The Cerro Alto Trail: What to Expect

The Cerro Alto Trail is widely considered to be the most scenic hike in California. Cerro Alto Campground is located off Route 41 between Morro Bay and Atascadero in an oak forest. The trailhead is located just outside of San Luis Obispo, and the trail itself winds its way through a variety of landscapes, including oak forests, chaparral, and grasslands. 

The views from the top of Cerro Alto are truly breathtaking, and the trail is well-maintained and easy to follow. Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or a beginner, the Cerro Alto Trail is sure to provide an enjoyable and memorable experience.

The Cerro Alto Trail in Perspective

Points to note:

  • The Cerro Alto Trail is one of the most popular hiking trails in the area.
  • The trail offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.
  • The hike is moderate in difficulty and is a great option for those looking for a challenge. 
  • The trailhead is located just off Highway 1, and the trail is well-marked.
  • The hike takes about 3-4 hours to complete and is a great way to experience the beauty of the area.


The Cerro Alto Trail is a 4.7-mile out-and-back hike located in the Los Padres National Forest near Big Sur, California. One of the highest points in San Luis Obispo County, Cerro Alto’s 2,624-foot summit offers a panoramic view that takes about 2-4 hours to complete. 

Along the way, hikers are treated to stunning views of the Santa Lucia Mountains, the Pacific Ocean, and the nearby city of Carmel-by-the-Sea. The Cerro Alto Trail is considered to be a moderate hike and is a popular destination for both day hikers and overnight backpackers.

Length and Difficulty

The elevation gain between the trailhead at Cerro Alto Campground and the summit of the Cerro is 1,600 feet, and there are two ways to reach it. The 1.95-mile ascent is the steepest part of the route. A 2.75-mile route that is suggested for the hike up can be taken by taking a more gradual trail to a junction halfway up the mountain. 

A spur trail that leads to a ridge south of the summit extends the hike by 0.65 beautiful miles. All of these trails can be combined for a 5.35-mile hike with panoramic views of the Los Padres National Forest, and the route is not as difficult as it might seem.

At the end of the mile-long road leading through the campground, there is a parking area from which two trails lead to Cerro Alto’s summit. The more challenging route can be found a hundred yards further down the road on the left. Both routes begin close to campsites 18 and 19, next to a large sign that reads, “Cerro Alto Trail 12E01.” 

The single track, simply marked “trail,” crosses the East Fork of Morro Creek and starts a challenging ascent up the mountain. Save this trail for the descent unless you want to punish yourself. Choose the gradual trail leading from that large tree for the ascent.

The Trail 

The Cerro Alto Trail is a beautiful, challenging trail that offers stunning views of the surrounding area. The trail is approximately 4 miles long and is rated as difficult due to its steep inclines and rocky terrain. However, the reward for completing the trail is well worth the effort! 

Hikers can expect to see a variety of plant and animal life, as well as stunning vistas of the Santa Lucia Mountains. The trail can be challenging at times, but the sense of accomplishment that comes from completing it is unbeatable.

The Cerro Alto Trail – Why You Should Do It

The Cerro Alto Trail is one of the most popular trails in the area for a reason. Here are reasons why you should do this hike:

  • It offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.
  • If you’re looking for a challenging hike with a rewarding payoff, this is the trail for you. Although it is a bit of a climb to the top, the views from the summit are well worth the effort.
  • Excellent hike. All of the trails lie about the incline. The trail easily has a 2000-foot elevation gain. 
  • Beautiful trail, well-marked, with plenty of shade, and about a third exposed to stunning views. Beautiful oak forest in a shady canyon with a creek.
  • The ferns, trees, and trail are in good condition and have been well-maintained.
  • There are many beautiful wildflowers along the way. At the top, it’s cool to watch the clouds roll in from the coast.
  • If you wanted to spend the night, they have bathrooms and a campsite.

Tips for Hiking The Cerro Alto Trail

The Cerro Alto Trail is a beautiful and challenging hike that should not be missed by any adventurous hiker. Here are some tips to help you make the most of your hike:

  • When the tree cover ends, the going gets tough, so bring plenty of water and snacks to stay hydrated and fueled.
  • Hiking sticks are useful because there are a lot of rocky stretches with shale.
  • There is a lot of up and down, some of it quite steep – the trail isn’t always easy!
  • You can’t avoid the $10 parking unless you park on the main road, which adds a few miles.
  • Parking at the trailhead costs $10 per day. Annual and Adventure Passes cannot be used.
  • Watch out for snakes!
  • Start early in the morning to avoid the heat of the day.
  • Wear sunscreen and a hat to protect yourself from the sun.
  • Take your time and enjoy the stunning views of the Santa Lucia mountains.
  • The trail is located in a remote area, so make sure you have a map and know where you’re going.
  • Keep in mind that the trail can be crowded on weekends, so it’s best to go during the week if possible.


In summary, the Cerro Alto Trail is sometimes difficult, but doable, and is well worth the effort. The scenery along the way is breathtaking, and the sense of accomplishment you’ll feel upon completing the beautiful hike is unmatched.

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