Atop Gold Mountain
Atop the Montana de Oro State Park bluffs grow fields of mustard and poppies, which give the park its “Mountain of Gold” name. Because the ecosystem is lush, the trails were not damaged by the recent deluge of rain.
At the turn of the century, the greater portion of what is now the state park was part of the Spooner Ranch. The most popular beach in the park is Spooner’s Cove; its isolation made it an ideal landing spot for bootleggers during Prohibition.
While walking the bluffs, you may see harbor seals venturing ashore or otters diving for food beyond the surf line. Bird-watchers delight at the pelicans, albatross, cormorants and crimson-billed black oyster catchers.
The park’s seven miles of coast is so splendid that most first-time visitors hardly give a thought to the big state park’s backcountry. Some long and usually lonely trails wind through the mustard and buttercup-bedecked mountains of gold.
One of my favorite walks is a loop through the northern part of the park. Sweeping grasslands, stands of oak and commanding coastal views of Morro Bay are some of the highlights of this hike.
Directions to trail head: From U.S. 101 in San Luis Obispo, exit on Los Osos Road, continuing northwest for 12 miles until the road turns south to become Pecho Valley Road, which leads to Montana de Oro State Park. You’ll leave your vehicle at a parking lot on the right (ocean side) of the road, just north of Islay Creek. The trail head is 200 feet farther, on the left (inland) side of the road.
The hike: From the signed trail head at a steel vehicle gate, walk up the well-maintained ranch road. A quarter-mile along you’ll spot a handsome outcropping of Monterey shale, formed millions of years ago beneath the sea.
A mile’s hike from the trail head brings you to a junction with Reservoir Flats Trail, and another quarter-mile to a right-forking side trail leading down the banks of Islay Creek to two waterfalls.
At the two-mile mark, Islay Creek forks and, as the main fork goes right, our trail goes left along the north fork. Along the road are huge coffee berry plants, purple nightshade and flowering sage. Three-quarters of a mile past the creek fork is an abandoned barn.
A short way past the barn, the trail forks. To the right, the well-named East Boundary Trail heads east, then swings north along the park’s east boundary. The left fork, Barranca Trail stays with the creek canyon and heads north. (Take either trail; they meet again in three-quarters of a mile.)
Five miles from the trail head, you’ll come to another junction. Take the left (west) fork, Ridge Trail. (The right fork is also a delightful way back to the coast. It brings the hiker to Pecho Valley Road at a point one-half mile north of the trail head.)
Ridge Trail crosses the shoulder of 1,076-foot Hazard Peak (named for pioneer dairyman Alexander S. Hazard, not for any dangers lurking atop the small mountain).
Enjoy the views of Morro Rock and on especially clear days the Big Sur coastline as you descend the ridge back to the trail head.
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Islay Creek, Ridge Trails Where: Montana de Oro State Park. Distance: 8- mile loop with 900 foot elevation gain. Terrain: Grassy heights of San Luis Mountains. Highlights: Largest and best of Central California’s state parks, spring wildflower blooms, excellent coastal vistas. Precautions: Muddy trails, poison oak. Degree of Difficulty: Moderate For More Information: Montana de Oro State Park, c/o Morro Bay State Park, Morro Bay, Calif. 93442; tel. (805) 772-2560; or ranger headquarters at (805) 528-0513.