Two parallel but varied trails explore the coast between Shell Beach and Avila Beach in San Luis Obispo County. Shell Beach Bluff Trail is an easy, wheelchair-friendly paved trail overlooking a picturesque cove. Ontario Ridge Trail is a rugged, sometimes-steep track crossing a 700-foot hill above the bluff. Put these two together for a 2.8-mile loop with 675 feet of elevation gain, and spectacular ocean views.
There are two potential starting points for this hike, from the east in Shell Beach, and from the west at Cave Landing near Avila Beach. The Shell Beach trailhead is the best place to start if you are only interested in a short casual stroll on the Bluff Trail. For those hiking the full loop, there is more parking at Cave Landing, making it an optimum place to start. The short path from Cave Landing up to Ontario Ridge is remarkably steep, so it is preferable to end the hike by descending that slope, rather than starting out with such a tough climb. This counter-clockwise loop heads east down Shell Beach Bluff Trail to the other trailhead, mounts the lower east end of Ontario Hill, and climbs the ridge to the 735-foot crown before dropping down to Cave Landing.
Shell Beach Bluff Trail
From the trailhead at the end of Cave Landing Road, walk around the gate and up a short rise overlooking Pirate’s Cove. The rocky headland on the opposite side of this clothing-optional beach features a natural tunnel that forms a window on the ocean beyond (hike Cave Landing Trail next to explore the tunnel). When the wide road drops down to Shell Beach Drive, continue on the paved Bluff Trail, tracing the ocean side of this mansion-lined road. A short spur trail, 0.6 miles from the start, leads to a dramatic bluff where a rope has been tied to allow bold hikers down to the shore. Shell Beach Bluff Trail continues for about a quarter mile to the second trailhead.
Cross the paved parking area and the cul-de-sac above, and walk up the gated dirt road to the right of the last house on the street. Just a few steps up the road, there is a single-track to the left heading toward Ontario Hill. Follow this trail, which turns to the right and progresses along the base of the hill parallel to the edge of the Shell Beach neighborhood below. Mount a low saddle on the east end of the ridge. A spur to the right brings you to a short overlook, while the ridge trail heads to the left, delivering a 400-foot climb over 0.9 miles to summit of Ontario Hill.
Looking up the east end of Ontario Ridge Trail
Begin climbing the hillside of coastal sage. The rugged single-track is steep and rutted in areas, and level in others – delivering an arduous ascent. The east end of the ridge is close to the 101 Freeway, which can be seen to the north crossing Avila Valley toward San Luis Obispo, and to the south, passing behind Shell Beach and the other beach cities.
Looking down the east end of Ontario Ridge Trail
The freeway disappears as you continue, being replaced by sweeping coastal views. In the spring, Blue Dicks, Lupines, Crimson Pitcher Sage, and Monkey Flower bloom amongst the sagebrush. Coastal Live Oaks spread down the north slope of the hill, and provide pockets of shade along the trail.
Hiking through an oak grove on Ontario Ridge Trail
To the southeast, one can see clear across Pismo Beach toward the sand dunes of Point Sal, and Avila Beach appears to the west gracing San Luis Harbor. Pass through an installation of radio towers at the top of Ontario Hill and head down the other side. A quarter mile below the 735-foot summit, Ontario Ridge Trail arrives at a junction with Sycamore Crest Trail, which travels down Ontario Hill to Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort in Avila Valley.
Just beyond Sycamore Crest Trail, there is a second trail on the right, a short spur up to a lower summit on the west end of the hill. Past the junction, the ridge trail drops to the left, rapidly descending 500 feet to Cave Landing Road over the last 0.4 miles of the loop. From the trailhead, you may take a short half-mile hike to the end of Cave Landing to explore Pirate’s Cave
The steep trail down to Cave Landing
An ideal hike over Ontario Hill, which involves a car shuttle, begins by taking Sycamore Crest Trail up from the resort, and hiking east on Ontario Ridge Trail to Shell Beach, and then using the Bluff Trail to reach Cave Landing, where you may use a second vehicle to drive 1.6 back to the resort. This route takes the most gradual ascent up Ontario Hill, avoiding challenging climbs from the east and west.
Extra: The California Coastal Commission is conducting a study to determine the extent of the public use of these trails and parking areas. If you use Ontario Ridge, it is requested that you fill out and submit this questionnaire. Your contributions help to provide evidence of public use when any potential development in this area is considered.
To get to the Cave Landing trailhead: From the 101 Freeway seven miles south of San Luis Obispo, take exit 195 on to Avila Beach Drive and head west for two miles toward Avila Beach. A mile before the beach town, turn left up Cave Landing Road. Drive half a mile to the end of the road and pull into the large dirt parking area on the left.
Trailhead address: Cave Landing Road, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401
Trailhead coordinates: 35.175773, -120.719213 (35° 10′ 32.78″N 120° 43′ 09.16″W)
To get to the Shell Beach Drive trailhead: From the 101 Freeway, exit on Avila Beach Drive and turn south on Shell Beach Road, which runs down the west side of the freeway. Drive 1/3 of a mile and turn right on El Porto Drive. Continue west for 0.4 miles to the end of the road, and make a slight right on Indio Drive. Continue up to the cul-de-sac outside the private Bluff Drive, and turn left down to the parking lot.
Trailhead address: Indio Drive & Bluff Drive, Pismo Beach, CA 93449
Trailhead coordinates: 35.174558, -120.707748 (35° 10′ 28.40″N 120° 42′ 27.89″W)
Use the map below to create your own directions:
View Shell Beach Bluff Trail & Ontario Ridge Trail GPS in a larger map
Or view Central Coast Hikes in a larger map
This half-mile round trip hike descends 100 feet to a natural rock bridge at the end of a headland east of Avila Beach.
|Sycamore Crest Trail|
This 1.75-mile hike departs from Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort and ascends the north slope of Ontario Hill, arriving at a scenic ocean perch. Extend the hike down the ridge and create a 3.25-mile one-way hike.
|Bob Jones Bike Trail|
This easy 5-mile round trip hike or ride follows San Luis Obispo Creek to Avila Beach.
|Point San Luis Lighthouse via Pecho Coast Trail|
This docent-led 3.5-mile out and back hike crosses scenic coastal bluffs to reach the historic lighthouse on Point San Luis.
|More hikes in San Luis Obispo|
Explore other trails around San Luis Obispo including Morro Bay State Park, Montaña de Oro State Park, and the Morros.