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, a spur trail out to a ridge south of the summit 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. Two trails to the summit of Cerro Alto start from a parking area at the end of the mile-long road through the campground. The gradual route begins near campsites 18 and 19 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 along 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. A bench here makes it easy to admire the view.
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, nothing as tall as Cerro Alto is 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.
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.
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.
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.
A fee of $10 is required to park at the trailhead. Due to an agreement with the concession that manages the campground, a national forest adventure pass or national public lands pass (inter-agency access pass) is no longer accepted in lieu of the day use fee. An annual pass can be could be purchased from Parks Management Company for $50, which would apply to Cerro Alto Campground and other managed sites. These unfortunate concession agreements are far to common at state and national sites on California’s Central Coast.
One of the fine sites at Cerro Alto Campground may be reserved for $25 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 Highway 101, 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)
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