If the hike at your own risk sign at the start of Sydney Trail doesn’t intimidate you, maybe the 1,275-foot climb over 1.4 miles (one-way) will. This is a steep hike up a rocky road. The destination is a stone seating area at the top of Murray Hill (also known as Unnamed Hill), a 1,715-foot summit in the Santa Lucia Foothills with panoramic views over San Luis Obispo, more commonly reached from the north via Reservoir Canyon Trail. This rugged hike is accented with climbs over cattle gates, ensuring that you get a little upper body workout on this rigorous trek.
Park at the top of Sydney Street, one mile southeast of downtown San Luis Obispo and continue straight up a private paved road on foot. After a tenth of a mile, when the pavement ends, proceed up a dirt road, passing a warning sign for hikers about rattlesnakes and bulls (you will be hiking on the edge of an active ranch). Begin hiking up a small wooded canyon carved into the steep grass-covered hillside. It will not take long for you to understand why mountain bikers in San Luis Obispo call this trail the “hill of pain.” Sydney Street Trail would make one hell of a fat tire conquest, certainly qualifying as an HC climb in the Tour de France.
A quarter mile from the start, you will hit the first gate across the trail. Climb to the other side and continue uphill, quickly reaching another gate. Here the trail swings to the right and out of the canyon for an overview of San Luis Obispo. Swing back to the left, returning to the canyon over a third cattle gate. After climbing close to 400 feet in less than half a mile, pause to catch your breath and admire the view across the city toward Cerro San Luis and Bishop Peak.
A tenth of a mile above the third and final gate, the trail switches to the right and climbs out of the canyon, gaining more elevation toward a landing that protrudes from the northwest-to-southeast running ridge that dominates Murray Hill. Look over your shoulder as you pass below a row of power lines. Can you still spot your vehicle on Sydney Street, 700 feet below?
The rocky road angles northeast and then east for the summit, climbing another half mile (with 500 feet of elevation gain) to a junction marked by a pair of large boulder piles. To the left, High School Trail heads along the ridge down to San Luis Obispo High School, another trailhead for Murray Hill. Turn right to reach the summit. After an easy tenth of a mile you will come to an unmarked junction with Reservoir Canyon Trail on the left. Don’t turn left, and don’t go straight. Instead, split the difference on a path up to the stone seating area at the top of Murray Hill.
The summit is built up with a garden of fledgling trees and impressive horseshoe-shaped stone bench ideal for resting your legs and taking in the view over Edna Valley. Farther to the south, one can see the Pismo Dunes and Point Sal. There are three windows of ocean views in all, Pismo Beach to the south, Whalers Island in San Luis Bay to the southwest, and Moro Bay to the west. The panorama does not stop there as Murray Hill looks east toward the Santa Lucia Mountains, north over Reservoir Canyon toward Cuesta Grade, and west onto the Irish Hills and several jagged Morros, including the prominently displayed Cerro San Luis and Bishop Peak. It is quite a sight!
While many locals aren’t sure what to call this summit (unlike the other prominences around), it can be called Murray Hill, taking its name from Judge Walter Murray who resided in San Luis Obispo in the 1800s. Murray took part in the California gold rush after fighting in the Mexican-American War and wrote for the San Luis Obispo Tribune.
When your legs have recovered from the ascent and your eyes have recovered from the beauty, head back the way you came. The descent is brisk but the trail is still quite rugged. No fee or permit is required to hike to Murray Hill. As with all hikes, but especially on this one, your safety is your responsibility, so do take “the hike at your own risk” sign to heart.
To get to the trailhead: Take Highway 101 to exit 203 in downtown San Luis Obispo. Drive half a mile southeast on California Street and turn right on San Luis Drive. After a third of a mile, continue southeast on Johnson Street. Drive 0.8 miles and turn left on Sydney Street (one block after Bishop). Go a quarter mile up Sydney Street and park along the side of the road at the top of the street.
Trailhead address: 1800 Sydney Street, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401
Trailhead coordinates: 35.27307, -120.641322 (35° 16′ 23.05″N 120° 38′ 28.75″W)
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