The Pecho Coast Trail is located in Avila Beach and features gorgeous scenic coastal views of Avila and the Pacific Ocean. It has been open for guided hikes since 1993 and is located on PG&E property, and is a joint partnership between PG&E, the California Coastal Commission and the Port San Luis Harbor District, so it can only be accessed through reservations by a guided hike which are available to do in the morning on Wednesday for 20 people and Saturday for 40 people. Reservations are strongly encouraged and can be made on the PG&E website. This hike will ultimately take you to the Port’s Historic Point San Luis Lighthouse where you can learn the history of the property on a docent-led tour for a $5 donation.
When you arrive to Avila, there is plenty of free parking at the pier where it’s a short walk along the road to the group meeting spot at 8:45 a.m., the Fisherman’s Memorial in Port San Luis Harbor. Here, the docents will have you sign a waiver of liability and explain the itinerary of the hike. Make sure to pack some water and sunblock because even if the weather is foggy when you start the hike as it often is on the Central Coast, it will most likely warm up and be sunny by the time you leave the lighthouse.
The journey is not a particularly strenuous trek as there’s only around 400-500 feet of elevation gain, but be warned that the first part of the hike has sudden steep elevation changes as well as poison oak/tics on the trail to be mindful of. On the way up, the docent will stop the hike about every ten minutes to recollect the group and explain some of the historical and geographical information of the area.
The first part of the hike is a short steep climb up to a road that the trolley takes visitors on to the lighthouse. You’ll hike about half a mile along that paved road stopping along the way to be educated on the geology, biology, and history of Avila and the Pecho Coast Trail including the three piers which are visible from the access road. The closest pier is the Harford Pier at the Port San Luis, then the pier which is owned by Cal Poly for marine science purposes, and finally the Avila Pier in the distance. After walking for a bit more along the paved section of the hike, you’ll reach the official entrance to the Pecho Coast trail and descend down the bluff of the hillside. There are stairs built into the hill to make it easier to walk down.
The trail passes through an oak grove with a plaque dedicated to Patsy Stow Stebbins who was a key player in negotiating the creation of the Pecho Coast Trail and a fighter for Coastal California public access her whole life. California Coastal Access signs (a footprint with an ocean wave) can be found all over California by the beach and inform visitors and residents of places that they can gain public access to the coast. Now that I know what the sign means, I’m noticing its presence everywhere!
After more hiking along the gorgeous views of the coast, the docent will take time to explain the history of whaling in Avila and of Smith Island which is a rock just off the coast that somehow at one point housed five families (yes, on a rock in the ocean!). Then you’ll begin the final descent down the stairs where you’ll cross the same service/trolley road from earlier in the hike.
After you cross the trolley road you will have reached the trail’s end at the Point San Luis Obispo Lighthouse grounds. There are restrooms and a water fountain as well as a gift shop with small snacks and trinkets available for purchase. The grounds are free to explore once you’re there, but in order to go inside for a tour it’s a $5 donation fee which goes toward the preservation and restoration of the property. In my opinion it was completely worth it to pay the five dollars to hear the incredible history of the lighthouse.
This restored lighthouse is a two story Victorian style building which was officially decommissioned in 1974. It has been remodeled to look like it would have looked like when it was built and used back in 1890. The first building you’re taken to is the fog signal building. It’s home of the horn that was used to signal ships when the light could not reach them. You’ll get to see the extremely cool “fourth-order Fresnel lens.”
The lens is an impressive two and a half feet tall and is displayed on a turret that rotated back when it was in operation. It’s a beautiful piece of engineering and amazing to think about how important its purpose was when it was in operation. Fun fact: Different lighthouses use different intervals of time in which the beam of light rotates out to sea, to use as a signal for their specific location. For example, this lighthouse at Avila signals every 30 seconds which is how the sailer would know where he was out in the ocean: he would count the number of seconds between each beam and check his log to see where he was according to that interval of time. In 1890 this lens would send beams of light 17 nautical miles across the Pacific Ocean.
I don’t want to give too much information about the tour away because you should definitely go take it yourself and learn all of this exciting information, but these are some photos of the inside of the lighthouse where the lighthouse keeper and his family would have lived.
If you’re just wanting to tour the lighthouse without hiking the Pecho Coast Trail, tours are offered year round on Wednesdays at 12pm and 1 pm and on Saturdays at 12pm, 1pm, and 2pm. Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for kids 12 and under. Children under 3 are free. The tours last about 1hr and 45 minutes, and the cost of the tickets includes the trolley ride to the lighthouse. Hiking the Pecho Coast Trail is free, with a $5 donation upon arrival to the lighthouse for a a tour. After the trek and those gorgeous views of the Central Coast ocean, you’ve earned it!
Here’s a map to the trailhead. Parking is located near Fat Cats Cafe, in the shipyard. Happy hiking!