East Cuesta Ridge Road, also known as Mount Lowe Road, is a dirt road that crosses the dominant ridgeline in the Santa Lucia Mountains northeast of San Luis Obispo. Views from the trail extend over San Luis Obispo and its surrounding peaks toward the ocean to the west at Morro Bay and to the south by Oceano Dunes.
The hike starts just off Highway 101 at the top of Cuesta Grade. Getting underway is easy and the hike rises above the freeway to deliver far more than you might expect. East Cuesta Ridge Road goes a long way into the mountains for extended hikes or bike rides, passing through several different vegetation zones. Mount Lowe sits just off the road and you can bag this summit on an 8.4-mile hike with 1,075 feet of elevation change. Views farther up the road are great too, overlooking an evergreen-covered wilderness that feel like it should be hundreds of miles from San Luis Obisbo (instead of just a few miles away). A junction with Lopez Canyon Trail is another good turnaround point for a 9.6-mile round trip hike with 1,015 feet of elevation change.
From a turnout on the east (northbound) side of Highway 101, walk up a short paved road to a metal gate. Climb over the gate (intended to keep out motorists) to find a wide dirt road. Hike up this well graded dirt trail, which makes a large curve to the right to point southeast across the slope above the freeway. On the opposite side of this divide in the Santa Lucia Mountains, you’ll see West Cuesta Ridge Road heading up ridges covered in chaparral.
Continue along the dirt road across the southwest side of the ridge, finding views south over the freeway toward San Luis Obisbo, cradled in the valley below. In front of the city, on this side of the freeway, you can look down into Reservoir Canyon. On the west side of San Luis Obisbo rise Cerro San Luis and Bishop Peak, two of the area’s Morros. Farther up the trail, you’ll gain a perspective over the top of the ridges to the west for views toward Morro Bay.
The area along the start of the trail was burned by the Cuesta Fire in August of 2015. The fire left behind scorched earth and stands of charred oaks. The fire damage is interesting to witness up close, and rest assured, the trail eventually passes into uncompromising landscapes.
Leave the grassy area at the beginning of the trail and pass through groves of tall oaks clustered along the mountainside. At 1.2 miles from the start, pass through a cattle gate, and continue up the road. In another 0.2 miles, you’ll spot a small cabin built on the ridge above the trail. Continue up through oaks past a gate to a private drive. The trail heads farther and farther south ascending higher and higher into the mountains. The views over San Luis Obispo County are expansive over the next couple miles.
The trail turns in toward a saddle in the ridgeline, temporarily leaving behind the big views. The road then comes to a junction, 3.7 miles from the start, where a side road parts to the left, heading out to a lower summit northwest of Mount Lowe that has cell towers on top. On the right, a firebreak leaves the road and goes up along the spine of the ridge. Hike straight through this junction to stick with East Cuesta Ridge Road.
Continue another 300 yards up the wide dirt road to a T-junction. To the left, a short spur goes up to the summit of Mount Lowe, which is easy to identify with its tall red and white tower on top. East Cuesta Ridge Road continues to the right, heading south along the ridge.
Bear left to hike 0.3 miles to the summit of Mount Lowe. The road begins up the west side of the mountain and wraps around the north side for views down over the mountain range toward Santa Margarita. The road continues to curve to the right and ascends toward the summit, coming to the east side of the mountain where new views appear. An undulating ridge that extends to the northeast looks alluring. South of that, a valley covered in evergreens plunges below the mountain. Additional pine-covered ridges extend to the southeast.
The road ends when it hits the summit, which is fenced off around a pair of towers. From the end of the road, additional views are available to the south, where you can look over the top of a ridge to see the bright sand of the Oceano Dunes wrapped around a crescent-shaped bay in the Pacific Ocean. To the west, catch sight of Morro Rock on that part of the coast. While the summit of Mount Lowe does not offer true 360-degree views, it does make a sensible turnaround point for an 8.4-mile hike.
By hiking farther up East Cuesta Ridge Road, you’ll find even better views on both sides of the ridge, looking out over San Luis Obispo toward the coast and in over beautiful evergreen valleys in the Santa Lucia Wilderness, which borders East Cuesta Ridge Road.
From the T-junction below Mount Lowe, head south (originally a right turn). The trail continues up the ridge, coming to a saddle in less than a tenth of a mile that delivers some of the hike’s biggest views. Gaze out over San Luis Obisbo and the area’s Morros (volcanic plugs). The Pacific Ocean is visible to the west and south on either side of the Irish Hills. Looking south, a large crescent-shaped bay is backed my tall, gleaming ridges of sand, the Oceano Dunes. West of San Luis Obispo, a string of volcanic peaks lead to Morro Rock in Morro Bay on the coast north of the Irish Hills.
Proceeding along East Cuesta Ridge Road delivers views over the other side of the ridge, looking inland over pine-covered ridges and valleys. At around half a mile past the saddle, you’ll catch sight of a beautiful valley that might just stop you in your tracks. This evergreen landscape is lovely and looks out of place for the Central Coast, letting you imagine that you’ve trekked to somewhere in the Sierra.
The road curves around this valley and ascends toward another tower-covered peak on the ridge. Before reaching it, the road comes to a junction where a wide dirt road breaks off to the left, crossing a dip to a clearing with a trail kiosk. Bear left here and hike 0.05 miles to the information panels and a register at the top of Lopez Canyon Trail. This vantage delivers views over more peaks and ridges in this area of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Lopez Canyon Trail can be used to hike much farther into the range, but at 4.8 miles from the start (5.4 miles if you take the side trail to Mount Lowe), it might be time to turn around. East Cuesta Ridge Road also continues far beyond this point, for another possible extension.
The hike back down East Cuesta Ridge Road may feel longer than you remember from the hike out, including a few gradual ascents in the return direction over the mileage back to Highway 101. If you hike both to Mount Lowe and the top of Lopez Canyon Trail, the outing is about 10.2 miles round trip. Dogs and bikes are welcome on this trek up East Cuesta Ridge Road. Bikes aren’t allowed on Lopez Canyon Trail, but can continue farther along the dirt road. No fee or permit is required for this hike, so get out and enjoy!
To get to the trailhead: East Cuesta Ridge Road begins from Highway 101, 6 miles north of San Luis Obispo. Pass Old Stage Coach Road at the bottom of Cuesta Grade and drive 2.4 miles up the freeway. Just over the crest at Cuesta Pass, pull off into a turnout on the right side of the freeway where you can park just below the trail.
Trailhead address: Mount Lowe Road & Highway 101, San Luis Obispo, CA 93405
Trailhead coordinates: 35.34995, -120.63175 (35° 20′ 59.81″N 120° 37′ 54.29″W)
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