Cerro Alto Los Padres National Forest San Luis Obispo Morro Bay Hike trail high point Cerro Alto Peak

The 2,624-foot summit of Cerro Alto is one of the highest points in San Luis Obispo County and delivers a panoramic view. It seems like you can see the entire county from the top of the commanding peak, including each of the volcanic peaks stretching between Morro Bay and Edna Valley, the Nine Sisters. There are a couple ways to the summit, each tackling 1,600 feet of elevation between the trailhead at Cerro Alto Campground and the cerro’s summit. The shortest route is a steep 1.95-mile ascent. A more gradual trail can be taken to a junction part way up the mountain for a 2.75-mile route that is recommended for the hike up. Additionally, there is a spur trail out to a ridge south of the summit that adds 0.65 scenic miles to the hike. These trails can all be combined for a 5.35-mile trek with high views over Los Padres National Forest, and the route following is not as complicated as it might sound.

Cerro Alto Campground is tucked away in an oak forest off Route 41 between Morro Bay and Atascadero. There are two trails to the summit of Cerro Alto starting from a parking area at the end of the mile-long road through the campground. The gradual route begins near campsite 18 next to a large sign that reads, “Cerro Alto Trail 12E01.” The steeper route can be found a hundred yards back down the road on the left. Simply labeled “trail,” the single track drops across the East Fork of Morro Creek and begins a strenuous climb up the mountain. Unless you want to punish yourself, save this trail for the way down. For the hike up, pick the gradual trail starting next to that big national forest sign. The first half mile is surprisingly level, heading east alongside the creek. Ferns line the early part of this trail, shaded by a canopy of oaks. Eventually, the trail leaves the canyon and angles south up the mountain.

At a junction, 0.95 miles from the start, turn right following a wooden sign for the summit. Above the junction, you will quickly pass two paths breaking off to the left that form a brief detour that avoids a short steep section of the trail. Just over half a mile from the junction, the trail wraps around the north side of the mountain for a fine perspective over the canyon containing Cerro Alto Campground. Frog Pond Peak rises to the northeast, flanked by green ridges and canyon. There is a bench here to assist in admiring the view.

Cerro Alto Hike
Looking northeast from the trail

The trail turns west leveling out just long enough for you to catch your breath before the real ascent. At a four-way junction, 1.7 miles and 650 vertical feet from the start, turn left following the wooden sign for the summit. The more direct route up from the campground is to the right, directly across from the summit trail. Straight ahead, an AT&T Cable Road continues over the range toward West Cuesta Ridge Road.

The Summit Trail can no longer afford to be gradual. Climb straight up the chaparral-covered mountainside, picking up 400 feet in the next half mile up to an unmarked junction. The split comes shortly after the trail presents its first western view over Morro Bay. Both trails leaving the junction reunite at a saddle beneath the summit, but it is advisable to take the shorter route to the left. The alternative route, which continues straight ahead is 0.2 miles longer, but no less steep, adding a few extra views over Morro Bay. To hike this way, go straight past a bench and turn left up Lookout Trail, which switchbacks around the southwest side of a rise west the summit to reach the saddle. The trail departing to the left from the junction, is the shorter route, heading up a draw between Cerro Alto and the rise to the west. You get a good view of the summit heading this way, as well as a view north over the range toward Rusty Peak. This is the steepest stretch of the hike, gaining about 375 feet in a third of a mile.

When you reach the saddle, turn left and follow the trail around the north face of Cerro Alto, curling all the way to the east side before reaching the rocky summit. With the exception of the radio-towered summit of Tassajara Peak to the southeast, there is nothing as tall as Cerro Alto in sight, making the views immensely panoramic. The entire string of Morros running across San Luis Obispo County is visible to the south, starting with Morro Rock in Morro Bay and ending with Islay Hill in Edna Valley. If you have hiked Cerro Cabrillo, Bishop Peak, or Cerro San Luis, you should have no trouble recognizing these volcanic peaks. From the ocean in the west to the Santa Lucia Mountains in the east, the view is as expansive as you could imagine. Turn around and look in the other direction to see even more – verdant mountains and valley rolling out to the north, bordered by a rugged coastline extending through Cambria and San Simeon. This is a lofty reward earned by a strenuous effort.

Cerro Alto Trail
Hiking around the summit of Cerro Alto

Before you hike all the way back down, there is another view to enjoy. Return to the T-junction at the saddle and walk straight a few steps to a path breaking off to the left (this makes the T-junction more like a t-junction). Follow this rugged Ridge Trail, which quickly mounts the rocky ridge south of Cerro Alto. Why bother hiking out on this ridge, which is less than 100 feet shorter than Cerro Alto? Because the ridge is out of the view. Unlike on the summit, there is no prominent formation to the south to shrink the view. The south face of the ridge drops straight down to Chorro Valley to provide a grander perspective of the Nine Sisters, Irish Hills, Morro Bay, and other icons of San Luis Obispo County.

Cerro Alto Trail
Looking south from the ridge trail

Follow the path southeast across the spine of the ridge covered in jagged boulders. The terrain is so different from the surrounding tamer mountains that you might think you were transplanted to Pinnacles National Park. After a third of a mile, you will reach the high point of the ridge, which is a great spot to turn around after taking in the unimpeded view. The ridge presents a different experience from the rest of the hike and is a worthwhile addition.

Cerro Alto Trail
Hiking the rocky ridge south of Cerro Alto

Back at the saddle, return down the mountain to the four-way junction. Cross the AT&T Cable Road and follow the sign for the short trail to the campground. Dropping 650 feet in less than a mile, the trail quickly descends the mountainside of chaparral to enter an oak woodland. Cross a wooden bridge over Morro Creek to reach the paved road a hundred yards from the original trailhead.

Cerro Alto Trail
Hiking down the trail to the campground

A national forest adventure pass is required to park at the trailhead. You may self-register for a day use pass at the trailhead for a cost of $8. One of the fine sites at Cerro Alto Campground may be reserved for $18 per night. Dogs are permitted on leash. Mountain bikes are also allowed. No permit is required for the rewarding hike to Cerro Alto, so get out and enjoy!

To get to the trailhead: From Morro Bay, 13 miles northwest of San Luis Obispo on Highway One, take Route 41 northeast for 7.2 miles to the turnoff for Cerro Alto Campground on the right. From Atascadero, 16 miles north of San Luis Obispo on the 101 Freeway, take Route 41 southwest for 9 miles to the turnoff for the campground on the left. Proceed one mile through the elongated campground to the trailhead parking area at the end of the road.

Trailhead address: Cerro Alto Road, Los Padres National Forest, Morro Bay, CA 93442
Trailhead coordinates: 35.424271, -120.738988 (35° 25′ 27.37″N 120° 44′ 20.35″W)

Use the map below to create your own directions:

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Photos

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These photos were taken in December of 2011. Click to enlarge.
Elevation Profile

Cerro Alto Trail elevation profile hike

Nearby Trails
Cerro Cabrillo Peak Morro BayCerro Cabrillo
This 2.5-mile out and back hike summits the highest mountain in Morro Bay State Park, a 911-foot member of the Nine Sisters.
Portola Hike Morro BayPortola Point
This 2-mile loop explores a short hill just east of Morro Estuary in Morro Bay State Park.
Eagle Rock Viewpoint Nature TrailEagle Rock Nature Trail
This 2.4-mile hike in El Chorro Regional Park climbs 450 feet to Eagle Rock Viewpoint for an overview of the valley between San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay.
Reservoir Canyon TrailReservoir Canyon
This 5.35-mile hike ascends 1,350 feet past a waterfall and a collection of junk sculptures to a treeless summit overlooking San Luis Obispo.
San Luis Obispo hikesMore hikes in San Luis Obispo
Explore other trails around San Luis Obispo including Morro Bay State Park and Montaña de Oro State Park.
Nearby Camping
San Luis Obispo hikesCerro Alto Campground
This cozy 22-site campground is the starting point for hikes to Cerro Alto and a perfect place to tent camp in the Los Padres National Forest between Morro Bay and Atascadero.

19 Comments on Cerro Alto in San Luis Obispo

  1. Raewyn says:

    Are dogs allowed on leash

  2. LaurieJeePea says:

    Hiked this yesterday with a Meetup group. We read your description before our hike and were glad we did because as you had suggested above, we hiked out on the short the ridge trail. “The south face of the ridge drops straight down to Chorro Valley to provide a grander perspective…”

    We were indeed treated to even more awesome perspective. There was a greater diversity of plants growing among the rocks on this ridge and the swallows were in abundance flitting around us as we stood (carefully) on the top of the cliffs.

    To begin our hike, we chose the steep 1.95-mile ascent and came down the AT&T Cable Road. We found this easier on our knees. :)

    Thank you for the detailed descriptions on your website. We appreciate the maps and photos.

  3. Beth says:

    Does the America the Beautiful pass work here (which covers national parks and federal recreational lands), or do you specifically need the national forest adventure pass? Thanks!

  4. [...] also discovered that Cerro Alto is the best hike on the California Central Coast. For reals. It’s about a three mile hike up one of the tallest mountains in the county, and it [...]

  5. [...] Cerro Alto. Highway 41. Halfway between Morro Bay and Atascadero, but any address I could find called it Morro Bay. Los Padres National Forest. Hike begins at the campground. $5 to park. [...]

  6. [...] person could choose any activity they wanted. I kicked off the inaugural playtime with a hike up Cerro Alto followed by dinner at Taco [...]

  7. Dan says:

    Have a 6 month pregnant wife and a 3 1/2 year old daughter. Is there a friendly hiking spot at this site?

  8. zach says:

    Sunday hike?

  9. Kathy Osgood says:

    Are horses allowed in Cerro Alto?

  10. Jim says:

    On an exceptionally clear day, the morning of 3/9/2014, we could see the Sierra Nevada peaks around Sequoia National Park (62deg east of true north) from the ridge trail.

  11. G Hoyland says:

    is this a mountain bike trail as well? or no bikes allowed? looking for good trails near Paso Robles on vacation. like big hills up and especially down!

  12. Mark says:

    I visited this trail after finding this article. It was absolutely beautiful. Unfortunately, I did not hike the ridge, but I will next time! Thank you very much for the directions to an amazing trail.

  13. CP says:

    Are horses allowed on the Cerro Alto Trail?

  14. alyssakitz says:

    One of my favorite hikes on the Central Coast. Even if you don’t make it all the way to the ridge, the views are breathtaking. Lots of little side trails to explore as well – one leads down to a lovely Eucalyptus grove. This trail also meets up with the West Cuesta Ridge trail, which is an incredible 12+ mile hike one way (so you have to park a car at either side) but it takes you through a lovely botanical area. As far as horses, I’ve probably hiked the trails in and around Cerro Alto 20+ times and have never encountered horses. Not sure if they are not allowed or if the trails are simply not horse friendly. Lot’s of mountain bikers and dogs, however. Highly recommend this hike if you are in the area.

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