A delightful creekside stroll in Cambria’s Fiscalini Ranch Preserve
Summer is upon us, and unless you’re fortunate enough to live very near the ocean, it’s hot. Really hot. But, while the interior of California is roasting, it’s still cool and pleasant near the ocean. For a short, but delightful hike near the coast, consider a visit to the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in the charming seaside village of Cambria. This hike is a generally level stroll along Santa Rosa Creek, passing through a dense riparian corridor, stands of native Monterey pines, and peaceful meadows. While the main trail is only two miles out-and-back, it connects to a network of other trails that lead deeper into the preserve. By extending your hike, you can experience breathtaking ridge-top views of the nearby Pacific Ocean, or even wander right along the coast itself. If you’re staying at a hotel on Moonstone Beach Drive, it’s only a few minutes’ walk to reach the trailhead.
Traveling north along the Pacific coast on Highway 1, Cambria is one of the first places where you start to feel like you’ve left southern California and are now in northern California. The sandy beaches give way to dramatic, rocky shores and the vegetation changes from nearly tree-less coastal scrub to shady forest. The forest in and around Cambria is quite unique, as it contains one of only three stands of native Monterey pine forest in the world. Santa Rosa Creek Trail is one of the most easily-accessible opportunities to visit this unusual and inviting forest.
The trail is very popular with local residents, but doesn’t see much use by the hordes of tourists traveling up and down Highway 1. While you probably won’t enjoy complete solitude, the preserve’s out-of-the-way location and limited trailhead parking mean you’ll probably encounter fewer visitors than at the state park units north of town along Highway 1. Although the trail passes by a number of homes and the noise from the highway is always present, it still has a peaceful, natural feel to it. Although the main Santa Rosa Creek Trail makes a fine hike in itself, I highly recommend extending your hike further into the preserve if you have the time.
Today’s Fiscalini Ranch Preserve was originally part of the Rancho Santa Rosa, a Mexican land grant established in 1841. When the land grant was divided up, the Fiscalini family acquired the ranch and raised cattle on it for nearly a century before finally selling the property in 1979. The land passed into the hands of real estate developers, who tried unsuccessfully for twenty years to build a combined residential/commercial development on the property. Their proposals were vigorously opposed by local residents and environmentalists, and in 1999 the property was bought by a coalition of environmental groups and local and state government agencies. Final acquisition of the property was completed in November, 2000.
Until recently, Fiscalini Ranch was known as East-West Ranch, and is still referred to as such in many local hiking guidebooks. The current preserve protects 430 acres of open space and is managed by the Cambria Community Services District, with help from the non-profit Friends of the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve.
Distance: 2.6 miles semi-loop trip (including side trip to Ridge Trail)
Elevation gain/loss: +200’/-200′
Hiking time: 1 hour
Permits and fees: No permits or fees are required to visit Fiscalini Ranch. Parking at most of the preserve’s trailheads is limited.
Maps: Currently, the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve hiking trails map, available from the Friends of Fiscalini Ranch Preserve website, is the most accurate, up-to-date map of the Preserve and its trails. The Cambria 7.5′ USGS topographic map also covers the preserve. However, none of the trails are depicted on the current topo.
Best time to go: Fiscalini Ranch is accessible year-round. Due to its proximity to the ocean, the weather is usually quite mild. Overcast, foggy conditions are common during the summer months, particularly in the mornings. Winters are mild, with cooler weather and frequent rain storms. Late winter and spring are the best times to see wildflowers.
The village of Cambria lies on Highway 1 in northern San Luis Obispo County. If you are coming from the south, turn left onto Windsor Boulevard at its intersection with Highway 1. Pass the intersection with Moonstone Beach Drive on your right, then cross a small bridge over Santa Rosa Creek. At 0.1 miles from Highway 1, the dirt and gravel trailhead parking lot lies on your left, just before the intersection with Heath Lane. Be careful when parking here — a ditch runs between the road and the parking lot.
If you are coming from the north, you can either turn right at the intersection of Windsor Boulevard and Highway 1, or drive down Moonstone Beach Drive, which intersects Windsor Boulevard at its south end. Note that while there are no signs along the road pointing you to the trailhead, the start of the trail itself is well-signed and unmistakable.
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: N35-34.064, W121-06.237. Elevation 23’.
At the edge of the gravel parking lot, large trail signs for the Santa Rosa Creek Trail mark the start of your hike. You’ll note from the signs that fishing is restricted here, as Santa Rosa Creek serves as a critical habitat for the endangered steelhead trout, which spawn in the lower reaches of the creek. The trail immediately plunges into a dense, shady riparian corridor. While the trail closely parallels Santa Rosa Creek, the creek itself usually lies out of sight below the trail on your left. Poison oak is prevalent along this stretch, so watch your step!
While you probably won’t see any trout in the creek, one thing you’re sure to notice during the first few minutes of the hike is the unpleasant smell emanating from the nearby sewage treatment plant. Don’t be deterred! The smell disappears completely after you’ve hiked past the plant, and the rest of the trail is quite nice.
Although generally level, the trail climbs briefly over a small hillside, and then descends to run along the creek through a forest of bay trees and Monterey pines. My family and I were lucky enough to see a great blue heron perched in a tree right along the trail in this area.
The trail climbs again, and then reaches a rest bench, where it splits into two separate paths. The old, wider path to the right climbs steeply uphill, then descends to rejoin the trail. To the left, a newer and narrower path contours across the slope at a level grade before rejoining the other path after about 200 yards. This path is recommended if you want to stay closer to the creek.
After the two paths rejoin, the trail then briefly arcs around a fenced-in maintenance facility, and then merges onto an old road bed. Here, the trail reaches a narrow meadow with beautiful views of Fiscalini Ranch’s grasslands to your right. Watch for blackberry patches and horsetail ferns along the trail in this area. The horsetail fern (Equisetum) is a “living fossil,” dating back to the Paleozoic era. Horsetail ferns are unique in the modern plant kingdom, being the only types of plants that reproduce through spores, rather than seeds.
About midway across the meadow, come to another rest bench, this one accompanied by interpretive signs that discuss the preserve’s unique flora and fauna. The trail continues across a wider extension of the meadow, passing unsigned junctions with informal trails on your right that lead steeply uphill into the preserve. Look for the stone foundation of an old cabin along this stretch of trail. You will also pass a signed junction on your right with a maintained trail that links the Santa Rosa Creek Trail with the Ridge Trail at the top of the hill to your right. Just past this junction, the Santa Rosa Creek Trail formally ends at a gate along Highway 1, just south of a bridge over Santa Rosa Creek. There is ample parking in a wide, paved pull-out, and you could use this spot as an alternate trailhead for hikes into the preserve.
At this point, you are only one mile from where you started. If you wish, you can return to the trailhead along the same route, for a total distance of 2.0 miles. However, if you have time I highly recommend following the link trail uphill through the Monterey pine forest. At the top of the hill, you’ll intersect the Ridge Trail and break out of the woods to a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean and most of the preserve. The Ridge Trail bisects the preserve from north to south, and there are a variety of semi-loops you can take that will eventually bring you back downhill to the Santa Rosa Creek Trail that you hiked in on.
For our visit, we backtracked from Highway 1 and took an unsigned path that starts near the rest bench in the large meadow. Although very steep, this informal trail quickly climbs to intersect the Ridge Trail. Heading south along the Ridge Trail, we took another unsigned path that descended back into the woods and then dropped down to the signed junction with the Santa Rosa Creek Trail near Highway 1. This option is about 2.6 miles.
- There are no facilities at the Santa Rosa Creek Trailhead.
- Santa Rosa Creek Trail is open to hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians.
- Fiscalini Ranch Preserve is open every day, but there are no provisions for overnight camping within the preserve.
- This is an excellent hike for small children due to its short distance, gentle grades, and wide trail bed.
- Occasional patches of poison oak along the creekside portion of the trail are the only hazard you are likely to encounter.
Also in the Area
For such a relatively small preserve, Fiscalini Ranch has a wide variety of trails. The previously-mentioned Ridge Trail links to our hike and provides access to the interior of the preserve. For an even longer hike, take the connector trail of your choice to the Bluff Trail, which runs along the edge of a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean from the south end of the preserve to its north end at Windsor Boulevard.
Although there is no overnight camping in the preserve itself, camping is available at Hearst San Simeon State Park, just north of Cambria on Highway 1. The park features two campgrounds: San Simeon Creek Campground and Washburn Campground. San Simeon Creek Campground is larger, having 115 sites available. The campground lies just east of Highway 1, and some sites are within walking distance of the ocean. Showers are also available at this campground. Further inland, the smaller, more primitive Washburn Campground sits at the top of a hill and offers outstanding views of the park and the Pacific Ocean.
If you would prefer not to camp, Cambria offers a wide variety of hotels, bed-and-breakfast establishments, and vacation rental houses. Many of the hotels lie along Moonstone Beach Drive and feature ocean views. It’s a short walk from Moonstone Beach Drive over to the Santa Rosa Creek Trailhead.
As befitting such a popular tourist destination, Cambria also has a large number of excellent restaurants. One of the best places in town to eat is Robin’s Restaurant, located in the East Village area of town. If you’d prefer to take in a view of the ocean with your meal, Moonstone Beach Bar and Grill is conveniently located on Moonstone Beach Drive.
While the majority of Central Coast wineries are located farther inland, there are a few excellent wineries in the Cambria area for a post-hike glass of wine. The nearest one to the trailhead is Moonstone Cellars, located in the West Village area of downtown Cambria. A personal favorite is Harmony Cellars, located about ten minutes’ driving time south of town on Highway 1, in the tiny community of Harmony (population 18). Harmony Cellars features a lovely, hill-top tasting room and picnic area with great views of the Harmony Valley.
The Fiscalini Ranch Preserve is managed by the Cambria Community Services District, with assistance from a non-profit organization, the Friends of the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve. Their website is a treasure trove of information about the preserve, its history, and flora and fauna. They also have an excellent PDF map of the preserve’s hiking trails.
Robert Stone’s Day Hikes Around San Luis Obispo covers the Santa Rosa Creek Trail, and many other trails in both the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve and the greater Cambria area. The book’s most recent addition was published in 2006, and still refers to the preserve as East-West Ranch. The Ridge Trail is referred to as the Huntington Trail.
For general travel information about Cambria, both See Cambria California and the Cambria Chamber of Commerce have excellent websites with a tremendous amount of information about the local area and its many attractions.