Two parallel but varied trails explore the coast between Shell Beach and Avila Beach in San Luis Obispo County. Shell Beach Bluff Trail is an easy, wheelchair-friendly paved trail overlooking a picturesque cove. Ontario Ridge Trail is a rugged, sometimes-steep track crossing a 700-foot hill above the bluff. Put these two together for a 2.8-mile loop with 675 feet of elevation change and spectacular ocean views.
There are two potential starting points for this hike, from the east in Shell Beach, and from the west at Cave Landing near Avila Beach. The Shell Beach trailhead is the best place to start if you are only interested in a short casual stroll on the Bluff Trail. For those hiking the full loop, more parking id available at Cave Landing, making it an optimum place to start. The short path from Cave Landing up to the spine of Ontario Ridge is remarkably steep, so it is preferable to end the hike by descending that slope, rather than starting out with such a tough climb. This counter-clockwise loop heads east down Shell Beach Bluff Trail to the other trailhead, mounts the lower east end of Ontario Hill, and climbs the ridge to the 735-foot crown before dropping down to Cave Landing.
From the trailhead at the end of Cave Landing Road, walk around the gate and up a short rise overlooking Pirate’s Cove. The rocky headland on the opposite side of this clothing-optional beach features a natural tunnel that forms a window on the ocean beyond (hike Cave Landing Trail to explore the tunnel). When the wide road drops down to Shell Beach Drive, continue on the paved Bluff Trail, tracing the ocean side of this mansion-lined road. A short spur trail, 0.6 miles from the start, leads to a dramatic bluff where a rope has been tied to allow bold hikers down to the shore. Shell Beach Bluff Trail continues for about a quarter mile to the second trailhead.
Cross the paved parking area and the cul-de-sac above. Walk across the area in the road made of bricks and find a chained-off driveway at the end of a stone wall to the right of the last house on the street (don’t walk out to the blacktop area of Indio Drive). The driveway is actually a public access road that leads to the next trail, so use it. Step over the chain and walk up to the top of the pavement where an unmarked single-track trail starts to the left. Take this trail, which is Ontario Ridge Trail, and it will lead you up onto Ontario Hill. Follow Ontario Ridge Trail as it curves to the right and progresses along the base of the hill parallel to the edge of the Shell Beach neighborhood below. Mount a low saddle on the east end of the ridge. A spur to the right brings you to a short overlook, while the ridge trail heads to the left, delivering a 400-foot climb over 0.9 miles to summit of Ontario Hill.
Begin climbing the hillside of coastal sage. The rugged single-track is steep and rutted in areas, and level in others – delivering an arduous ascent. The east end of the ridge is close to Highway 101, which can be seen to the north, crossing Avila Valley toward San Luis Obispo, and to the south, passing behind Shell Beach and the other beach cities.
The freeway disappears as you continue, being replaced by sweeping coastal views. In the spring, blue dicks, lupines, crimson pitcher sage, and monkeyflower bloom amongst the sagebrush. Coast live oaks spread down the north slope of the hill and provide pockets of shade along the trail.
To the southeast, one can see clear across Pismo Beach toward the Guadalupe Dunes and Point Sal. Avila Beach appears to the west gracing San Luis Harbor. Pass through an installation of radio towers at the top of Ontario Hill and head down the other side.
A quarter mile below the 735-foot summit, Ontario Ridge Trail arrives at a junction with Sycamore Crest Trail, a wide trail that travels down the north side of Ontario Hill to Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort in Avila Valley. This is a major junction, but is not marked with any trail signs.
Beyond Sycamore Crest Trail, the trail along the ridge continues for 0.15 miles, ascending to a lower summit on the west end of Ontario Hill that has great views over Avila Beach. Just past the junction with Sycamore Crest Trail, another trail on the left drops back down to Cave Landing. To complete the loop, take this trail, which rapidly descends 500 feet toward Cave Landing Road over the last 0.4 miles. Upon returning to the trailhead, you could take a short half-mile hike to the end of Cave Landing to explore Pirate’s Cave
An ideal hike over Ontario Hill, which involves a car shuttle, begins by taking Sycamore Crest Trail up from the resort, and hiking east on Ontario Ridge Trail to Shell Beach, and then using the Bluff Trail to reach Cave Landing, where a second vehicle is used to drive 1.6 miles back to the resort. This route takes the most gradual ascent up Ontario Hill, avoiding challenging climbs from the east and west.
To get to the Cave Landing Trailhead: From Highway 101, seven miles south of San Luis Obispo, take exit 195 on to Avila Beach Drive and head west for two miles toward Avila Beach. A mile before the beach town, turn left up Cave Landing Road. Drive half a mile to the end of the road and pull into the large dirt parking area on the left.
Trailhead address: Cave Landing Road, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401
Trailhead coordinates: 35.1758, -120.7192 (35° 10′ 32.9″N 120° 43′ 09.1″W)
To get to the Shell Beach Drive Trailhead: From Highway 101, exit on Avila Beach Drive and turn south on Shell Beach Road, which runs down the west side of the freeway. Drive 1/3 of a mile and turn right on El Porto Drive. Continue west for 0.4 miles to the end of the road, and make a slight right on Indio Drive. Continue up to the cul-de-sac outside the private Bluff Drive, and turn left down to the parking lot.
Trailhead address: Indio Drive & Bluff Drive, Pismo Beach, CA 93449
Trailhead coordinates: 35.174558, -120.707748 (35° 10′ 28.40″N 120° 42′ 27.89″W)
This half-mile round trip hike descends 100 feet to a natural rock bridge at the end of a headland east of Avila Beach.
|Sycamore Crest Trail
This 1.75-mile hike departs from Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort and ascends the north slope of Ontario Hill, arriving at a scenic ocean perch. Extend the hike down the ridge and create a 3.25-mile one-way hike.
|Bob Jones Bike Trail
This easy 5-mile round trip hike or ride follows San Luis Obispo Creek to Avila Beach.
|Point San Luis Lighthouse via Pecho Coast Trail
This docent-led 3.5-mile out and back hike crosses scenic coastal bluffs to reach the historic lighthouse on Point San Luis.
|Oso Flaco Lake Trail
This hike of 2 miles or more takes a boardwalk over a coastal lake and across sand dunes to an out-of-the-way beach.
|More hikes in San Luis Obispo
Explore other trails around San Luis Obispo including Morro Bay State Park, Montaña de Oro State Park, and the Morros.