Posted by: James Wapotich | August 29, 2016

Trail Quest: Montaña de Oro, Part 2

Located along the coast just south of Morro Bay, Montaña de Oro is one of California’s largest state parks. The park also just happens to be only two hours from Santa Barbara, making it a great destination for hiking and camping.

The 8,000-acre park features over 65 miles of trails and has 47 car camping sites and four walk-in, or environmental sites, to choose from. For reservations, pricing and availability go to There are no day use fees to visit the park.

The main campground is located above Islay Creek, just past the Visitor Center, which is located in the restored Spooner Ranch House. In addition to the trails south of the ranch house, two hikes north of the ranch house that allow you to explore the park’s scenery include a loop hike to Hazard Peak and a hike along the Morro Bay sandspit.

Islay Creek Montaña de oro

Islay Creek

The Hazard Peak Loop, about nine miles, incorporates Islay Creek Road and Dune Trail and offers views of Spooner’s Cove and Morro Bay. The hike along the beach to the end of the Morro Bay sandspit is about 10 miles roundtrip and can include a side trip to explore Shark Inlet and the back bay.

To reach the park from Santa Barbara, take Highway 101 north towards San Luis Obispo and exit at Los Osos Valley Road. Follow Los Osos Valley Road west and continue through the town of Los Osos. As the road turns southward it becomes Pecho Valley Road and continues to the park.

A good starting point to orient yourself to the park is Spooner Ranch House, which is just across from Spooner’s Cove, along Pecho Valley Road. A brochure with a map of the trails can be found at the ranch house, as well as online at Parking can be found at the ranch house and the cove, as well as at the different trailheads along Pecho Valley Road.

Island Creek Canyon hike Montaña de oro

Islay Creek Canyon

The restored ranch house, complete with furnishings, provides a glimpse of what life might’ve been like living there at the turn of the last century.

The ranch house was built in 1892, by Alden B. Spooner II, as a three-room cabin for his family and over the next 20 years was expanded to ten rooms.

The family raised cattle, sheep and hogs. Behind the ranch house, Spooner built a water-powered creamery and further up on Islay Creek, built a dam to channel water to the water-wheel. Spooner also built a barn and other ranch buildings, as well as a loading chute from the bluff down to the cove.

Spooner originally leased the land surrounding Islay Creek in 1892, and later purchased it in 1902.

In 1942, the Spooner family sold the land to Oliver C. Field, who ten years later sold it to Irene McAllister. In 1965, the land was purchased by the State of California and became Montaña de Oro State Park.

Hazard peak trail hike Montaña de Oro

Scenery from Hazard Peak Trail

Spooner’s neighbor to the north was Alexander S. Hazard, who planted the forest of eucalyptus trees one sees from the road on the drive into the park. Hazard planted the trees in the early 1900s hoping to cash in on California’s growing demand for lumber, however the wood from eucalyptus proved unsuitable for construction. Hazard Peak and a number of other features in the park are named after him.

A loop hike to Hazard Peak can be crafted using Islay Creek Road and Dune Trail. The trailhead and pullout for Islay Creek Road is along Pecho Valley Road, just north of Spooner’s Cove.

From the trailhead, continue inland along Islay Creek Road. The unpaved access road follows the canyon upstream and leads through a mix of chaparral including California sagebrush and coyote bush. Along the creek one can see arroyo willow, black cottonwood and dogwood.

After the first mile, Islay Creek Road meets Reservoir Flats Trail, which traces the south side of the canyon and connects back to the campground. At about the 2.75-mile mark, the road arrives at the beginning of Barranca Trail. From here, it’s about a mile up to the ridgeline the separate the drainages of Islay and Hazard Creeks. Just past Barranca Trail, along the road, is a dilapidated old barn and the beginning of East Boundary Trail, which also leads up to the ridgeline.

Barranca Trail is the shorter route to the top and joins East Boundary Trail on the ridgeline. From the ridgeline, continue north along East Boundary Trail to where it meets Hazard Peak Trail. From here, East Boundary Trail continues down into Hazard Canyon.

Hazard Reef Canyon Trail Montaña de oro

The beach near Hazard Reef

To reach Hazard Peak, continue westward along Hazard Peak Trail. About a mile and a half later, the trail arrives at the 1,076 foot high peak, where one can find a picnic table and two benches and take in the views that stretch north towards Morro Bay.

As the trail continues past the peak, it offers views down towards the ranch house and Spooner’s Cove. Roughly two miles from the peak, the trial arrives at the intersection with Hiedra Trail. From here, Hazard Peak Trail continues another mile down to Pecho Valley Road, arriving just north of Islay Creek Road.

Hiedra Trail leads a half-mile down towards the road and meets Dune Trail at the Hazard Canyon Parking area. From here, one can follow Dune Trail north to Hazard Reef Trail, which follows the last part of Hazard Canyon down to the ocean. At the beach one can see the transition from open beach to the north and the more sculpted bluffs that dominate the coast to the south.

To complete the Hazard Peak Loop, from the end of Hiedra Trail, follow Dune Trial south, back towards Spooner’s Cove, about a mile. If staying at the campground a short trail directly across the road from Dune Trail, crosses Islay Creek and arrives at the road to the campground, just behind Spooner Ranch House.

Shark Inlet Morro Bay sandspit Morro Rock A-Line Trail hike Montaña de oro

Shark Inlet, Morro Bay sandspit, and Morro Rock are seen from A-Line Trail

For the hike to the end of Morro Bay sandspit, the shortest route is to start from the end of Sandspit Road, which is along Pecho Valley Road on the drive in towards Spooner Ranch House. Parking at the trailhead closes at sunset, so plan accordingly.

From parking area, follow A-Line Trail north towards Shark Inlet and the back bay. The trail leads behind the dunes and about a half-mile later intersects with Army Road and Back Bay Trail. Back Bay Trail continues behind the dunes towards Shark Inlet and lets one explore part of the back bay.

Army Road provides access over the dunes to the beach. From here, it’s about four miles to end of the sandspit along the beach. The sandspit separates the Pacific Ocean from Morro Bay and the estuaries of Los Osos and Chorro Creeks. From March to September much of the dunes are closed to protect the nesting snowy plover. Near the breakwater at the northern end of the sandspit are two more access trails across the dunes that also let you visit the bay.

Morro Rock Morro Bay Sandspit hike Montaña de Oro

Morro Rock is seen near the end of Morro Bay sandspit

Throughout the hike the views to the north are dominated by Morro Rock.

The area surrounding the bay was first settled by the Chumash more than 9,000 years ago. The first European visitors to the area were part of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s expedition along the coast in 1542. However, it was Father Juan Crespi, who is credited with giving the rock its current name. Part of Gaspar de Portalá’s overland expedition from San Diego to Monterey in 1769, Crespi described the feature as a “round morro”, or crown-shaped hill.

The rock was formed over 25 million years ago and is part of a field of volcanoes that stretched from Morro Rock to Islay Hill in San Luis Obispo. Nature has weathered away the softer material from these volcanoes leaving just the igneous rock cores, or plugs. The most prominent of these morros are known as the Nine Sisters of which five are open to the public for hiking.

Originally surrounded by water, Morro Rock became connected to the mainland during the 1930s, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers filled in the north channel and built a causeway out to the rock. In 1968, the rock was designated a California Historical Landmark. Morro Rock can be reached from the town of Morro Bay at the end of Coleman Drive.

Regardless of how far you hike you’ll get to visit a unique part of California’s coast.

This article originally appeared in Section A of the August 1st, 2016 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press

Great horned owl hazard canyon Montaña de Oro

Great Horned Owl

During the Hazard Peak loop hike I spent some time following around *an* owl from tree to tree in Hazard Canyon trying to get some photos. However, it wasn’t until I got home and looked at my photos that I realized there’d been at least two owls I was following amongst the eucalyptus, an adult and one or more juveniles.

Juvenile Great Horned Owl Hazard Canyon Montaña de oro

Juvenile Great Horned Owl

Juvenile Great Horned Owl Hazard Canyon Montaña de Oro


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