Thursday, April 8, 2010

West Cuesta Ridge, Los Padres National Forest, California

Distance: 10 miles (16.1 km) roundtrip
Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation: 1500-2600 feet (450 - 790 meters)
Season: Year Round (avoid mid-day in summer).

Located just outside of San Luis Obispo is a ridgeline that offers spectacular views of Morro Bay and the Central California Coast, the hills and ridges of the San Luis Obispo area, the sand dunes of Pismo Beach and north into the Salinas River Valley. West Cuesta Ridge also offers an opportunity to hike through beautiful chapparal covered in purple ceonothus and into a rare Sargeant Cypress forest that contains remnant mature patches and regenerating areas from a recent fire on a green serpentine substrate.

Notice that ceonothus seems to like the shadier north slopes better than the hot south slopes!

The way to get to this trail is to take Highway 101 north out of San Luis Obispo. At the top of the Cuesta Pass, there is parking area on the left (westside). The highway here is a 3 lane divided highway, but there is a turn lane to get across. From here, a paved road heads steeply up the hill. You may be thinking, I am supposed to hike up a paved road?

Here you can see what remains of the "paved" road

Well, yes...But, as you head up the road you will see why. I was pretty skeptical at first and decided to drive up a ways to check it out, as according to the U.S. Forest Service this is in fact the "trail", which was a first for me. However, it soon becomes painfully obvious that the road has not been maintained in years and it is full of huge potholes and erosional cuts and driving up that would be very treacherous for any low to the ground 2WD vehicle. In fact, a van passed us on the road and we were walking almost as fast as it was driving as it bottomed out slowly on several of those deep potholes!

The road winds steeply up the slope, but within 0.5 miles it levels out at the ridgetop. It continues to climb, but much more gradually and is very enjoyable from here. If you are brave you could drive up that first 1/2 mile and then start from the ridgetop - that's actually what we did, not realizing the road "quality". The one advantage of that is getting past the steepest part and away from the highway noise.
Several of the volcanic "morros" near Morro Bay

Once on the ridgeline, the views are spectacular. You will see the very nice compact city of San Luis Obispo, and the dunes of Pismo Beach beyond it. You can see the rounded hills of El Chorro Regional Park and the 9 volcanic "morros" ending at Morro Rock right at the ocean.

The route continues on the ridgeline as it curves northwest and views of the Salinas River Valley and the Caliente Range near Carrizo Plain National Monument open up to the east and northeast. The route will top near the big radio/tv towers and then heads towards the stand of Sargeant Cypress. This area is called Cuesta Botanical Area and it is set aside by the U.S. Forest Service for protection of a rare ecosystem.

The  regenerating Sargeant Cypress below their torched parents and an untouched mature stand beyond

This area is covered in serpentine and ultra-mafic rocks from deep under the ocean. Lacking calcium, but high in magnesium and heavy metals, few typical plants can grow in it. However, the cypress, as well as, a few endemics like the Cuesta Ridge checker-mallow love it.

Hiking through the regeneration zone

This cypress species has an interesting life history. It's cones are sealed by a thick resin and the seeds are trapped inside for years, even decades until there is a wildfire. Until a fire comes, there is no regeneration. But, once a fire vaporizes the resin, the cones open up and the seeds drop to the ground by the thousands. They immediately sprout on the ashes of their parents and form thick carpets of young cypress. They need direct sunlight, so they can not regenerate unless their parents are completely burned!

Young cypress rising from the ashes of their parents

As the route heads through an untouched older section of cypress and then into regenerating stands, the views continue to be outstanding on both sides of the ridge. The route continues its ever continuing slight climb until reaching a summit area at around 2600 feet. Expecting a view of the coastline to the north of Morro Rock, one is initially disappointed as the north face of the summit has another mature stand of cypress blocking the view. But, go a bit further slightly downslope and out of that stand and you will get that view.

The view north from Morro Bay to San Simeon

The road continues a few more miles to another set of radio towers in the distance. But, this viewpoint is a great turn around spot (5 miles from the highway), especially since you will officially be leaving the botanical area. By the way, this route is very popular with mountain bikers. But, you won't see many cars. Most people seem to have gotten the memo about the road condition. We only saw two trucks on the road, one  who was picking up some bikers and a tower repair man who was driving almost as slowly as we were hiking.


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