Until you breach the crest of Cerro Alto following a 2.75-mile incline hike, you may never fully understand the bewildering grace that inspired early pioneers in the area as they searched for the perfect place to begin the next big thing.
It may be the best view in San Luis Obispo County, but the entrance to the trailhead is marked by a quiet little sign off the E.G. Lewis Highway CA 41 West halfway between Atascadero and Morro Bay.
Braking to turn can be a challenge, as the turn sneaks up quickly and travelers on 41 are typically driving as fast as the curves allow. Drive carefully and use your blinker early.
Entrance to the park requires a $5 fee, and parking is usually fairly easy after traveling along a one-lane road between 41 and the parking lot. The short, beautiful drive under the canopy is dotted with campsites on both sides that are usually well-occupied.
After parking, there are two trailheads to choose from. One is a moderately challenging 2.75-mile hike and the other is a more aggressive 1.95-mile trail.
There are restrooms at the parking lot, but that is where the amenities end. Bring snacks, water and … use the restroom before you head up.
Along the trail, you will find a treasure of flora and fauna that considers the area home, so tread lightly and watch out for red salamanders. If you head up near sunset, your trip down may get dark, so bring a flashlight and watch the ground for little glowing bugs — they are very small. If you head up in the morning, there is a chance that fog will block your views at the top.
On the way up, there will be panoramic views from several plateaus, building the suspense of what you will see at the top. Spring flowers in bloom provide hikers and mountain bikers with cheering fans as you hit milestones.
Cerro Alto is not an easy hike, especially as hikers near the peak. The trail is well-worn, but loose dirt and rocky stretches can cause challenges. Wear good shoes — hiking shoes or boots recommended — and check the weather report.
The elevation gain is 1,600 feet from the parking lot to the peak. At about 1.7 miles, 650 feet above the parking lot, a sign for Summit Trail invites those who will not be daunted to make the rest of the 950 gain in just about one mile. The rises begin to push back against hikers at this point, no longer offering gentle gains. The top of Cerro Alto is a reward for determination and grit.
After traveling thousands of feet with endless inspiring views stretching as far as the eye can see, the final half-mile or so is run inside with hills extending on both sides of the hikers.
Sweeping around the left side of the peak, after one of the most grueling portions of the hike — about 375 feet of gain in .3 miles — filled with rocky footing and loose dirt, those who make it to the top are presented with 360-degrees of epic views.
But for Tassajara Peak to the southeast, Cerro Alta is the tallest summit in sight as the Central Coast sprawls out in all directions with peaks and valleys to be soaked in by the heart, mind, and soul.
One of the great sights is the entire string of the Seven Sisters — volcanic peaks that run from Islay Hill in Edna Valley to Morro Rock. The Santa Lucia Mountains lay out as conquerable children of the Cerro Alto master that hikers and bikers have just wrestled into submission.
The top of Cerro Alto is unprotected from the elements and can be colder than expected. A tour around the top brings views that are unmatched locally, bringing the Pacific Ocean, Santa Lucia Mountains, Los Osos to San Simeon into a vista that was hard-won.
We hope you are able to find your way to the top of Cerro Alto this spring and take a pic and tag us on your Instagram @colonymagazine.