Already a beloved local open space, the Pismo Preserve shows hikers, bikers and equestrians ocean views they hadn’t seen before its opening. This land has long served as grazing grounds for coastal cattle ranches, and was once part of Rancho Pismo, a Mexican land grant. The Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, purchased the ranch in 2014 and manages it today. Since January, 2020, the preserve has been open to the public thanks to $17 million in donations and grants from the community. When the hills are green, cattle continue to graze here, in coordination with local ranchers.
At 880 acres, the Pismo Preserve comprises 11 miles of single-track trail and ranch roads. Eventually, the Land Conservancy plans to offer 14 miles of trail, including an ADA-accessible trail. These winding paths are open to hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians, and travel through oak woodlands and coastal ridges with panoramic ocean views. Many of the lookouts along these trails are ideal for whale watching, as whales migrate just off the Pismo Beach shoreline. Views also reach to the Irish Hills to the north and past the Oceano Dunes to point Sal State Beach in the south.
While the Pismo Preserve is closed at night, the Wildlife Camera Project captures photos of wildlife as they move at night. The project is a collaboration between the Learning Among the Oaks organization and the Land Conservancy of SLO County. Nighttime photos show deer, turkeys, foxes, bobcats, coyotes and mountain lions near one of the preserve’s water troughs.
The Pismo Preserve is located at 80 Mattie Road in Pismo Beach, parallel to Highway 101. Take exit 191B to reach Mattie Road; the Pismo Preserve parking lot includes 54 spots, with overflow into the nearby community. Find restroom facilities beside the parking lot.
Fun Fact: The parking lot isn’t where it was originally designed to be. Midway through the excavation process, surveyors found an extensive Northern Chumash cemetery in that very spot. After more planning and designing, the location of the parking lot was changed.
explore The Pismo Preserve
Guidelines for visiting the Pismo Preserve
This beautiful, sprawling open space depends on visitors’ awareness of their impact on the land. To promote the Pismo Preserve’s wellbeing, the Land Conservancy requires visitors to follow a few simple guidelines.
The Pismo Preserve’s open hours are dawn to dusk only. All hikers, mountain bikers and horses must remain on official trails, all of which are well-marked. Pack out all trash, gear, and other foreign objects; trash bins can be found in the parking lot near the restrooms. Dogs are welcome at the preserve on leash, only; no dogs off leash, please. As trails are shared between hikers, bikers and equestrians, mountain bikers are asked to use bike bells. These alert other folks on the trail who otherwise might not hear you coming, especially around blind corners. Should you need a bike bell, the Central Coast Concerned Mountain Bikers organization provides bells through Bells 4 Bikes. Find a station for borrowing a bell at the trailhead; you may also choose to buy your bell for a small fee taken at the bike box.
Note: the Land Conservancy prohibits smoking, camping, drones, motor vehicles, fires, weapons, picking flowers, wildlife harassment, speakers/music, and e-bikes on the preserve.
Pismo Preserve Trails
Most Pismo Preserve hiking trails are constructed as loops that can be combined with each other and customized. Trails across the preserve are not very steep, allowing people of all fitness levels to enjoy them. Color-coded trail markers help visitors navigate their way throughout the preserve. Note that all trails at the Pismo Preserve are single-track, and some are one-way only.
This 5.2-mile trail covers the perimeter of the preserve and is its longest single route. Start to finish, the trail gains 666’ in elevation, with a maximum grade of 17%. It takes in views of Pismo Beach and the Pacific coastline, particularly from Lover’s Point, a vista point at 780 feet elevation. Another vista point, The Notch, lies at 694 feet between two hills, with generous views of Edna Valley wine country to the east. In the spring, seasonal springs and wildflowers abound along this popular trail.
Spring to Spring
At 3.4 miles, the Spring to Spring trail travels an interior loop of the preserve, overlapping with the Discovery Trail for its last section. Spring to Spring gains 416 feet in elevation with a maximum grade of 18%. The best lookout point on this trail is known as the Concrete Turret, which faces out over the ocean from a height of 351 feet. This trail also passes the Lone Oak, a view of a single coastal oak tree, probably 100-200 years old, above the ocean.
This trail clocks in at 2.2 miles with an elevation gain of 371 feet. The trail twists and turns through oak groves and across coastal plains, overlapping the Spring to Spring trail for the first section. Take in views of the ocean from the Lone Oak lookout that stands at 420 feet above sea level. Here, a singular coastal oak tree looks out over the Pacific — a popular shot that visitors post themselves with on social media. But at somewhere between 100 and 200 years old, this tree is fragile; be sure not to touch its roots or climb its branches.
Named for its long offshoot shape, the Panhandle trail is only accessible as an extension to the Discovery Loop trail. One mile long, this scenic diversion brings visitors out to the Avila Overlook, a stunning vista point at 916 feet above sea level. Facing northwest, the Avila Overlook takes in Avila Beach, with its piers, working port and sparkling bay.
The only trail not open to mountain bikes or equestrian riding, Vamonos Canyon is just 0.75 miles long. That being said, it is the toughest terrain of the preserve, with steeper inclines — and views to match! This is another interior trail that travels the saddle between two hills that face west, overlooking the ocean. The end of this trail also overlaps the High Road, a fire road that leads back to the parking lot and preserve entrance.
Hiking the Pismo Preserve
The Pismo Preserve offers panoramic ocean views and scenic overlooks perfect for a hike. Lace up your sturdy shoes and start a walk through coastal oak trees and grassy hillsides. In spring, look for an abundance of wildflowers, while fall offers gorgeous warm weather and crystal-clear skies.
Most trails at the Pismo Preserve are designated as “easy” for hiking, with the exception of the Vamonos Trail, which is considered intermediate to difficult. (This is also the only trail that doesn’t welcome mountain bikers or horses.) Most people will find the hiking at the Pismo Preserve comfortable; the preserve also plans to offer an ADA trail soon, as well.
When hiking the Pismo Preserve, remember that you’re not alone on the trails. Listen for bells on mountain bikes to ensure that you’re not surprised by a rider coming around the corner. Also pay attention to any horses sharing the trail; hikers should always yield to horses. To do so, step to the bottom edge of the trail to let horses pass.
Biking the Pismo Preserve
Mountain bikers are greeted at the Pismo Preserve by trails that cut through oak forests and across sprawling coastal hills. The ocean’s horizon line extends deep into the distance in both directions, north and south. Chase after that horizon or look to the east where the Santa Lucia Mountains stand majestically over the vineyards of the Edna Valley. This setting, plus 11 miles of pristine trail, have quickly made the Pismo Preserve a favorite haunt of local mountain bikers.
The difficulty levels for Pismo Preserve mountain biking trails are generally intermediate and easy. Given that the Vamonos Trail is open only to hikers, mountain bikers have a total of 10 miles of trail open for riding. For the most diverse and wide-reaching ride, take the 4-mile Discovery Loop around the perimeter of the preserve. This takes in both ocean views and wine country views, as well as some diverse terrain. For the best beginner route, take the Panhandle trail, which offers beautiful views of Avila Beach and Port San Luis to the northwest.
Remember that hikers and horses share each mountain bike trail; keep this firmly in mind as you descend hills and hug blind curves. Using a bike bell is one of the best ways to ensure responsible riding. The Central Coast Concerned Mountain Bikers organization offers bells for loan or purchase at the Bells 4 Bikes station at the trailhead. Trail etiquette says that bikers yield to hikers and horses. To do so, step to the bottom edge of the trail to let hikers and horses pass. Always ride in control — do not skid or slide on the trail. Also, only ride on dry trails. After rains, if you can see tire tracks on the trail, it’s still too wet for a ride.
Horseback on the Pismo Preserve
Tack up for a relaxed coastal horseback ride to remember at the Pismo Preserve. The Land Conservancy makes it easy for equestrians to enjoy the wide-spanning views of Pismo Beach, the Pacific Ocean, and Edna Valley wine country. What better way to see it all than from the saddle?
The Pismo Preserve offers the use of three horse trailer parking spaces, for free, every morning and afternoon with advance reservations. These spaces are 19’ wide and 70’ long and can be reserved via the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County website. Multiple dates and times can be reserved for a single vehicle, up to two months in advance. Registration to use the Land Conservancy website and reservations must be made prior to arriving at the Pismo Preserve. (In other words, don’t expect to make your reservation at the last minute, in the parking lot.) A confirmation email will be sent and must be printed and clearly displayed on the dash of the vehicle at the preserve. Make sure that the license plate number on the confirmation email matches that of the vehicle.
All trails are open to equestrians except for Vamonos Trail and Lover’s Point — this leaves 10 miles of horseback riding trails. Always maintain control of your horse, with awareness that hikers and mountain bikers could be right around the corner. That being said, hikers and bikers are responsible for yielding to horses.
The Pismo Preserve offers a water spigot in the parking lot near the restrooms; be sure to bring your own bucket. The preserve also supplies water troughs on Radio Tower Road and the Spring to Spring trail. Find tie rails at the Avila Overlook and on the Discovery Trail, between The Notch and Lover’s Point. Nearby tables make these ideal spots to take a rest, have a picnic, and soak up the scenery.