Ontario Hill Ridge Trail Shell Beach Bluff Trail Avila hike

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
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.

Ontario Ridge Trail
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.

Ontario Ridge Trail
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.

Ontario Ridge Trail
Hiking through an oak grove on Ontario Ridge Trail

Ontario Ridge Trail
Shell Beach from the top of Ontario Hill

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 the north side of Ontario Hill to Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort in Avila Valley.

Beyond Sycamore Crest Trail, trail trail along the ridge continues for 0.15 miles, ascending to a lower summit on the west end of Ontario Hill that has great views over Avala Peak. Just past the junction with Sycamore Crest Trail, there is a trail on the left that drops back down to Cave Landing. To complete the loop, take this trail, which rapidly descends 500 feet toward Cave Landing Road over the last 0.4 miles. Upon returning to the trailhead, you may take a short half-mile hike to the end of Cave Landing to explore Pirate’s Cave

Ontario Ridge Trail
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 a second vehicle is used to drive 1.6 miles back to the resort. This route takes the most gradual ascent up Ontario Hill, avoiding challenging climbs from the east and west.

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 view the trail and get directions:

View Avila Beach in a larger map
Or view Central Coast trails and campgrounds in a larger map

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These photos were taken in February of 2011 and December of 2014. Click to enlarge.
Nearby Trails
Avila Beach HikeCave Landing
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 TrailSycamore 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 TrailBob Jones Bike Trail
This easy 5-mile round trip hike or ride follows San Luis Obispo Creek to Avila Beach.
Point San Luis LighthousePoint 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.
San Luis Obispo hikesMore 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.
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Tagged with · Free Trails · Ocean Views · Pismo Beach · Summits
Distance: 2.8 miles – Elevation change: 675 feet

26 Comments on Shell Beach Bluff Trail – Ontario Ridge Trail Loop in Avila Beach and Shell Beach

  1. mewritergurl says:

    Great website for central coast hikes. Thanks for the good info and photos!

  2. This is fantastic information. I’m going to try it today. Thanks for sharing.

  3. […] Cove would be an awful muddy slip and slide of doom when rain saturated. For more info I would check out Hikespeak.com, that’s where I researched the route before hiking the trail and it’s a great site for […]

  4. Spring Morrissey says:

    Are leashed dogs allowed?

    • Kris says:

      Did you end up finding out if leashed dogs are allowed? Thx! :-)

    • Mike Hirabayashi says:

      While visiting the area, we walked the Shell Beach Bluff trail from Pirates Cave parking lot, as well as the trail to Pirate’s Cave, with our dog on leash; along the way, we passed several others (presumably locals) with dogs — both on and off-leash. Once on the neighborhood streets, we passed a few more dog walkers (all with dogs on leash). Not conclusive necessarily, but I think dogs are OK. (Of course I’d recommend that they stay under control, leashed or otherwise, and of course we should all pick up after them!)

      • Chelsea says:

        I took my dog with me on this hike pretty often, and we always ran into other dogs. I would unleash my dog because she preferred to hike without a leash and wouldn’t wander too far from me, but I’ve seen plenty of dogs both on and off-leash.

    • Mrs. Murphy says:

      Yes, leased dogs are allowed. Heads up, many people hike with their dogs unleased. I hike this once a week.

  5. Sherrie Fry says:

    I love this trail!

  6. david Georgi says:

    Ontario Ridge contains a network of trails offering a variety of hikes. I use it as a tuneup hike to keep in shape. I try to do it at least once or twice a week since it’s close to my house. The views are magnificent. You can see albums of hikes including two of Ontario Ridge on my polecats.org website.

  7. […] The rest of the afternoon was spent hiking the Shell Beach Bluff’s trail.  […]

  8. […] Hikepeak.com writes, Two parallel but varied trails explore the coast between Shell Beach and Avila Beach in San Luis Obispo County. […]

  9. […] Week 1 – Shell Beach Bluff Trail – Ontario Ridge Trail Loop […]

  10. danny hensley says:

    the ontario ridge is a beautiful hike for people of all ages and great for families….i hike this ridge with my 9 year old daughter and we see other families doing the same every weekend ….this is also my work out area during the week…this beautiful ridge is being closed to the public….what can we do

    • Tarren Collins says:

      The public has acquired a prescriptive easement over this wonderful hiking trail on Ontario Ridge. Unfortunately, the new property owners are trying to close public access, and have started building a fence to block the trail. The California Coastal Commission is in the position to enforce our public access and require the property owners to keep the trail open, and is asking hikers to submit a declaration of public use. You can find the declaration here: http://www.coastal.ca.gov/access/OntarioRidge_PrescriptiveRights.pdf
      It’s imperative that we all print the declaration, fill in the information, sign it and mail it to the Coastal Commission ASAP. Tell your friends and fellow hikers. Help the Coastal Commission fight this closure!

      • Shell Beach Hiker says:

        This is (was) a great short hike. The fences blocking the trail need to be removed. The Coastal Commission will be conducting a hearing on the illegal fencing on February 13, 2014, for those that cannot make it to the hearing what can be done to convince the Coastal Commission to force the property owner to take down this Gestapo like fence. I have used this trail for years and filled out the declaration of public use, is there anything else that we can do to keep this trail open?

  11. Raewyn Lindsay-Herman says:

    Are dogs allowed on this trail?

  12. laebrown says:

    Did this hike today – took about 2 hours for the full loop from Sycamore Resort’s parking lot. Sycamore Crest and the Ontario Ridge are absolutely gorgeous trails, but the steep trail down to Cave Landing is VERY steep. If you have any knee problems (or younger kids) it would be best to avoid this leg of the loop. There is also a LOT of poison oak on the Sycamore Crest Trail, and it is in full bloom during the spring. Besides those minor inconveniences, this is a primo hike to get 360 views of SLO, Avila, and Pismo Beach. Gorgeous flowers dot the trail, and there is a dynamic amount of full sun and full shade. A great place to go as a visitor of the area.

  13. Kimber Black says:


  14. […] This trail is the backside trail to one of our first hikes – the Ontario Ridge.  The Ontario Ridge trail will forever be one of my favorite hikes with its heart-pounding course and stunning views, […]

  15. Great description of what looks like an excellent place to hike! Also it has tons of scenic views of the water! Loved all of the pictures. Will definitely check out more on this website

  16. Susan says:

    Is the full loop available or do the fences mentioned in the prior posts remain? If the fencing remains, what section is blocked?

    • hikespeak says:

      I believe progress has been made in the battle to keep this trail open to the public (permanently) and the fencing should all be removed. Please share if you have any issues accessing the trail.

  17. Shelly Domingos says:

    Parked at Pirates Cove and started at the STEEP hill. The rest of the hike was primarily down hill. Beautiful views of the ocean all along the way. Going to start the hike next time heading south along Shell Beach.

  18. sandrine says:

    We started at sycamore trail, went down the steep trail to Cave’s landing, continued on Bluff trail and then up on Ontario ridge, on the crests. For me it was better to do it this way since I have bad knees and climbing up from Cave landing at the end would have killed me, since I am a beginning hiker. I saw a man trying to climb up that steep hill with his mountain bike but he gave up after 5 minutes….

  19. This is probably my favorite hike in SLO county so far. Here is my encounter with the trail, including where we parked, personal advice for the trek, and lots of pictures!

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