chaparral that provides miles of hiking and mountain biking. On this trip, we hiked a portion of the King Trail from the end of Madonna Road up to the point where we could loop back to our car.
The trail winds its way along a hillside dotted with oaks and some of the nicest small bridges over several small creeks that made us feel like we really were walking in the Irish hills. Several switchbacks bring us up to a point where the hills turn to open grassland and views of the entire Los Osos Valley.
We’re already blocking more time out for next spring to explore a bit more of this area.
The Irish Hills trail network is also popular with mountain bikers. Thanks to the Central Coast Concerned Mountain Bikers (3CMB), almost all the bikers we’ve encountered use the 3CMB bells to let people know they are coming.
If you are planning a ride, the group also has installed some very nice magnetic bell boards at most trailheads so that you can borrow a bell for the day if you don’t have your own.
For another spectacular hiking spot, you’ll find Johnson Ranch, a 242-acre open space a bit further out of town. Once a working ranch, it was acquired by the city of San Luis Obispo in 2001. The ranch features a 4.7-mile loop trail that takes you up Johnson Canyon and then north along a series of rolling grass-covered hills.
Because the hiking is easy and the views panoramic, Johnson Ranch is extremely popular, both for hiking and mountain biking. It is also possible to connect to the Irish Hills Open Space trails via a 1.7 mile connector that the private land owner has opened to the public.
To Reach Johnson Ranch, either head south on Higuera Street for a number of miles until it crosses under Highway 101 or head south on Highway 101 and take the Higuera exit.
—See 3CMB Map that includes both open space areas.
— Noozhawk outdoors writer Ray Ford has been hiking, backpacking and bicycling in the Santa Barbara area since the 1970s. He is a longtime local outdoors columnist, author and photographer. Click here for additional columns, or view his previous work at his website, Santa Barbara Outdoors. E-mail him at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter: @riveray. The opinions expressed are his own.