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.
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.
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.
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)
|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 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 Loop |
This 3.4 to 4.4-mile hike ascends a rugged ravine off Froom Canyon to the ruins of an old mine.
|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.
|Cerro San Luis |
This 4-mile hike summits one of the Nine Sisters just west of downtown San Luis Obispo, delivering panoramic views.
|Cerro 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.
|"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 |
This 2.2-mile loop visits a historical lemon grove on the eastern slopes of Cerro San Luis.
|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 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 |
This 1.8-mile round trip hike climbs 550 feet to the top of San Luis Obispo's easternmost Morro.
|Bob Jones Bike Trail |
This easy 5-mile round trip hike or ride follows San Luis Obispo Creek to Avila Beach.
|More hikes in San Luis Obispo |
Explore other trails around San Luis Obispo including Montaña de Oro State Park and the Morros.