Posted by: James Wapotich | March 31, 2018

Trail Quest: Lake Lopez

Less than two hours from Santa Barbara, in San Luis Obispo County, Lake Lopez can provide a fun weekend getaway in our neighboring county to the north.

The lake provides a range of recreational opportunities, including camping, hiking, boating, and fishing.

The 4,276-acre recreation area features a network of trails that can be used to create a variety of loop hikes that offer views of the lake and its three main arms, Arroyo Grande, Wittenberg, and Lopez, which represent the three creeks that flow into the lake.

The two main loops that can be made are Duna Vista Loop, which lets you explore the peninsula between Wittenberg and Lopez arms, and the different trails east of the campgrounds, which can also be combined into a loop. The trails are open to hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding.

Lake Lopez High Ridge Fire Road hike

Lake Lopez is seen from High Ridge Fire Road

A map of the trails, as well as information about day use, camping, and campsite reservations can be found on the San Luis Obispo County Parks and Recreation website, Central Coast Concerned Mountain Bikers also has a useful map on their website,, as well as maps for several other popular hiking and biking destinations in San Luis Obispo County.

To get to Lake Lopez Recreation Area from Santa Barbara, take Highway 101 north to Arroyo Grande. Exit at Grand Avenue and continue east towards the mountains as Grand Avenue becomes Branch Street and leads through old town Arroyo Grande. Turn right on Huasna Road, which more or less turns into Lopez Drive as it continues up Arroyo Grande Valley. Lopez Drive continues to the park entrance, crossing the dam, and offering views of the lake.

Lake Lopez has over 350 campsites ranging from so-called primitive sites for car camping to sites with full hook-up for recreational vehicles and trailers. At the marina is a boat launch, as well as boat, kayak, canoe, and stand up paddle board rentals. The marina also features a store and bar and grill. The recreation area also includes a water park and ropes course.

In some ways the best time to go is during the off-season, from October to April, when there are less people there.

Lake Lopez Wittenberg Creek Duna Vista Loop Trail hike

Wittenberg Creek is seen from Duna Vista Loop Trail

A satisfying loop hike that can be made starting near the campgrounds is to follow Cougar Trail north to Escondido Spur Trail and take it up to High Ridge Fire Road, retuning back along Blackberry Springs Trail. The full loop is about five miles and offers a mix of ridge-top views and canyon scenery. Most of the trails are well-marked with signs and are in generally good condition.

Cougar Trail runs behind the different camping areas that are east of the main road. The trail meanders through a mix of coast live oak and chaparral, crossing a number of small side canyons. Escondido Spur Trail leads up one of these side canyons and as it climbs offers views out across the lake.

About a half-mile up from Cougar Trail, Escondido Trail crests out of the canyon and branches. A short side trail to the left follows the ridgeline to an overlook. The main trail continues east along the backside of the ridge and connects to High Ridge Fire Road, which traces the eastern edge of the recreation area and parallels Upper Lopez Canyon Road.

The old fire road is more of single-track trail and offers views of the lake and surrounding area. Continuing south on High Mountain Fire Road, the trail passes another old fire road that leads back down to the campgrounds, before then turning westward and arriving at a four-way intersection. At the intersection is the top of both Turkey Ridge and Blackberry Springs Trails, both of which lead back down to Cougar Trail.

Blackberry Springs Trail is perhaps the more interesting of the two. The trail leads through a small canyon, leveling out briefly in a small hidden vale, before continuing down. The area feels more lush than the other canyons thus far and there is a rich mix of plants as the trail leads under a canopy of oaks. Along the trail is coffee berry, elderberry, ferns, and even silk tassel. Lining parts of the canyon are wild blackberry and of course poison oak. Further down, under many of the oaks is wild gooseberry. The trail connects with Cougar Trail to complete the loop.

shell fossils Monterey shale Lake Lopez hike

Shell fossils in Monterey shale

The other scenic loop that can be made is Duna Vista Loop, which follows the trails on the peninsula across the lake from camping areas. The full loop, including the two spur trails, is about 10 miles. The trailhead is reached by continuing along the main road, past the campgrounds, to the end of the paved road where there is a pullout for parking.

From there, continue about a mile along the unpaved road towards Camp French, which is managed by the Boy Scouts. The road essentially traces the edge of Wittenberg Arm before crossing the creek. Stay to the left as the road branches, which leads you past the Event Center. From there, continue across the open flat above the creek towards the beginning of the signed single-track trail.

The single-track trail continues downstream above Wittenberg Creek and leads through a mix of oak and chaparral. In the small side canyons, there is coffee berry, elderberry, sycamore, and some poison oak. In the more exposed areas there is chaparral with predominantly coastal sagebrush and the occasional lupine. Amongst the oaks are coast live oak and valley oak, with many of them featuring lace lichen dangling from their branches.

At about the 1.25-mile mark from the beginning of the single-track trail, the trail branches for the beginning of the actual loop. Staying to the left provides the shorter route to the two Duna Vista Lookouts, if one wants to shorten the hike.

From here, the trail starts its climb to the top of the ridge that separates Wittenberg and Lopez Canyons, and forms the long peninsula between these two arms of the lake.

Lake Lopez Duna Vista Loop Trail hike

Lake Lopez is seen from Duna Vista Loop Trail

As the trail climbs it offers views out across the lake. Here, the plants start to include toyon, ceanothus, and black sage. The trail then crests the top of the ridge and offers some great views out across the Lopez Arm of the lake and towards the ocean.

Here, the trail branches again. To the left, Duna Vista Spur Trail continues south another mile to Duna Vista Spur Lookout, which overlooks the dam. To the right, the main trail continues north along the ridge to complete the loop.

The trail to Duna Vista Spur Lookout has what feels like the most forested sections along the ridge, passing through toyon, oak, ceanothus and in some areas holly-leaf cherry and tanbark oak. The view from the overlook includes the dam, as well as Arroyo Grande Valley, Arroyo Grande, and the Oceano Dunes.

Construction of Lopez Dam began in 1967 and was completed in 1969. The dam was built to prevent flooding in the valley below, with the reservoir providing water for Arroyo Grande and the Five Cities area. The lake is currently at 50 percent capacity.

Continuing back along the ridge between Wittenberg and Lopez Canyons, the trail climbs to its highest point along the ridge, passing a second lookout spot, which offers views of both arms of the lake from a single vantage point.

The trail then starts to descend along the ridge, arriving at the juncture with the trail for the return loop and the beginning of Encinal Spur Trial, which leads down to the lake in Lopez Canyon.

Encinal Camp Lake Lopez hike oaks

Oaks near Encinal Camp

Encinal Spur Trail is definitely the least used trail on the peninsula. The slightly overgrown trail descends a half-mile down towards the lake and provides numerous opportunities to maneuver around poison oak. Near the lake, the trail arrives at a sign for Two Waters Trail, the previous name for Duna Vista Loop Trail.

At the sign, turn right and continue to Encinal Camp, which is situated in a large grove of coast live oak. The camp features a metal fire ring and grill and two picnic tables. Reservations for the campsite, which is only accessible by boat or along the trail, need to be made by calling the rangers at Lake Lopez.

From Encinal Camp, return back up to the trail juncture, and continue along the connector trail to complete the loop and return back to the trailhead.

Regardless of how far you hike you’ll get see a unique part of San Luis Obispo County.

This article originally appeared in section A of the February 19th, 2018 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

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