Sculpted with coves, Cave Landing is a dramatic promontory thrusting 150 feet into San Luis Obispo Bay, just southeast of Avila Beach.
A short path leads to a natural arch chiseled through the cliffs at the end of the headland. Other trails cross the promontory to views of the rugged coast here and more mellow beaches and sand dunes farther south.
Generations of Chumash once fished from Cave Landing. Early in the 19th century, hides and tallow produced at Mission San Luis Obispo were loaded onto ships here.
During the 1920s and '30s, nearby Shell Beach was a retreat for San Joaquin Valley residents escaping the summer heat.
This hike explores Cave Landing, then descends to crescent-shaped Pirate's Cove. The cove has long been known as a clothing-optional beach, though many days are too cold and windy for people to shed their jackets, much less their swimsuits.
The parking lot at the end of Cave Landing Road offers a trio of trail heads. For a half-mile hike, join the path leading west from the lot. It descends to a grassy plateau along the cliff edge, and hikers can look for caves at the base.
The other trails, both southbound, are described below.
Directions to the trail head: From U.S. 101 in Pismo Beach, take Avila Beach Drive two miles west to Cave Landing Road and turn left. Drive half a mile to the parking lot at road's end.
To reach Pirate's Cove, join the path leading southeast and almost immediately bear left at an unsigned junction.
After a quarter of a mile, the trail divides again. The left fork descends to Pirate's Cove, where you can walk the beach below tall cliffs. The right fork leads to an overlook and the rock arch I mentioned before.
To reach Shell Beach from the parking lot, look for a gated dirt road curving downhill around the cove. The dirt road becomes a trail and leads to a paved path. This walkway runs atop coastal cliffs paralleling Bluff Drive, then leads to a small trail head and parking area at the end of Indio Drive.
To add another mile to your journey, look for a dirt road beginning just above the roundabout on Indio Drive. The road heads east, rounding a hillside above the Sunset Palisades subdivision to Shell Beach Road.
For more of John McKinney's tips, visit www.thetrailmaster.com.