From a less heralded summit in the Santa Lucia Foothills northeast of San Luis Obispo, you will find triumphant views of the peaks and valleys surrounding this gem on the Central Coast. The hike from Reservoir Canyon to this 1,715-foot crown is not for the meek. The 5.35-mile round trip hike ascends 1,350 feet, and over 800 of those feet come in the final grueling mile. The effort is rewarded with an exceptional 360-degree panorama from the top, and there are other points of interest along the way to spur you on, like a waterfall and a puzzling collection of scrap metal sculptures.
The hike begins from a trailhead in the 783-acre Reservoir Canyon Natural Reserve, located just off Highway 101 at the base of Cuesta Grade. The main trail continues straight in line with the road to the parking area, while another veers to the right.
Take the trail to the right for a two-minute detour to a charming 15 to 20-foot waterfall. Reservoir Creek Falls cascades down a slope of black rock into a shallow oak-shaded pool. A single track climbs up the left side of the falls, cutting through the forest to rejoin the main trail leaving the parking lot. Between the waterfall and the main trail, Summit Trail breaks off across Reservoir Creek and rises to an old tower housing a bell that is positioned at the end of the ridge extending northwest from the top of Reservoir Canyon Trail. A loop can be created by combining Reservoir Canyon Trail and Summit Trail.
The first 1.25 miles of this hike are quite level, gaining approximately 225 feet. The effort is made easier by abundant shade from overhanging oaks, sycamores, and smaller trees that thrive along this year-round water source. The canyon was used to preserve water for San Luis Obispo residents about a century ago, but evidence of the canyon’s former occupation has disappeared under new growth. The former municipal road, now a hiking trail, has been downsized to a conduit that is perfect for foot traffic.
After 0.4 miles, Reservoir Canyon Trail passes through a junction with Creek Bypass Trail, which parts to the right. When the bottom section of Reservoir Canyon Trial becomes wet and muddy after went storms, Creek Bypass Trail provides an alternate route up Reservoir Canyon. The trail can also be used to for a short loop.
After crossing several small wooden footbridges, you come to a larger bridge crossing the creek to the right. Follow the trail up a fork in the canyon where it breeches the trees for an open view of Cuesta Grade and the Santa Lucia Mountains.
Half a mile from the bridge and approximately 1.25 miles from the start, the trail drops down to the bank of the creek. Rock hop to the other side and rise to a sharp turn to the right. Those inclined for a leisurely hike could turn around here for a pleasant 2.5-mile. Going forward, prepare to climb 1,125 feet over the next 1.4 miles on a sun-exposed single track.
This tale of two hikes recommences with a steady climb up the side of the canyon. Be very careful as you hike up narrow segments on the trail. Trees give way to sloping grassland, which in turn give way to chest-high chaparral. Just under half a mile from the creek (though it may feel longer than that), you will arrive at a peculiar collection of scrap metal sculptures. These mysterious features would look more at home in the Poly Canyon Design Village than they do on the slope of this mountain. The site is also inhabited by a grand eucalyptus tree complete with a swing. Cross through the camp of robotic-looking tripods toward a metal teepee at the continuation of the trail.
Press on as the trail becomes progressively steeper. Excellent views are waiting at the top. Any time you need to pause and catch your breath on the climb, there are over the shoulder views of Cuesta Grade and the Santa Lucia Mountains. The ascent appears relentless, and this is one of those trails where every time you think you are approaching the summit, the mountain extends itself just a bit farther.
After climbing for 0.9 miles, the trail tapers out, reaching a small saddle north of the summit of Murray Hill (Unnamed Hill). Reservoir Canyon Trail ends at a T-junction with Ridge Trail, an old jeep road along the ridge. A short distance to the right is the top of Sydney Street, which comes up from the city side of the ridge. Farther down Ridge Trail is a viewpoint at an old tower housing a bell beside the top of Summit Trail.
Take a sharp left (at a 45-degree angle) up another single track striding the final 0.05 miles to the summit of Murray Hill, where a SLO local has built a stone memorial that includes a U-shaped 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 (by Avila Beach) 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 and west toward the Irish Hills and several jagged Morros, including the prominently displayed Cerro San Luis and Bishop Peak. Below the summit is the city of San Luis Obispo. 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 (or hike down Ridge Trail to attempt Reservoir Canyon Trail – Summit Trail Loop). The descent is brisk and easy. Dogs are welcome on leashes, but mountain bikes are prohibited. No fee or permit is required to hike in Reservoir Canyon Natural Reserve, so get out and enjoy!
To get to the trailhead: From downtown San Luis Obispo, take Highway 101 north for approximately two miles to Reservoir Canyon Road (an easy-to-miss road connecting to the freeway). Turn right and drive half a mile to the trailhead parking area at road’s end.
After the hike, exercise caution when getting back on the highway. It may be safer to drive north and turn around at another exit rather than cutting across northbound traffic to reach the southbound lanes to San Luis Obispo.
Trailhead address: Reservoir Canyon Road, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401
Trailhead coordinates: 35.29075, -120.62775 (35° 17′ 26.7″N 120° 37′ 39.9″W)
|Reservoir Canyon Summit Trail |
This 4.1-mile hike ascends to a point on the northwest end of the ridge above Reservoir Canyon, presenting panoramic views over San Luis Obispo from the base of an old tower with a bell that can be rung with a thrown pebble.
|Reservoir Canyon Trail - Summit Trail Loop |
This 5.6-mile loop ventures up Reservoir Canyon Trail to the summit viewpoint, crosses Ridge Trail to the bell tower, and descends Summit Trail back into Reservoir Canyon.
|Creek Bypass Trail Loop |
This 1-mile hike takes the beginnings of Summit Trail and Reservoir Canyon Trail and connect them with a short trail boasting big canyon views.
|Murray Hill via Sydney Street Trail |
This 2.8-mile round trip hike rapidly ascends 1,275 feet up a rugged trail to a stone seating area at a summit with panoramic views.
|Cuesta Ridge Botanical Area |
This 6-mile round trip hike crosses a ridge in the Santa Lucia Mountains with panoramic views over San Luis Obispo, ascending to a grove of Sargent cypress in a botanical area in Los Padres National Forest.
|East Cuesta Ridge |
This wide dirt road offers an 8.4-mile hike to the top of Mount Lowe or a longer trek to the top of Lopez Canyon Trail, offering ocean views over San Luis Obispo and inland views over an evergreen wilderness.
|Cerro San Luis |
This 4-mile hike summits one of the Nine Sisters just west of downtown San Luis Obispo.
|Cerro San Luis from Laguna Lake Park |
This 5.7-mile hike reaches the summit from a nearby park.
|Bishop Peak |
This 3.5-mile hike ascends 950 feet to highest summit in the Nine Sisters, offering excellent views of San Luis Obispo and the surrounding Morros.
|Felsman Loop Trail |
This 2.7-mile loop crosses oak, sagebrush, and grass-covered slopes around the base of Bishop Peak, providing excellent views of that notable rocky summit and its San Luis Obispo surroundings.
|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.
|Poly Canyon Design Village |
This 2.5-mile hike visits an experimental architectural village designed by Cal Poly students at the base of the Santa Lucia Mountains.
|More hikes in San Luis Obispo |
Explore other trails around San Luis Obispo including Morro Bay State Park, Montaña de Oro, and the Morros.