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Montaña de Oro State Park offers backpackers a change of pace, winter getaway

Sunsets over the Pacific delight visitors to Montana de Oro.
Sunsets over the Pacific delight visitors to Montana de Oro.
Nancy Jacoby

Backpackers in Fresno generally tend to look east when planning outings and thinking about hitting the trail. But getting to the high Sierra isn't always possible owing to injury, winter weather or time constraints. Fresno's convenient location between the coast and the mountains provides a compelling alternative: Montaña de Oro State Park. This scenic park right at the Pacific's edge offers a hybrid experience between car camping and backpacking, with moderate hikes and secluded campsites for the backpacker who wants to get away, get in shape or test some gear but can't make it to the trails of the high Sierra.

Montana de Oro State Park's environmental campsites offer backpackers a hybrid experience beween car camping and backpacking
Montana de Oro State Park's environmental campsites offer backpackers a hybrid experience beween car camping and backpacking
Nancy Jacoby

Getting there

Montaña de Oro is approximately 153 miles southwest of Fresno, an easy drive that follows primarily Hwy 41 and takes just under 3 hours. Reservations are a must, as many have discovered this coastal jewel, and sites are in high demand year round.

Backpackers will want one of the four secluded environmental campsites in the park, which offer exquisite views of the ocean and shoreline from the first bluffs that rise inland. Reaching these one-party, rustic sites requires a short, easy hike with your gear (the longest hike in is approximately half a mile). Sites are currently $25 per night.

Weather

Spring showcases wildflowers in the park, and summer at the coast is always pleasant, but winter is also a great time to visit Montaña de Oro. Snow may have the Sierra socked in, but the coast can be experiencing daytime temperatures in the 60s and nights in the 40s. Cooler temperatures and nights dipping into the 30s are also possible, but any backpacker geared up for three-season trips in the Sierra Nevada will have adequate gear for coastal conditions.

The only weather wild card is the fog, which can chill days and dampen nights significantly. Pack a water-resistant jacket and a rain fly even if the forecast calls for mild temperatures. Strong breezes and wind are also common. Be prepared to stake and guy out your tent at these more exposed environmental campsites.

Hiking

Fresno backpackers who are used to bagging high peaks in the Sierra won't find anything of the sort in Montaña de Oro, but the park offers plenty for backpackers who want to break in a pair of hiking shoes, enjoy moderate hikes, build fitness or recover from an injury.

The wooded Coon Creek Trail follows a stream and links up with the more demanding and switchback-laden Oats Peak Trail to Oats Peak (1,373 feet). From there, hikers can follow the trail to Valencia Peak (1,347 feet) and enjoy ocean views and foothills-type topography. The Rattlesnake Flats Trail links back to the Coon Creek trailhead. Other wooded trails and an oceanside trail provide views and lead to lower peaks and points of interest (tide pools).

Additional tips

  • Campfires are not permitted at the environmental campsites, so bring your camp stove for cooking. Dogs are also disallowed, so make other arrangements for your canine friend.
  • A clean pit toilet is available at each site, and this writer has found them to be well stocked, but bring toilet paper just in case.
  • The environmental sites have no water, so you'll need to pack in enough for drinking, cooking and cleaning up.
  • Print out your own topographic map for accurate and detailed trail distances and elevation. (The topo map available at the park website is rudimentary.)
  • You can arrive at your site as early as 2 pm on the first day of your reservation. You'll be expected to leave by noon on the last day. Parking for the environmental sites is limited. One vehicle is allowed and additional charges ($10) may apply for a second vehicles.
  • Site e4 is particularly appealing for its views and seclusion. Reserve it if it's available!

Helpful links

State Parks of the San Luis Obispo Coast: Montaña de Oro

Reserve America (reservation portal for Montaña de Oro)

Basic trail map of Montaña de Oro State Park

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