M Trail Cerro San Luis Madonna Mountain Hike to the M Cerro San Luis Obispo California

From downtown San Luis Obispo, it’s easy to spot the large white “M” on the side of nearest mountain, Cerro San Luis. If you’ve looked up at the “M,” you may have wondered what it’s like to look down from that big white letter. Find out on a 1.9-mile hike that goes right up to the “M.” You can also visit the Mission Prep High School “M” as part of a longer hike to the summit of Cerro San Luis, adding an extra 0.6 miles to that trek. The “M” is interesting to see up close and its perch provides a panoramic view over San Luis Obispo.

M Trail Cerro San Luis
“M” Trail is visible going up the right side of Cerro San Luis

The “M” is about halfway up the east side of Cerro San Luis. The easiest way to get there is to start from the trailhead at the end of Marsh Street on the west side of Highway 101 (that is actually on a short lane called Fernandez Road). This is the main trailhead for Cerro San Luis. Most of the hike to the “M” is in an open space owned by the City of San Luis Obispo, but the mountaintop is privately owned. Leave the trailhead and hike a tenth of a mile to the first junction. Lemon Grove Loop Trail breaks off to the right and could be used as a hike extension. For the direct route to the “M,” bear left and continue up the main trail. Go up the grassy slope 0.4 miles farther to a junction with the other end of Lemon Grove Loop Trail. Switchbacks and other improvements are being added to the trail to make the ascent less steep. Pass the top of Lemon Grove Loop Trail and bear left at the next junction to stay on the main trail.

M Trail Cerro San Luis
“M” Trail

After 0.65 miles of hiking, you will enter an oak grove come to a junction with the “M” Trail, which ascends to the right. A sign with a map shows the path of this short 0.3-mile long trail. Leave the trail to the summit and get on the single-track trail to the “M,” climbing out of the oaks and across a sage-covered slope with nice views to the south and southeast over Edna Valley. Slip through a couple lines of oaks and more chaparral as the trail levels out and comes to a sudden end at the “M.”

The M on Cerro San Luis
The M on Cerro San Luis

At the top of the trail, you’ll come face to face with the “M,” which is a concrete-formed letter embedded in the steep mountainside and painted white. The “M” does not represent the Madonna Family that owns property on Cerro San Luis (sometimes called Madonna Mountain). Instead, the “M” represents Mission College Preparatory High School, located in Downtown San Luis Obispo beneath the mountain.

Other schools have put up letters too, showing their school pride, which you can witness from this vantage. All the way to the north, above the university campus, you’ll see the Cal Poly “P” on Yucca Ridge. To the east, on the other side of downtown above San Luis High School on what is called High School Hill or Murray Hill, you’ll see an “SP” representing that institution. School pride aside, the views from the “M” are broad, covering downtown San Luis Obsipo and its surroundings.

Cerro San Luis M Trail View
Lemon Grove Loop Trail and downtown San Luis Obispo from the “M”

Leave the “M” when you are ready and hike back down the “M” Trail. At the bottom, you could turn right to hike another 1.35 miles up to the summit of Cerro San Luis or turn left to descend 0.65 miles back to the trailhead to complete the 1.9-mile out and back hike to the “M” with 560 feet of elevation change. No fee or permit is required to hike to the “M” on Cerro San Luis. Dogs and bikes are allowed, so get out and enjoy!

To get to the trailhead: From downtown San Luis Obispo, take Higuera Street southeast to Marsh Street and turn right. Pass beneath Highway 101, and turn right on Fernandez Lane (the only road on the right before Marsh Street turns on to the 101 South). Turn right into the dirt parking area. The trail begins at the end of the lot.

Trailhead address: 1183 Fernandez Road, San Luis Obispo, CA 93405
Trailhead coordinates: 35.274897, -120.672369 (35° 16′ 29.62″N 120° 40′ 20.52″W)

Trail Map
View San Luis Obispo in a larger map
Elevation Profile
Click or hover over any spot on this elevation profile to see the distance from the start and elevation above sea level at that location, which will be highlighted on the map.

You may also view a regional map of surrounding Central Coast trails and campgrounds.


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These photos were taken in April of 2015. Click to enlarge.
Nearby Trails
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.
California HikeCerro San Luis from Laguna Lake Park
This 5.7-mile hike summits one of the Nine Sisters just west of downtown San Luis Obispo.
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 425 feet to the highest point in a cluster of hills near downtown San Luis Obispo, offering fine views over the city and surroundings.
Terrace Hill Open SpaceTerrace Hill
This 0.55-mile hike tours a flattened mountaintop in the city of San Luis Obispo that hosts panoramic views of the 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 and Montaña de Oro State Park.
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Tagged with · Free Trails · Morros
Distance: 1.9 miles · Elevation change: 560 feet

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