Close Escape to Old California

By Chuck Graham   |   January 7, 2021

It was a trail run like no other. Three trail runners had returned from an early morning run beneath dewy, overcast skies, reporting a mountain lion sighting on the narrow single-track trail, the Coon Creek Trail of Montaña de Oro State Park, located just south of Morro Bay.

The runners reported that the mountain lion had downed a mule deer doe, and now state park personnel was about to close down the trail. Once I heard all the information, I laced up, grabbed my camera, and took off before the trail was officially closed.

The Coon Creek Trail traverses along a dense riparian corridor in tangled poison oak and wild rose, coastal chaparral smothering the steep mountainsides of this stunningly diverse state park. About a mile up the winding, open book-shaped canyon, I came across the partially gutted mule deer, but no mountain lion in sight.

After catching my breath, I tried listening for any possible movement. At some point the mountain lion would return. I could see where the mountain lion had ambushed its prey, lying in wait in a seasonal arroyo to pounce in the early morning hours, an easy opportunity for a stealthy predator that enjoys this coastal range. After an hour of waiting and listening I gave in and continued my run with camera in hand, hoping for a glimpse, but like a ghost the mountain lion had vanished with ease in one of the best kept secrets along the Central Coast of California.

Tucked Away

When a concentrated region of California’s diversified topography lies only a couple hours north of Santa Barbara, isn’t it worth a look? Montaña de Oro State Park can have that effect on you and take you on foot or mountain bike from the ocean through the coastal range within several minutes.

This stunning stretch of the Central California Coast became part of the California State Park system in 1965. Even after all this time, it’s still a place I tend to forget about because it’s kind of tucked away south of Los Osos and north of Avila. Montaña de Oro means “Mountain of Gold” in Spanish for all the vibrant California poppies that spring to life atop its wave-battered marine terraces and sweeping coastal hillsides.

Within its 8,000 acres are secluded, rugged beaches, steep, perfectly groomed sand dunes, teeming tidepools, weather-beaten coastal bluffs, gurgling creeks, and chaparral-choked hills, the high point being Valencia Peak at 1,347 feet. Beyond the breathtaking scenery, a maze of trails meanders through all the canyons attracting hikers, equestrians, mountain bikers, and trail runners alike. There is a small campground located behind the visitor center, the perfect car camping venue offering a terrific base to explore this unique slice of “Old California.”

Wildlife abounds at Montaña de Oro. Southern sea otters can be seen rafting up on the thick canopies of dense kelp forests lying just offshore. Coyotes lope along the hillsides roaming the coastal bluffs and their yelps and howls are heard frequently throughout the long, sloping canyons. Teary-eyed mule deer can be seen at any time in the state park. Hordes of cormorants, gulls, and California brown pelicans enjoy the craggy sea stacks. Western scrub jays, California thrashers, white-crowned sparrows and other songbirds forage the coastal sage scrub. Raptors of all types can be found soaring over this windswept state park.

Point Buchon Trail

There is an amazing bonus hike/run at Montaña de Oro. Located at the south end of the state park, the Point Buchon Trail is only open to the public Thursday – Monday from 8 am to one hour before sunset. After crossing over gurgling Coon Creek, state park personnel are stationed in a rustic kiosk where visitors are required to sign in before hiking the secluded single-track trail. 

This easy-going route hugs the winding coast to the south with convenient overlooks atop windswept marine terraces that reveal secluded pocket beaches and wave-cut bluff. The 6.6-mile out-and-back route possesses some of the most pristine and scenic stretches of coastline in Central California. The trail eventually offers views of the old Diablo Power Plant.

Early morning hikes on the Point Buchon Trail are typically quiet and rarely crowded offering serenity and solitude the Central Coast typically lives up to.

Getting There: Heading north on Highway 101, take the Los Osos Valley Road exit and head west to the coast. Once in Los Osos, simply follow the signs into Montaña de Oro State Park. Visit www.parks.ca.gov.

 

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