Giving the Trails the Old College Try

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Founded in 1901, Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo, is now in many ways a thoroughly contemporary campus, but the hills surrounding the school still retain their turn-of-the-century pastoral look.

Although the university has long since progressed past its “Cow Poly” nickname, the school still boasts a large agriculture department. Behind the campus buildings are ranch houses, livestock pens and grassy slopes grazed by cows.

Nineteenth-Century rancher Bartolo Brizziolari owned these hills, and the creek and canyon were named for him. Brizziolari’s name remains on the creek, but today the canyon is more often known as Poly Canyon.


After a pleasant three-quarters-mile walk through the canyon, you may ascend through a botanical garden to Poly Overlook for a view of the university and San Luis Obispo and/or walk through Design Village, a collection of some of the creative works of student architects and engineers.

Several miles of trail travel the slopes above Poly Canyon and the hiker looking for a four- to six-mile workout is encouraged to explore them. Stay on marked trails; the livestock and agricultural fields are part of the university farm and function as an open-air laboratory.

Directions to trail head: From northbound U.S. 101 in San Luis Obispo, exit on Grand Avenue and travel half a mile to the campus. Purchase a daily parking permit ($1.50) from the entry kiosk.

Continue a short way to North Perimeter Road and turn right. You’ll spot Poly Canyon Road (where the walk begins) on your right, but there’s no public parking here. During the college summer session, the best bet for parking is to head for nearby Lot R-1 located directly behind the college residence halls. Another option is the metered 90-minute parking next to Plant Operations.

The hike: Take the dirt road on the east bank of Brizziolari Creek. While the creek bed is heavily vegetated, the road is far more exposed and sunny. After a mellow three-quarters-mile ascent you can choose between two paths. The path on the left passes under a handsome stone arch into Design Village and loops past two dozen interesting architectural and engineering projects.

The path on the right crosses a footbridge into a (mostly developed) botanical garden. Take East Canyon Trail to aptly named Yucca Ridge Trail, ascending briefly but steeply over slopes dotted with Our Lord’s Candle, a tall succulent, at Poly Canyon overlook. From the overlook, you can trace the course of Poly Canyon.



Poly Canyon Trail WHERE: Poly Canyon Recreation Trails, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo DISTANCE: 2 miles round trip with 300-foot elevation gain. TERRAIN: Pastoral hills around campus. HIGHLIGHTS: Botanical garden, architectural and engineering creations, campus vistas. DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Easy-moderate. FOR MORE INFORMATION: Call (805) 756-1111