Saturday, July 17, 2021

San Luis Obispo (Bishop Peak, Morro Bay & Oceano Dunes)

On Sunday, we drove up to Central California to visit San Luis Obispo for five days. Instead of keeping to the coast after we reached Santa Barbara, we took the shortcut through the San Marcos Pass in the Santa Ynez Mountains. In 1846, this high pass was used by an invading American army to capture Santa Barbara in the Mexican-American War. After California became part of the United States, a stagecoach toll road was constructed over the high pass by Chinese laborers and then used by risk-taking automobiles in the early 1900's before the modern road was constructed in the 1950's. It was blazing hot as we stopped to admire the views of the Santa Ynez Valley and Cachuma Lake on the other side. After 6 hours on the road, we arrived at Avenue Inn soon after the 3pm check-in time. It was only a roadside motel, but they had nice rooms and it was located in a perfect location in Downtown SLO.

After checking in, we went for a walk through the Downtown of this small college town for the nearby Cal Poly State University. Even though we had reservations for dinner at 7pm, we were starving so we shared a Cowboy Corn Pie from the Old SLO BBQ Co. The delicious cornbread with cheddar cheese and jalapeños was a perfect snack to hold us over 'til dinner. As we walked through the center of town, we stopped at the famous Bubblegum Alley where students add new layers each school year. While it sounded like a cool idea, the reality of it was pretty stinky and gross. Most of the older layers of chewing gum accumulated on the walls had turned moldy and black long ago.

The San Luis Obispo Creek runs right down the center of downtown along Higuera Street before it leaves the city and empties into the ocean at Avila Beach. We saw several pieces of public art hanging above the creek as we walked in both directions, crossing over the low stream on the stepping stones. While in the past, the creek was used for sewage, it has been restored with a Creekwalk that runs along the ravine for several blocks between the Children's Museum and the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. For dinner, we had reservations at Novo Restaurant that has a large outdoor patio perched alongside the creek. We shared the fresh Avocado Shrimp Spring Rolls while I ordered the tasty Pork Carnitas Sopes with their thick corn tortillas. Tori loved their Chow Novo, a delicious version of chow mein. For dessert, we walked down to the local's favorite, Doc Bernstein’s Ice Cream. I tried the Motor Oil (Dark Chocolate and Kahlua Ice Cream with Fudge Swirls) while Tori had the Butterfinger Blast.

On Monday morning, we walked to Scout Coffee on Garden Street for Mochas and Liege Waffles. As the morning fog burned off, the whole of downtown was awash in color from the purple flowers of the Jacaranda trees. On the walk back, we checked out a classic MGB Roadster parked outside British Sports Cars. We also passed the historic Jack House, a two-story Victorian that was built in the 1880's and belonged to an important ranching family in the town for ninety years. It is now owned by the city and the small garden park surrounding the house is open to the public. Tours of the interior are only available on the second Sunday of ever month. We just missed it when we arrived the day before.

At 9am, we headed across town for a hike up Bishop Peak, named for the rocky crown at the summit that resembled a Bishop's Miter to the padres living in the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. At 1,559 feet, the small mountain is the tallest of the Nine Sisters, a chain of volcanic plugs stretching westward to the famous rock sitting in Morro Bay. There are three trailheads for Bishop Peak, but we used the main one on Patricia Drive. On the bottom third of the trail we passed through two oak groves and a shady rock wall for expert climbers. Leaving the trees behind, we had great views of Cerro San Luis, the sister hill to the east that overlooks our hotel in downtown SLO. The trail grew steeper as we climbed the last mile of switchbacks overlooking the farmland of Los Osos Valley to the south.

The trail ended at two benches in the small saddle between the two rocky peaks where Turkey Vultures circled the summit, riding the air currents over our heads.  As we sat on the rocks, we spotted the bright red head of large vulture preening his feathers with his sharp beak on a nearby outcrop. After catching our breath and enjoying the view, we took a side path around to the other side of the eastern peak. Climbing the scattered boulders, we had a panoramic view of the city and the Cal Poly campus across the valley. With our exploration of the summit, we ended up hiking 3.9 miles by the time we returned to our car at noon. After only a tiny waffle for breakfast, we were hungry after our hike so we returned to Old SLO BBQ Co. for lunch. The Cowboy Corn Pie was so good the day before, we shared it again as well as the Tri-Tip and Chicken Sliders with sides of pinquito beans and apple-cucumber coleslaw. The sourdough bread used for the sliders was the best! We came back later in the week to try the cheesy garlic bread made with the same sourdough. 

After resting at the hotel, Tori and I went wine tasting in the nearby Edna Valley. Sitting in the shade of the olive trees at Biddle Ranch Vineyards, Tori tried their 2018 Chardonnay while I had the 2019 Pinot Noir. Across the sunny vineyards, we could see Islay Hill, the easternmost of the Nine Sisters on the other side of the valley. On the drive back to town, we stopped at Cattaneo Brothers, the local shop know for their jerky. We bought the Black Pepper Jerky and Butter Toffee Almonds to take back home to San Diego. For dinner, we planned to go to Jocko's Steakhouse in Nipomo. I have always wanted to go after repeated recommendations by several friends. We called early to be put on the same-day waitlist. While they told us the wait was two hours, they ended up calling us back after twenty minutes while we were still on the road. Luckily, we were still seated right away when we arrived fifteen minutes later. While most of the side dishes were only average quality, my filet mignon cooked over their red oak coals was at the highest level, tender and flavorful and fit for the snootiest steakhouse. The Rainbow Sherbet they served for dessert took us back to our childhoods.

On Tuesday morning, we went to SLO Donut Co. for a sugary breakfast before heading to Montaña de Oro State Park that sits just south of Morro Bay. The 7 miles of undeveloped coastline gets its Mountain of Gold name from the yellow wildflowers and California Poppies that cover the slopes in the spring. We hiked the flat Bluff Trail, starting at Spooners Cove and heading out to Islay Point, following the rugged shoreline south while covered in a misty marine layer. You can customize the distance, but we went all the way to Carollina Cove and back over 4.1 miles of mostly flat ground.

Along the out and back trail, we went down to a sandy beach coated with driftwood to check out the tidepools. The cliffs are formed of Miguelito Shale, layered rock laid down over 6 million years ago.  The thin layers are eaten away by the crashing waves to create the shear bluffs, rock islands and sea caves along the coast. Near the far end of our hike, we found Grotto Rock, an offshore sea stack with the tide flowing through the natural arch.  Another distinctive feature nearby was a long wave-cut platform sticking out into the ocean, planed flat by the actions of the waves, removing one layer of shale at time. I was hoping the fog would burn off before the end of the hike but the 1,347 foot summit of Valencia Peak was hidden in the mist the entire time. For the more adventurous, there is also a 4.5 mile hike that climbs to its inland peak.

After our hike, we visited the Spooner Ranch House Museum. The ranch house preserves the 1892 home of the Spooner family that ran the busy Pecho Ranch along the coastline, raising beef cattle, sheep, hogs, goats and horses as well as a dairy and fields of crops. The ranch used nearby Spooner Cove to load the coastal steamers with their goods. A later rancher owning the area in the 1960's went bankrupt and the state of California purchased the land to create Montaña de Oro State Park in 1965. On our drive out, we passed through Hazard Canyon where we saw a flock of turkeys foraging in the eucalyptus grove. While the trees had been planted for commercial purposes, the rancher soon realized they are unsuitable for lumber. 

Just after noon, we drove into the nearby town of Los Osos and stopped for lunch at a local favorite, Sylvester’s Burgers. They had a lot of different burger options but I went with their classic Old Fashioned with Cheese. It was big, hot n' juicy with lots of Sylvester Sauce. Originally, Tori had planned to wait for smoked fish tacos at Ruddell's Smokehouse in nearby Cayucos. When she found out that Ruddell's was closed on Tuesdays, she ordered the Grilled Chicken Sandwich at Sylvester's. With a full belly, we drove up the coast to the tiny town of Cayucos. The sun had come out, but the breeze was chilly as we walked out on the historic wooden pier. While Ruddell's was closed, we went to Brown Butter Cookie Co. instead for a treat. We each ate one of their fresh baked chocolate chunk cookies and ordered a bag of their original shortbread cookies made with brown butter and sea salt to take home.

After relaxing back the hotel for several hours, we drove back out to Morro Bay to stroll along the Embarcadero. We could hear the sea lions barking out in the harbor as the sun slowly set behind Morro Rock. At 851 feet tall, the volcanic plug used to be an island but is now connected to the shore by a sandy causeway and is the last of the Nine Sisters that stretch back to San Luis Obispo. The rock is considered a sacred site by the local Chumash and Salinan native tribes. While the Salinan climb the rock for their biannual solstice ceremonies, the Chumash are in a legal dispute with the other tribe because they believe it should never be climbed at all. It is illegal for the general public to climb the rock due its fragility. After walking all the way down the wharf to Tidelands Park and back, we stopped at The Libertine Pub for a couple beers and to watch the sunset through the large windows. We weren't very hungry, so we shared a small salad and ordered from the Taco Tuesday menu. The Chorizo Tacos and the Pink Lemonade Ale was very good.

On Wednesday morning we slept in for the first time of our vacation before walking over to Big Sky Cafe to share a plate of their Huevos Rancheros. Instead of another morning hike, we decided to relax in one of the private hot tubs at Sycamore Mineral Springs. The wooden hot tubs sit staggered across a tree-canopied hillside in a canyon outside Avila Beach. It felt great to soak in the naturally heated mineral spring water under a shady grove of sycamore trees. Tori took some hilarious pictures of me pretending to seductively pose like George Constanza in the Seinfeld episode where he attempts to flirt with an employee at the photo store. After our soak, we walked across the pedestrian bridge to visit the resort's Secret Garden alongside the San Luis Obispo creek in See Canyon.

After our morning soak, we drove into Pismo Beach for lunch. We had planned to try the famous Clam Chowder at Splash Cafe, but the line was down the block so we went next door to Brad's Restaurant instead. (Brad's was delicious too and the sourdough bowl was surprisingly good. Normally bread bowls are pretty unappetizing and a waste of food.) While this local chowder is now made with imported clams, the sandy beach here is named after the Pismo Clam that grows up to seven inches long. After being depleted by the commercial fisheries in the early 1900's, there hasn't been a legal clam over 4 1/2 inches collected on the beach since 1993. Lately there has been a hopeful rebound of young clams reported but they are still too small for collection. After lunch, we walked out to the end of the Pismo Beach Pier that was fully reconstructed in 2017 after years of storm damage. We lucked out and saw a Sea Otter frolicking out past the surf.

We had thought about renting an ATV to explore the dune fields south of Pismo but we decided to just go for a hike on the two mile Dune Trail in the Oceano Dunes Nature Preserve instead. The sun was going in and out of the clouds as we climbed up and down the soft sand of the dunes before exiting the trail to walk back along the beach. We were surprised to discover the presence of street-legal cars driving and parking along the shore. Back at our truck, we decided to pay the $5 fee and drive onto the beach at the Oceano Beach Access entrance on Pier Avenue as well. Even though 4x4 vehicles were recommended, we risked it with my 2WD truck by staying on the flatter sand close to the water as headed north along Grover Beach. We saw only one stuck car but it looked like they tried a short cut through softer sand.

Heading back south and avoiding all the jelly fish washed up on the shore, we entered the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area where we could see all the ATVs and Dune Buggies on the inland dunes. It was really fun cruising on the only drivable beach south of San Francisco. In the coming years, it looks like street-legal vehicle access along the beach will be restricted to the 1-mile stretch between Grand and Pier Avenue. We saw several signs from the locals trying to fight this as well as the Coastal Commission's vote to prohibit off-highway recreational vehicles on the dunes by 2024. Back in San Luis Obispo, we went to the Firestone Grill for their highly recommended Tri-Tip Sandwich. We both shared their huge Firestone Salad with pine nuts. After dinner, we did a little shopping in Downtown and Tori was able to get her iPhone's screen protector fixed at the local Apple Store.

After coffee and a cinnamon roll at Scout Coffee on Thursday morning, we packed up and checked out of our hotel. We planned to visit Avila Beach before for our drive home, so we stopped at High St. Deli on the way out of town for sandwiches to eat after our hike. Parking in the rough dirt lot at the top of the cliff, we hiked down the short trail to Smuggler's Cave, an arched tunnel in the rock with beautiful oceans views from the narrow ledge on the other side. To the north, we could see the three piers of Avila Beach in the distance and Hidden Cave Landing Beach at the bottom of the rugged cliffs. The only way to reach this secluded beach from a nearby trail is if you trust yourself on the fixed rope dangling down the side of the steep cliff. 

Leaving the cave, we took a separate trail to the second beach, Pirate's Cove. This trail also has a fixed rope near the bottom but it was not required if you have nimble feet. There were several boats anchored in the quiet cove as we walked to the far side where we soon discovered that it is a nude beach. Back at our truck, we ate our delicious Cal Turkey and Roast Beef Sandwiches in the cool breeze along the edge of the cliff.  

After our lunch, we drove to Avila Beach and walked out to the end of the pier. Many of the wooden pilings were missing due to storm damage so several sections were off-limits, including the end of the pier. Leaving the small beach town, we stopped at Avila Valley Barn for an Olallieberry Pie to take home. This tasty hybrid is about 2/3 blackberry and 1/3 red raspberry. Except for an added stop in Santa Barbara, we had a five hour drive, reaching home at 9pm.

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