We are spoiled for choice in California. The state is so filled with incredible things to see that the merely stunning is considered everyday, and left forgotten, if not neglected, save by a tiny few. Such is the lot of Montaña de Oro State Park.
I’ll fess up first: if my son had not become enamored with the park while on a school camping trip, I might well have permanently overlooked it. Montana de Oro sits parched on an empty stretch of the coastal promontory between the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant and Morro Bay. If you drive up the coast, you pass through Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo with barely an inkling that the park is there. And if you do venture off the main highway and find it, it takes a degree of determination or a surfeit of luck to find the place.
MdO is approached from the east by Los Osos Valley Road, a county highway that gradually loses width until, passing through its eponymous town, becomes more of a residential drive than a highway to an 8,000 acre park. The road bends and changes names as it approaches the park, and by the time you pass the dunes near Hazard Canyon, the highway has become too narrow for large RVs: the park maximum is 27′ vehicles.
But the trip is worth it. You enter the park (no fee, except for camping) and quickly find yourself driving into the dirt lot behind a gravel beach. This is Spooner’s Cove, and the blacktop pretty much ends here. Beyond this, it is all dirt, and mostly on foot.
Montana de Oro was given to the State of California in 1965, when Edmund G. Brown, Sr. managed to assemble the funds to expand California’s state park system, and the owners of the land worked with the state in a “friendly eminent domain” process that saved the land from development.
And what a gift. The beach will captivate you first. The gravel is that fine, soft mix that feels more like giant sand. Islay Creek, streaming down through its namesake canyon and campground, runs alongside a bluff to the right side of the beach, and the sound of the waves and that of the stream coming down to meet it mix into a pleasing cacophony that is a rare find so far south. The waters meet in a mix of tide pools and small caves that beg for exploring as the tide rolls out.
We spent so much time on the beach that we did not walk the bluff trail that runs all the way down to Carolina Cove and the park’s southern border. We regret that, but not too much: the one thing you learn about the park is that its comparatively primitive state belies the depth of its different charms. You could literally spend the full day just exploring the beach, the tidepools, the bluff, and the creek. Or climbing the mountain. Or taking the Bluff Trail. For someone with the right eyes, there is easily 3 full days of exploring the different habitats and moods of this stretch of the coast. The other reason we have no regrets: it gives us an excuse to go back.
The park is a hiker’s paradise, and behind the beach and bluffs are 32 square kilometers of inviting wilderness, including the 1,347-foot-high Valencia Peak, the “mountain of gold” referenced in the name of the park. The hikes range from the easy trek along the Bluff Trail to the moderate-to-difficult hike up to the top of the mountain. The latter is not for the faint-hearted, but the sea air is bracing and the view from the top is worth taking an extra hour or two you might need to take the mountain at your own pace.
Between the mountain and the cove is tucked a wooded campground lined up alongside the Islay Creek as it meanders its way up the canyon. The slope steepens and the canyon narrows within a few hundred yards, and the trail up the mountain begins. There is no sense here of being at an an oversized KOA: the grounds are modest and speak to campers who don’t mind company but balk at crowds. This is the way front-country camping should be.
At the foot of the campground sits the Spooner ranch house that today serves as park headquarters. There is a small but earnest gift shop that feels like it was the old breakfast room and dining room of the ranch house. Do the park a favor and find something here that charms you – postcards, a patch, a little piece of bric-a-brac – pay for it, and take it home. Proceeds go to keeping up the park, and the park could use the help.
Which brings us to the unmentioned sword that hangs above the future of this beautiful spot. In 2008, in an austerity measure, Montana de Oro was placed on the list of parks to be closed by the governor. There was an outcry and funds were found, but the reprieve feels temporary. The park does not charge admission to day users, but logic suggests that a stark choice lies in the park’s future: either allow commercial development, close the park and keep it as an un-visitable state reserve, or bite the bullet and start charging day-use fees.
In short, go, and go soon. Simply by making the trip, you’ll be doing something to support the park, and thus lessen the likelihood that it will be closed. if you are journeying on the 101 and can squeeze a couple of hours out of your schedule as you enter San Luis Obispo, forego the trip to the Pismo Beach Outlets and treat yourself to a moment of peace and beauty that you will remember.
More Information: Montana de Oro State Park Website