Santa Lucia Wilderness

Last week I shared The Backpacking Trip Generator python script that I created to help me plan backpacking trips. The script is far from perfect and has a number of bugs, but is at a point where it is usable enough to help with some planning. Below is a trip that I pulled together using the BTG as a starting point. In this post I describe the planning process, and provide pictures and details of the trip.

Location: Santa Lucia Wilderness

Why: We were trying as hard as we could to avoid rain in California (I want my sunshine back)

Total Distance: 20.5 miles

Trip Rating: 6/10 stars — would rate much higher if it hadn’t been a 5-hour drive.

Days: 2 days, 1 night + awful driving times (fuck rain)

The Planning

As California was a miserable rain-scape the past couple of weeks, me and the S.O. decided to find something to do that avoided the rain (I become severely miserable with 4+ days of continued rain). I took a quick look at the doppler map for California, and identified San Luis Obispo as the closest area that was unlikely to have miserable weather for the coming weekend (4.5 hours away). Knowing nothing about backpacking potential around SLO, I decided to spin up the backpacking trip generator to see what was available.

python -location Santa Lucia Wilderness -distance 10 -triplength 100

The first attempt downloaded a set of 170 trails to create a trip from. The end result looked promising, although questionable for a 3-day trip (trail map). Investigating the campsites in this area indicated quickly that everything was full (3-day weekend). I therefore found a green-looking location on google maps a little bit further away, and tried again.

python -location Garcia Wilderness -distance 10 -triplength 100

There were only 3 trails on Hiking Project within 10 miles of this area, and as per my optimization algorithm, the longest possible out-and-back option was chosen (map of trail). I then looked at a map of possible campgrounds, and realized there were clearly undocumented trails on HikingProject. I went ahead and added some trails using CalTopo to connect the backpacking trip to potential campgrounds, which led to this result. Looks reasonable enough for a 3-day, 2-night trip!

The Hiking

Come Friday morning, we checked the weather again and realized that Sunday was probably going to turn into miserable rain in the later afternoon (the very thing we had hoped to avoid). We decided to modify the trip from a 3-day, 2-night trip to a 2-day, 1-night trip and grab an AirBnB for Sunday night because we just really didn’t want rain. This was a great decision!

Friday Night: We left from Davis around 6:00 PM, and after an overly long detour for Indian food (the best trail food!), we finally got to the forest road campsite outside of SLO around 11:30 PM. It was windy as fuck, but we managed to snuggle up with a shrub, and get a decent wind block to pass the night.

Saturday Morning: We drove the 20 minutes to the trail head, ate our leftover Indian Food for breakfast, and got a start on the trail around 9:00 AM

The first 5 miles of the trail went great! Great views of the coastal range, and overall pleasant hiking in an area that had practically no one in it on a 3-day weekend (no idea why… sometimes California confuses you). As we got past the Big Falls trail turn off, the trail quickly started to become overgrown. We lost the trail a couple of times, leading to a mile or so of backtracking, and then had to do a bunch of miserable bushwhacking through Greenbark Ceanothus. Fuck that plant (a different variety of Ceanothus is my GF’s study species, but she sometimes wonders why she didn’t choose forests over chaparral for her field of research).

Saturday Afternoon: The Greenbark Ceanothus started shredding our legs, clothes, and spirits, and we went from a reasonable pace to something that was probably less than 1-mile an hour, as the bushwhacking and careful avoidance of Ceanothus laceration began to take its toll. Upon getting to a cow pasture with a shortcut to the campsite, we opted for the shortcut through the grassy fields, rather than another 7 miles of potentially miserable bushwhacking. We also made the impromptu decision to change the looping pattern, and go up the Big Falls trail the following day, hoping that we could avoid the Type 2 fun of overgrown shrubbery.

We got to our campsite around 5:00 PM, washed off some Poison Oak, and made some tea.

Sunday Morning: The trail was absolutely beautiful.

We did some bushwhacking through Poison Oak and a few dozen stream crossings, which ensured our feet were quite wet, but overall the path was pretty fun — strongly recommended. We got to the Big Falls Turnoff, and started heading up. We ran into a few day hikers on our way back to the car. We got to the car around 2:00 PM, and a small amount of rain started to come in. After changing our clothes, we drove into SLO and grabbed some beer.


The backpacking trip generator worked well enough for my purposes. It helped pinpoint a few areas of interest that I knew nothing about, and helped zero in on some trail networks to use. For the BTG to truly be more valuable, it needs to incorporate campsites and the road network so that starting points for trips correspond with possible parking locations for cars.

The backpacking trip was pretty fun overall, and I’d strongly recommend it for people looking for winter backpacking and are within a shorter drive. Given that there was hardly anyone else out there on a 3-day weekend near a pretty decent population center, I’m inclined to think most people are unaware that there’s a solid backpacking trip in this area. I suspect it’s a little better-used in the summer.

I hindsight, I think we should have done the additional 7 miles of hiking rather than the shortcut. Based on some trail log indication, I think it would not have been too bad.

PhotosFinal Trail Map, and GPX file.