Harmony Headlands State Park preserves 784 acres along California’s Central Coast between Cayucos and Cambria. Setting out from Highway One, a gradual 4.5-mile lollipop loop through the park crosses a coastal valley to reach picturesque ocean bluffs. The easy bench-lined hike ascends about 85 feet up a wide dirt road before descending 135 feet to the coast where a footpath can be used to explore the rugged oceanfront.
Begin hiking from a small parking area on the west side of Highway One between the coastal communities Cayucos and Cambria at the north end of San Luis Obispo County. Follow the wide dirt trail, a former ranch road, west across a creek. Look down in the water and you will probably spot a few frogs and turtles. Proceed west up Headlands Trail, which gradually makes its way up a grassy valley used as a cattle ranch for over a century starting in the mid 1800s. The land was slated for residential development, luckily unsuccessful, before the acreage was purchased by the American Land Conservancy and deeded to the State of California to create Harmony Headlands State Park in 2008.
After 0.4 easy miles you will reach a trail split. A spur to the right heads up to an old ranch bunkhouse and a porta-poddy (there is not a bathroom at the trailhead). The small bunkhouse is currently used as a staging area for park staff and docents and is not generally open to the public (unlike the porta-poddy).
From the split, continue left up Headlands Trail. The wide dirt road passes through thistle and stalks of black mustard. A few dead trees with bleached white trunks stand out from the surrounding landscape. The trail maintains a gradual ascent up a green valley between round 200-foot tall ridges covered in grasses and sagebrush. After 0.75 miles, look for a shallow man-made pond on the left side of the trail that becomes a muddy depression in drier months. Just beyond the pond, you will pass a bench on the right side of the trail, the first of three benches along Headlands Trail.
Past the first bench, the trail bends to the right, angling toward a narrower area of the valley at the crest of the hike. The trail tapers and swings back to the left, aiming downhill toward the coast. The blue water of the Pacific Ocean will appear through a V-shaped canyon and the smell of the surf will beckon your forward.
Reach a second bench, about 1.4 miles from the start, where you can sit and enjoy a view down the canyon toward the ocean. You can walk down a path to the left for a little more view into the canyon. Leave the bench and continue to the right down the road, which descends along the north side of the canyon toward the coast. This is the steepest part of the trail, but still just a moderate descent.
As Headlands Trail punches through the bottom of the canyon, an ocean view will open up in front of you. You can look south down the coast in the direction of Morro Bay and down on a cove at the bottom of the canyon. The road curves to the right and continues northwest parallel with the coast.
At 1.75 miles from the start, you will reach the third and final bench along Headlands Trail. From here, the road continues another third of a mile to northwest boundary of the park. Also, a path to the left of the bench descends to the edge of the bluff. You can use the path and the road to form a 1-mile loop along the Harmony Headlands, reaching a picturesque point at the northwest corner of the park.
For a simpler 3.5-mile outing, you can just have a seat on the bench, take in the sights and sea breezes, and return the way you came. The bench would make a nice whale watching spot during the gray whale migration.
To get a more intimate view of the coast, head left at the bench down to the end of the bluff. Watch waves crash into the orange and black rocks beneath the grassy bluffs.
The path aims northwest along the coast, wrapping around small coves. The trail remains about 25 feet above the ocean and there is no real route down to the water (or any sandy beach to reach). Headlands Trail will be visible a little farther inland, taking a parallel course up the coast.
After about half a mile walking along the rugged coast, you will come to a junction along the northwest boundary of the state park. Turn left and walk around a cove to a point extending into the ocean at the northwest corner of the park. From here you will have grand views both up and down the coast.
Walk back to the junction from the point and stay to the left along the park boundary. You can look in on private ranch land to the north where there is a small area of interesting striated cliffs. Follow the path up to the end of Headlands Trail. While the dirt road actually continues into the fenced-off private land to the north, hikers must turn right and hike back along Headlands Trail.
The dirt trail drops across a small raving and makes its way back to the bench at the start of the loop. From there, hike 1.75 miles back the way you came to complete the hike.
Harmony Headlands State Park is open daily from 6 a.m. to sunset. Dogs, horses, and bikes are not allowed in the park, but no permit is required to hike Headlands Trail. The park is beginning to implement a $3 day use fee to park a vehicle at the trailhead (as of May, 2013). When the small lot is full, parking along Highway One is a potential alternative. There is a bike rack at the trailhead.
To get to the trailhead: From San Luis Obispo, drive 25 miles north up Highway One to Harmony Headlands State Park. Turn left into a small trailhead parking area, 11.5 miles north of the intersection with route 41 and 4.6 miles south of the intersection with route 46 near the miniscule town of Harmony. There is room for about 10 vehicles in the gravel parking lot at the start of the trail.
Trailhead address: 4500 Highway One, Cayucos, CA 93430
Trailhead coordinates: 35.477783, -120.992263 (35° 28′ 40.01″N 120° 59′ 32.14″W)
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