Reservoir Canyon Trail summit hike

From a less heralded summit in the Santa Lucia Foothills northeast of San Luis Obispo, you will find triumphant views of the peaks and valleys surrounding this gem on the Central Coast. The hike from Reservoir Canyon to this 1,715-foot crown is not for the meek. The 5.35-mile round trip hike ascends 1,350 feet, and over 800 of those feet come in the final grueling mile. The effort is rewarded with an exceptional 360-degree panorama from the top, and there are other points of interest along the way to spur you on, like a waterfall and a puzzling collection of scrap metal sculptures.

The hike begins from a trailhead in the 520-acre Reservoir Canyon Natural Reserve, located just off the 101 Freeway at the base of Cuesta Grade. The main trail continues straight in line with the road to the parking area, while another veers to the right. Take the trail to the right for a two-minute detour to a charming 30-foot waterfall. Reservoir Creek Falls cascades down a slope of black rock into a shallow oak-shaded pool. A single-track climbs up the left side of the falls, cutting through the forest to rejoin the main trail leaving the parking lot.

Reservoir Creek Falls
Reservoir Creek Falls

The first 1.25 miles of this hike are quite level, gaining approximately 225 feet. The effort is made easier by abundant shade from overhanging oaks, sycamores, and smaller trees that thrive along this year-round water source. The canyon was used to preserve water for San Luis Obispo residents about a century ago, but evidence of the canyon’s former occupation has disappeared under new growth. The former municipal road, now a hiking trail, has been downsized to a conduit that is perfect for foot traffic.

Reservoir Canyon Trail
Reservoir Canyon Trail

After crossing several small wooden footbridges, you come to a larger bridge crossing the creek to the right. Follow the trail up a fork in the canyon where it breeches the trees for an open view of Cuesta Grade and the Santa Lucia Mountains. Half a mile from the bridge and approximately 1.25 miles from the start, the trail drops off left bank of the creek. Rock hop to the other side coming to a sharp turn to the right. Those inclined for a leisurely hike could turn around here for a pleasant 2.5-mile. Going forward, prepare to climb 1,125 feet over the next 1.4 miles on a sun-exposed single track.

This tale of two hikes recommences with a steady climb up the side of the canyon. Be very careful as you hike up narrow segments on the trail. Trees give way to sloping grasslands, which in turn give way to chest high chaparral. Just under half a mile from the creek (though it may feel longer than that), you will arrive at a peculiar collection of scrap metal sculptures. These mysterious features would look more at home in the Poly Canyon Design Village than they do on the slope of this mountain. The site is also inhabited by a grand eucalyptus tree complete with a swing. Cross through the camp of robotic-looking tripods toward a metal teepee at the continuation of the trail.

Reservoir Canyon Trail junk sculpture
A corrugated metal teepee along the trail

From here things becomes progressively steeper. The elevation profile of this hike could double as a hyperbolic curve. Press on regardless. Excellent views are waiting at the top. Any time you need to pause and catch your breath on the climb, there are over the shoulder views of Cuesta Grade and the Santa Lucia Mountains. The ascent appears relentless, and this is one of those trails where every time you think you are approaching the summit, the mountain extends itself just a bit further.

After climbing for 0.9 miles, the trail tapers out, reaching a small saddle north of the summit of Murray Hill (Unnamed Hill). Reservoir Canyon Trail ends at a T-junction with another trail to Murray Hill coming up the city side of the ridge from Sydney Street and high school. Take a sharp left (at at 45 degree angle) up another single-track striding the final 0.05 miles to the summit of Murray Hill, where a SLO local has built a stone memorial that includes a U-shaped bench ideal for resting your legs and taking in the view over Edna Valley. Further to the south, one can see the Pismo Dunes and Point Sal. There are three windows of ocean views in all, Pismo Beach to the south, Whalers Island in San Luis Bay (by Avila Beach) to the southwest, and Moro Bay to the west. The panorama does not stop there as Murray Hill looks east toward the Santa Lucia Mountains and west toward the Irish Hills and several jagged Morros, including the prominently displayed Cerro San Luis and Bishop Peak. Below the summit is the city of San Luis Obispo. It is quite a sight.

Reservoir Canyon Trail
Looking west from the summit toward Cerro San Luis and Bishop Peak

While many locals aren’t sure what to call this summit (unlike the other prominences around), it can be called Murray Hill, taking its name from Judge Walter Murray who resided in San Luis Obispo in the 1800s. Murray took part in the California gold rush after fighting in the Mexican-American War and wrote for the San Luis Obispo Tribune.

Reservoir Canyon Trail
The in-ground bench at the summit

When your legs have recovered from the ascent and your eyes have recovered from the beauty, head back the way you came. The descent is brisk and easy. Dogs are welcome on leashes, but mountain bikes are prohibited. No fee or permit is required to hike in Reservoir Canyon Natural Reserve, so get out and enjoy!

To get to the trailhead: From downtown San Luis Obispo, take the 101 North for approximately two miles to Reservoir Canyon Road (an easy-to-miss road connecting to the freeway). Turn right and drive half a mile to the trailhead parking area at road’s end. After the hike, exercise caution when getting back on the freeway.

Trailhead address: Reservoir Canyon Road, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401
Trailhead coordinates: 35.290749, -120.627751 (35° 17′ 26.69″N 120° 37′ 39.90″W)

Use the map below to view the trail and get directions:

View Reservoir Canyon Trail in a larger map
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These photos were taken in July of 2011. Click to enlarge.
Nearby Trails
Murray Hill HikeMurray Hill via Sydney Street Trail
This 2.8-mile round trip hike rapidly ascends 1,275 feet up a rugged trail to a stone seating area at a summit with panoramic views.
West Cuesta RidgeCuesta Ridge Botanical Area
This 6-mile round trip hike crosses a ridge in the Santa Lucia Mountains with panoramic views over San Luis Obispo, ascending to a grove of Sargent cypress in a botanical area in Los Padres National Forest.
San Luis Obispo HikeCerro San Luis
This 4-mile hike summits one of the Nine Sisters just west of downtown San Luis Obispo.
California HikeCerro San Luis from Laguna Lake Park
This 5.7-mile hike reaches the summit from a nearby park.
Bishop Peak TrailBishop Peak
This 3.5-mile hike ascends 950 feet to highest summit in the Nine Sisters, offering excellent views of San Luis Obispo and the surrounding Morros.
Felsman Loop TrailFelsman Loop Trail
This 2.7-mile loop crosses oak, sagebrush, and grass-covered slopes around the base of Bishop Peak, providing excellent views of that notable rocky summit and its San Luis Obispo surroundings.
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.
Cal Poly Canyon Design Village TrailPoly Canyon Design Village
This 2.5-mile hike visits an experimental architectural village designed by Cal Poly students at the base of the Santa Lucia Mountains.
San Luis Obispo hikesMore hikes in San Luis Obispo
Explore other trails around San Luis Obispo including Morro Bay State Park, Montaña de Oro, and the Morros.
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Distance: 5.35 miles – Elevation change: 1350 feet

14 Comments on Reservoir Canyon Trail in San Luis Obispo

  1. John Smigelski says:

    I heard a few old timers call the ridge Murray Hill. Good name for it! Nice to see in print.

  2. maggie says:

    is there any water in the falls this year? thanks…

  3. Luke says:


    Yes, there is a good flow of water. I was just there today (March 15, 2014). Here is a picture I took of the waterfall last week.


  4. […] Last week’s climb trumps Bishop’s Peak!  By the luck of the draw, Arleena and I choose Reservoir Canyon Trail located just off the 101 Freeway at the base of Cuesta Grade.  On the website, it speaks of a […]

  5. […] have found 3 entrances (to date) to reach the 1,715-foot summit of Murray Hill: Reservoir Canyon Trail, Sydney Street, and Lizzie Street (yet another hike to come). As we did not see the sign that […]

  6. Shiloh Flagg says:

    Is this hike safe enough to do solo or should you go with at least one other person??? I usually take my dog and we roll, speaking of which are dogs allowed on the trail?? Thanks so much!!

  7. alyssakitz says:

    Great hike, albeit one of the more difficult in SLO County. The final climb is pretty tough. Beginning of the trail is quite lovely and well shaded. The creek setting makes for a cool beginning and end to the hike. I’d recommend keeping dogs and kids out of the water, however. My dog got Giardia from drinking out of the creek – not an experience I would choose to relive.

  8. laebrown says:

    Definitely one of the more difficult (vertical) hikes in SLO. As far as views of the area go, I greatly prefer Bishop Peak, but this is a nice hike if you’re looking for a solid workout and some views of the back country. Definitely bring water, take all the breaks you need, and give yourself a few hours for this one – it’ll kick your butt if you haven’t been up on the hills for awhile!

  9. Seth says:

    any idea on what the tunnel under the waterfall was used for?

  10. Marlene Maes Mills says:

    Last month my brother, sister, and I hiked up the Reservoir Canyon to revisit childhood memories of the canyon. Some of the memories were when my parents used to collect rocks from the creek to build a rock wall in our back yard. While they picked up the rocks, us kids used to play around the area, which had old beat up picnic tables, concrete barbeques, and a road that was drivable for miles. I think the canyon used to be a resort picnic area in the 1920’s? In about 1960, my father took us on a hike up a steep trail to where the metal sculptures are now. That area used to have a wooden shack with a corrugated metal roof. As we stood in the chaparral near the clearing many years ago, we watched an old man with long white hair and a white beard walk around his yard. There were chickens and piles of old rusty tin cans in his yard. It was such a remarkable sight that I have never forgotten it. I know there was a fire that swept through that area years ago that burned down the wooden structures that were there, but the metal pieces that he’d used for his roof seem to be what is now part of the sculptured artwork. There are still remnants of the piles of rusty tin cans there also and in one of the sculptures, there appears to be an old iron stove that must have been his. My dad used to work for Cal Trans in the 50’s and 60’s when they were building the new 101 freeway. He said he used to see an old lady walking to town from Reservoir Canyon to get her groceries, about once a week. We thought that maybe she was the old man’s wife. If anyone knows anything about the old man that used to live on the side of Reservoir Canyon, near the old Eucalyptus tree and metal sculptures, I’d be very interested in learning about what is known. Also, it would be interesting to know about the development of Reservoir Canyon when the road went way back (before floods) and there were picnic tables and barbeque pits. Thanks!

  11. Matthew says:

    Better views of SLO and environs than either SL Mountain or Bishop’s Peak.

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