Johnson Ranch Open Space loop hike San Luis Obispo trail

Johnson Ranch Open Space preserves 242 acres of old ranch land just south of San Luis Obispo. The 3.7-mile Johnson Ranch Loop explores the municipal open space, which is dominated by rolling grassy hills accented by serpentine rocks. A shortcut can be used to trim the hike to 2.5 miles. There is 200 feet of total elevation between the high and low points of the hike, a distance that is repeated several times over the meandering loop.

The trailhead for Johnson Ranch is conveniently located just off Highway 101 between San Luis Obispo and Pismo Beach. The proximity becomes slightly inconvenient once you start hiking as the grassy hills do little to obstruct the din of the motorists. Once you tune that out, the trail is quite peaceful, and deeper sections of the loop have no freeway noise at all. Spring is an ideal time to hike Johnson Ranch Loop. Lupines, poppies, and vetch bloom along the trail. The grass is lively and green in the wet season, but the landscape becomes dry and brown by fall.

Hiking Johnson Ranch Loop
Poppies along the trail

In 2001, after a century as a working ranch, the city of San Luis Obispo purchased this property and created Johnson Ranch Open Space. They city has put up signs honoring the Johnson Family and the parcel’s history. A collaborative community effort constructed a loop trail through the park, which opened in 2009 and is in great shape.

Hiking Johnson Ranch Loop
Hiking near the start of Johnson Ranch Loop

Take on the loop in a counterclockwise direction, heading north parallel to the freeway. The trail switches up a grassy slope on the right side of the canyon, passing through a cattle fence after a quarter mile. Head up the hillside and turn away from the freeway up a grassy slope, reaching a short spur, 0.6 miles from the start. Turn left and take a few steps off the loop to a bench. A sign explains how an old quarry in the canyon below filled with water and became a heron rookery.

Just beyond the viewpoint, the trail comes to a split. To the left is the shortcut that reconnects with the larger loop a tenth of a mile up the field. Straight ahead, the loop meanders another 1.3 miles through more grasses on the skirt of a hill before reaching the other end of the shortcut. Watch the tall grasses bend to the whim of the wind as you hike. The trail passes through an oak grove that provides the hike’s longest stretch of shade. The loop tops out here and swings around in the other direction, delivering views over the hills to the south.

At the top of the north loop in Johnson Ranch, you will come to a junction with the Johnson Ranch – Irish Hills Connector Trail (opened in the spring of 2013), which connects Johnson Ranch with Froom Creek in the Irish Hills to the north. Even if you don’t hike the full trail, which is 5 miles from trailhead to trailhead, you may wish to hike a quarter mile up the Connector Trail to a grassy ridge with panoramic views.

After reuniting with the shortcut, Johnson Ranch Loop Trail heads west, crossing grasslands and another grove of oaks. The trail snakes through a line of sycamores to a footbridge over Dry Creek (which is not always dry in the spring). On the other side, rise to an easement road, crossing it to continue up the single track. Foot traffic is prohibited on the dirt easement road, which runs up the bottom of the canyon.

Johnson Ranch Loop
Lupines along the easement road

From here the trail wraps down the south side of the canyon, returning to the trailhead after another mile. The trail exits the canyon next to the easement road, opposite the start of the loop. Feel free to hike Johnson Ranch Loop in the opposite direction. Dogs are allowed on leash. No fee or permit is required, so get out and enjoy!

To get to the trailhead: From San Luis Obispo, take Highway 101 south to exit 198 for Higuera Street. At the bottom of a horseshoe bend in the off ramp, turn left into a parking area for Johnson Ranch.

Trailhead address: South Higuera Street, San Luis Obispo, CA 93405
Trailhead coordinates: 35.223448, -120.693313 (35° 13′ 24.41″N 120° 41′ 35.92″W)

Elevation Profile
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Trail Map

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These photos were taken in April of 2012. Click to enlarge.
Nearby Trails
Johnson Ranch Irish Hills San Luis Obispo Johnson Ranch - Irish Hills Connector Trail
This scenic 5-mile point-to-point hike connects Johnson Ranch Open Space with Irish Hills Natural Reserve.
Froom Creek Trail Froom Creek Trail Loop
This 3-mile loop explores a canyon on the east side of the Irish Hills, ascending 500 feet to a nice view over Laguna Lake, Cerro San Luis, and Bishop Peak.
Old Prospector Trail Old Prospector Trail Loop
This 3.4 to 4.4-mile hike ascends a rugged ravine off Froom Canyon to the ruins of an old mine.
Irish Hills Morro View Trail Morro View
This 3.15-mile hike in the Irish Hills Natural Reserve delivers panoramic views over Los Osos Valley and the full chain of Morros.
California Hike Cerro San Luis
This 4-mile hike summits one of the Nine Sisters just west of downtown San Luis Obispo, delivering panoramic views.
California HikeCerro San Luis from Laguna Lake Park
This 5.7-mile hike reaches the summit from a nearby park, enjoying even more San Luis Obispo views.
Cerro San Luis M Trail "M" Trail
This extensions off the trail up Cerro San Luis makes its own 1.9-mile round trip hike to the large white "M" installed halfway up the east side of the mountain.
Lemon Grove Trail Lemon Grove Trail
This 2.2-mile loop visits a historical lemon grove on the eastern slopes of Cerro San Luis.
M & Lemon Grove Trail Lemon Grove & "M" Trails Loop
This 2.4-mile hike uses all of the "M" Trail and part of Lemon Grove Loop Trail for a scenic circuit on the east side of Cerro San Luis.
South Hills Trail South 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.
Islay Hill Islay Hill
This 1.8-mile round trip hike climbs 550 feet to the top of San Luis Obispo's easternmost Morro.
Bob Jones Bike Trail Bob Jones Bike Trail
This easy 5-mile round trip hike or ride follows San Luis Obispo Creek to Avila Beach.
San Luis Obispo hikes More hikes in San Luis Obispo
Explore other trails around San Luis Obispo including Montaña de Oro State Park and the Morros.
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Tagged with · Free Trails
Distance: 3.7 miles · Elevation change: 200 feet

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23 Comments on Johnson Ranch Open Space in San Luis Obispo

  1. Patti wrote:

    I heard you can hike from Irish Hills all the way to Johnson Ranch. Is this trail officially open and, if so, do you access it from Froom Canyon?

    • hikespeak wrote:

      The trail is open and does start from Froom Canyon. It is about 5 miles to Johnson Ranch. You can access the new trail from the Madonna Road Trailhead or from the Costco parking lot near the gas pumps (which shortens the hike by about half a mile). If you are doing a one-way shuttle hike with two cars, it has been recommended that you start the hike from Johnson Ranch. Hope that helps. I am looking forward to checking out the new trail myself!

    • hikespeak wrote:

      Update: I’ve hiked the Johnson Ranch – Irish Hills Connector Trail and it’s a beauty!

  2. Jackie wrote:

    Are dogs allowed on trail?

  3. […] Johnson Trail also can connect you to the Irish Hills Trail.  I am hoping to come back and extend the hike which would make it about 10 miles round […]

  4. Jgmt wrote:

    Stopped by JR Trail on 12/5 and found sign sayin it was closed. Can I ask why? And when will it be reopened? Thanks…

  5. Pat Farber wrote:

    Just wondering, Is there a guided/informational tour this Saturday April 25 at Johnson’s Ranch at 9:00 AM??

  6. Kevin Hinckley wrote:

    Saw a rattlesnake about 1/2 mile into the Mariposa Trail today (6/1/15) crossing the pavement.

  7. Brandon wrote:

    How many people visit on an average per year and day

  8. Cheryl Allbright wrote:

    Is the Johnson Ranch trail still closed? If so, when will it open?

  9. […] Johnson Ranch Open Space: Located just off the 101 between SLO and Pismo Beach, the Johnson Ranch trail is a local favorite for trail runners looking for a little bit of elevation gain and a 2.5 to 3.7 mile loop. If you do your research before heading out, there is also a lesser known connector trail between Johnson Ranch and Irish Hills for runners looking to add more miles before calling it a day. […]

  10. marcia wrote:

    Hadn’t hiked Johnson Trail for awhile. Went early a.m. last week and was appalled at the massive amounts of dog waste on and along the trail. We encountered a guy with his dog and morning cup of coffee. About 40 feet later we encountered his dog’s steaming pile in the middle of the trail. You can bring your coffee mug but not a waste bag?

  11. Tori wrote:

    Is this trail open to horses?

  12. Hoy Buell wrote:

    We hiked today June 5 and saw two people with dogs not on leash. One of the dogs chased some wild turkeys that then flew up and left the area. We saw that there was a young turkey still there in the grass. The dog owner called to the dog and it came to him and then it ran after the other turkey. I told him to put the dog on a leash, But he ignored me.

    • Linda P wrote:

      Thanks for at least trying to take some humane sense into him! If enough of us speak up, there’s a better chance of making an impact.

  13. Jennifer wrote:

    What is the green rock that can be found all along this trail?

  14. […] our quest to find an open trail, we discovered Johnson Ranch Open Space. We drove the picturesque Los Osos Valley Road, went south on the 101 to the trailhead just off the […]

  15. Mikey Flohr wrote:

    Can you ride mobiles with people also hiking these trails? And do they get offended?

  16. […] As the fire popped and crackled to life, the assembled ytt Tribe cheered — celebrating the first time in generations they could return tinɨtʸu, or “good fire,” to their ancestral land. “It really felt like coming home,” cultural burn practitioner Becca Lucas told The Tribune during the event Tuesday morning, which took place on 15 acres of the Johnson Ranch Open Space in San Luis Obispo […]