Johnson Ranch Open Space loop hike San Luis Obispo trail

Johnson Ranch Open Space preserves 242 acres of old ranch land just south of San Luis Obispo. The 3.7-mile Johnson Ranch Loop explores the municipal open space, which is dominated by rolling grassy hills accented by serpentine rocks. A shortcut can be used to trim the hike to 2.5 miles. There is 200 feet of total elevation between the high and low points of the hike, a distance that is repeated several times over the meandering loop.

The trailhead for Johnson Ranch is conveniently located just off the 101 Freeway between San Luis Obispo and Pismo Beach. The proximity becomes slightly inconvenient once you start hiking as the grassy hills do little to obstruct the din of the motorists. Once you tune that out, the trail is quite peaceful, and deeper sections of the loop have no freeway noise at all. Spring is an ideal time to hike Johnson Ranch Loop. Lupines, poppies, and vetch bloom along the trail. The grass is lively and green in the wet season, but the landscape becomes dry and brown by fall.

Hiking Johnson Ranch Loop
Poppies along the trail

In 2001, after a century as a working ranch, the city of San Luis Obispo purchased this property and created Johnson Ranch Open Space. They city has put up signs honoring the Johnson Family and the parcel’s history. A collaborative community effort constructed a loop trail through the park, which opened in 2009 and is in great shape.

Hiking Johnson Ranch Loop
Hiking near the start of Johnson Ranch Loop

Take on the loop in a counterclockwise direction, heading north parallel to the freeway. The trail switches up a grassy slope on the right side of the canyon, passing through a cattle fence after a quarter mile. Head up the hillside and turn away from the freeway up a grassy slope, reaching a short spur, 0.6 miles from the start. Turn left and take a few steps off the loop to a bench. A sign explains how an old quarry in the canyon below filled with water and became a heron rookery.

Just beyond the viewpoint, the trail comes to a split. To the left is the shortcut that reconnects with the larger loop a tenth of a mile up the field. Straight ahead, the loop meanders another 1.3 miles through more grasses on the skirt of a hill before reaching the other end of the shortcut. Watch the tall grasses bend to the whim of the wind as you hike. The trail passes through an oak grove that provides the hike’s longest stretch of shade. The loop tops out here and swings around in the other direction, delivering views over the hills to the south.

At the top of the north loop in Johnson Ranch, you will come to a junction with the Johnson Ranch – Irish Hills Connector Trail (opened in the spring of 2013), which connects Johnson Ranch with Froom Creek in the Irish Hills to the north. Even if you don’t hike the full trail, which is 5.05 miles from trailhead to trailhead, you may wish to hike a quarter mile up the Connector Trail to a grassy ridge with panoramic views.

After reuniting with the shortcut, Johnson Ranch Loop Trail heads west, crossing grasslands and another grove of oaks. The trail snakes through a line of sycamores to a footbridge over Dry Creek (which is not always dry in the spring). On the other side, rise to an easement road, crossing it to continue up the single track. Foot traffic is prohibited on the dirt easement road, which runs up the bottom of the canyon.

Johnson Ranch Loop
Lupines along the easement road

From here the trail wraps down the south side of the canyon, returning to the trailhead after another mile. The trail exits the canyon next to the easement road, opposite the start of the loop. Feel free to hike Johnson Ranch Loop in the opposite direction. Dogs are allowed on leash. No fee or permit is required, so get out and enjoy!

To get to the trailhead: From San Luis Obispo, take the 101 Freeway south to exit 198 for Higuera Street. At the bottom of a horseshoe bend in the off ramp, turn left into a parking area for Johnson Ranch.

Trailhead address: South Higuera Street, San Luis Obispo, CA 93405
Trailhead coordinates: 35.223448, -120.693313 (35° 13′ 24.41″N 120° 41′ 35.92″W)

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Photos

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These photos were taken in April of 2012. Click to enlarge.
Nearby Trails
Johnson Ranch Irish Hills San Luis ObispoJohnson Ranch – Irish Hills Connector Trail
This scenic 5.05-mile point-to-point hike connects Johnson Ranch Open Space with Irish Hills Natural Reserve.
Froom Creek TrailFroom Creek Trail
This 3-mile loop explores a canyon on the east side of the Irish Hills, ascending 500 feet to a nice view over Laguna Lake, Cerro San Luis, and Bishop Peak.
Irish Hills Morro View TrailMorro View
This 3.15-mile hike in the Irish Hills Natural Reserve delivers panoramic views over Los Osos Valley and the full chain of Morros.
California HikeCerro San Luis
This 4-mile hike summits one of the Nine Sisters just west of downtown San Luis Obispo.
Lemon Grove TrailLemon Grove Trail
This 2.2-mile loop visits a historic lemon grove on the eastern slopes of Cerro San Luis.
South Hills TrailSouth Hills Ridge Trail
This 1.5-mile round trip hike ascends 450 feet to the highest point in a cluster of hills near downtown San Luis Obispo, offering fine views over the city and surroundings.
Islay HillIslay Hill
This 1.8-mile round trip hike climbs 550 feet to the top of San Luis Obispo’s easternmost Morro.
Bob Jones Bike TrailBob Jones Bike Trail
This easy 5-mile round trip hike or ride follows San Luis Obispo Creek to Avila Beach.
San Luis Obispo hikesMore hikes in San Luis Obispo
Explore other trails around San Luis Obispo including Montaña de Oro State Park and the Morros.
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Distance: 3.7 miles – Elevation change: 200 feet

6 Comments on Johnson Ranch Open Space in San Luis Obispo

  1. Patti says:

    I heard you can hike from Irish Hills all the way to Johnson Ranch. Is this trail officially open and, if so, do you access it from Froom Canyon?

    • hikespeak says:

      Hi-
      The trail is open and does start from Froom Canyon. It is about 5 miles to Johnson Ranch. You can access the new trail from the Madonna Road Trailhead or from the Costco parking lot near the gas pumps (which shortens the hike by about half a mile). If you are doing a one-way shuttle hike with two cars, it has been recommended that you start the hike from Johnson Ranch. Hope that helps. I am looking forward to checking out the new trail myself!

  2. Jackie says:

    Are dogs allowed on trail?

  3. […] Johnson Trail also can connect you to the Irish Hills Trail.  I am hoping to come back and extend the hike which would make it about 10 miles round […]

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