A lovely hike to the sea in one of California’s newest state parks
First opened to the public in 2008, Harmony Headlands State Park is one of the newest state parks in California. While the park is quite small at only 784 acres and generally undeveloped, it nonetheless offers a unique hiking opportunity for Central Coast residents and visitors alike.
Originally part of the Rancho San Geronimo land grant, the land was a working ranch until the 1960s. Like Point Reyes to the north and other places along the California coast, Harmony Headlands was at one time proposed for subdivision and development. The land was purchased by developers in 1975, but their plans to build hundreds of houses on the former dairy ranch never materialized. The American Land Conservancy purchased the property in 2003 and transferred it to California State Parks.
Distance: 4.5 miles round trip
Elevation gain/loss: +250’/-250′
Hiking time: About 2 hours
Permits and fees: No permits are required. The park is open from 6:00 AM to sunset. As of May, 2013, there is now a $3.00 parking fee to park in the trailhead parking lot along Highway 1.
Maps: The Harmony Headlands State Park brochure on the California State Parks website is sufficient for this trail. Alternately, the Cayucos 7.5’ quad can be used. This map shows the old ranch road that is now the Headlands Trail, but does not show the park itself.
Best time to go: The trail is suitable for hiking year-round. Summers are usually cool and foggy in the mornings, with afternoon clearing. Winter is colder with frequent rain. There is almost no shade on the route, so bring adequate sun protection.
The Headlands Trailhead is located on the west side of Highway 1, between Cayucos and the tiny community of Harmony (population: 18). It is approximately five miles north of Cayucos, or 2.6 miles south of Harmony. A large ‘Harmony Headlands State Park’ sign marks the location of the trailhead, a gravel parking lot with space for about 10 vehicles. Do not block the private driveway on the south side of the parking lot. Overflow parking for a few additional vehicles is also available on the opposite side of the highway. This is a popular trail on the weekends.
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: N35-28.697, W120-59.509. Elevation 79’.
From the parking area, the trail starts at a gate near a large sign board with a map of the park. The route follows a wide former ranch road west toward the ocean, which is still out of sight over a low hill. At 0.4 miles from the trailhead, a side trail branches off to the right and leads quickly to an old ranch bunkhouse and a porta-potty. The bunkhouse is sometimes used by park rangers or docents, but is otherwise not usually open to the public.
From the bunkhouse, backtrack to the main trail and turn right, continuing toward the ocean. At 0.75 miles, the trail passes a small pond on the left. This man-made pond, dug when the park was a working ranch, is a good place for bird watching.
Beyond the pond, the trail climbs gently, then turns southwest and descends into a ravine. The ravine narrows and our route passes between two small hills before emerging out onto a wide, grassy bluff overlooking the ocean. Once out of the ravine, views open up in both directions. Looking south, Morro Bay is hidden behind the much closer Point Estero, which lies just a little over one mile to the southeast. However, on a clear day, Montaña de Oro State Park south of Morro Bay is visible on the horizon. Views north encompass more undeveloped ranch lands between the park and Cambria.
Out on the bluff, the main road turns northwest to run parallel to the ocean. At 1.8 miles from the trailhead, you reach a park bench and a trail junction. The main trail continues straight, while on the left a narrow, informal path descends closer to the edge of the bluff. Continue on the main trail out to the fenced park boundary at 2.1 miles.
Here, you may either turn around and return on the main trail, or continue ahead on the narrow path that follows the edge of the bluff. This path eventually loops back to the main trail near the park bench. The informal path allows much closer views of the ocean, but is very narrow in some places and passes close to some steep drop-offs. Although tantalizingly close, there don’t appear to be any safe paths down onto the beach itself. Despite having no shade and only one park bench, this area makes a very nice place for a picnic before returning to the trailhead along the main trail.
- Harmony Headlands State Park is day-use only and has no facilities other than the porta-potty at the old bunkhouse. No water is available; bring your own.
- For families with small children, the main trail is suitable for jogging strollers. The informal path along the bluffs is narrow in some places and passes close to some steep drop-offs. Small children should be closely supervised in this area.
Also in the Area
There are many other hiking opportunities along Highway 1, both north and south of Harmony Headlands. Just to the south, Estero Bluffs State Park is another recent addition to the California state park system and features a pleasant hike along the ocean. To the north, Hearst San Simeon State Park has a boardwalk trail along Moonstone Beach in Cambria, and a longer trail near the San Simeon Creek Campground that runs into the hills above the ocean.
While Harmony Headlands itself does not have camping facilities, the San Simeon Creek Campground at Hearst San Simeon State Park is only 12 miles and 20 minutes’ drive to the north. Both Cambria and Cayucos feature an extensive variety of hotels, motels, and bed & breakfast establishments. Likewise, there are plenty of excellent restaurants in both towns.
If you would like to celebrate finishing your hike with a glass of wine, Harmony Cellars is a mere three miles to the north, just off Highway 1. Turn right onto Harmony Valley Road, then right again up a short driveway. The wines are excellent, and this is also a beautiful place for a post-hike picnic.
Cayucos Beach Cam (useful for checking weather conditions prior to your hike)