Treadmill Rating (out of 10): 8 out of 10
Distance: 1.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 911 Feet
A while back I got the idea in my head that it might be fun to try and hike all of the publically accessible of the Nine Sisters, a series of hills or volcanic plugs in the central coast of California beginning with Morro Rock and including Black Hill, Cerro Cabrillo, Hollister Peak, and Bishop Peak. Some of the hills such as Black Hill are accessible and open to the public while others such as Morro Rock and Hollister Peak are not. But the ones that are open to the public have some incredible views and offer some great day hikes.
I had previously completed Black Hill, another of the Nine Sisters also located in Morro Bay State Park with my four children. It was a fun hike that they were all easily able to complete. So when I had an opportunity to come back to the State Park for camping with the younger two boys (ages 5 and 9) I thought it might be a good opportunity to add another of the Sisters to my list. Cerro Cabrillo is located in the park and was only about 3 miles round trip to the top. I did some research online and learned that this hike could be challenging but I really didn’t worry too much as I had found similarly described hikes in the past to be well within the capabilities of myself and my youngsters.
This time though the descriptions were probably understating the difficulty of this hike. This hike was a monster. First of all the trail itself is almost all uphill and gains 900 feet in about 1.5 miles. The trail starts off as Quarry Trail and goes past a part of the hill that was actually used to supply rock for a highway project. After passing this area to get to the top of Cerro Cabrillo we took a trail on the left that climbed towards the top and the iconic Tiki Rock, a rock formation that looks like a giant Tiki head that one might see on a peaceful, tropical island. But there was nothing peaceful or relaxing about this hike as we got closer to the top!
As we left Quarry Trail the thought came into my head on how I had read that the State Park no longer maintains this trail to the top of Cerro Cabrillo but no reason was really given as to why in any of the online information I had read. But the trail seemed good and well-traveled at this point. Grass on both sides and a clear, well used trail had me confident that our quest would be successful. The kids were tired and we took a couple water breaks but nothing more difficult than we had tackled in the past to raise the alarm.
Then suddenly about 200 yards on the side trail to the peak things started to get nasty. The trail became deeply rutted and extremely steep. The ground was mostly loose material that slid easily beneath our feet as we tried to climb the steep surface. Our fun little hike turned into pure hell after a few minutes as we huffed and puffed up the hill, sometimes on all fours. Sometimes it was easier to walk in the ruts that were nearly a foot below the trail. Still the trail was well worn which indicated to me that it was often used. We saw no others on the trail as we climbed. As we neared Tiki Rock it was a struggle and the boys were not happy.
Now I have taken these boys on a lot of hikes. I have taken them on long hikes that really tested them. But this test was extreme. As we passed Tiki Rock we began to literally climb over rocks to get up the hill. Smatter in some occasional Poison Oak in small quantities in the cracks of some rocks and I was choosing carefully where to hike. The rocks got bigger and the climbing more difficult. My youngest son loved it but as we got almost to the top my older boy broke down in tears. He could go no further. I told him to wait with the younger boy while I scouted ahead. I climbed over another 20 feet of rocks to reach the top, snapped a couple pictures, and then returned to the boys.
Now the struggle down became a real challenge. I found that young boys do well climbing uphill but going downhill not so much. After struggling for about 15 minutes we reached Tiki Rock and took a water and snack break. After about 10 minutes of resting we were recharged and carefully started descending the rest of the way. The boys fell and slipped multiple times and I had to grab them a couple times. There pants probably lost some material in the seat area from sliding. On most hikes I have done, someone in tennis shoes could probably have completed them easily. This hike I was glad I had my hiking boots. I needed the traction and the support they provided.
Finally after much struggle and a lot of scrapes we got on to less steep ground. We passed another couple who were going to try the summit and the boys warned them how tough it was. They would find out for themselves in another 100 yards or so. We then joined the main Quarry Trail for the return to the parking area. The boys and I were so glad to be back on easier terrain. Most of the way back was downhill making the last part of the hike much easier.
When we arrived at the parking area, only the promise of a nice lunch kept the boys from calling mom and demanding a new dad! I was glad I was able to complete another of the Nine Sisters but this hike was one of the most challenging in such a short distance that I have ever encountered.
WHERE IS THIS TRAIL?
The trail head is located in the Morro Bay State Park. Take Hwy 1 to South Bay Blvd. Drive a little over a mile on South Bay Blvd to the Quarry Trail Parking Area on the left. There are signs along the road. The trail to Cerro Cabrillo begins at the parking area by taking the Quarry Trail.
HOW TECHNICAL IS THE HIKE?
Good hiking boots are a must. If you do not have good boots or are new to hiking I would leave this one for a time when you have more experience and better equipment. I would not do this hike alone. Take a buddy because the chances of injury due to the steep incline and rocks are greatly increased. Wear long pants to prevent abrasions and help prevent getting poison oak in the rock climbing area. This was an 8 out of 10 on the treadmill scale which I did not expect when we started. The only reason it isn’t 9 out of 10 is that the first half was not too challenging. But the steep ascent and rock climbing was extremely challenging. Don’t take small children, clumsy brothers in law, girl friends or a wife that isn’t into rugged adventure, grandma, or Fido on this hike. In hindsight taking my kids was a bad idea. You need to be fit and have sure feet. This is not a relaxing family hike.
Experienced hikers with a good fitness level should be the only ones to attempt this hike. It works not only the legs but also the arms as the large rocks create a nice obstacle course towards the top. The steep incline will make this a physical hike. Tell someone where you are going and what time you will be back just in case you are injured on this trail.
WHEN SHOULD I GO?
The Central Coast weather makes this an ideal year round hike. Check weather forecasts and avoid days of rain or high winds. Avoid late afternoon or evening so that you are not trying to navigate this trail in low light conditions.
Get in good shape, have good hiking boots, and get some hiking experience. If you are clumsy or are not use to walking on uneven surfaces you may want to avoid this hike. In addition to hiking or jogging to prepare for this hike pushups and pull-ups would also be beneficial. A good circuit training program would be helpful.
GEAR LIST (day hike)
Good boots are a priority. I would also make sure you have long pants to avoid scrapes and Poison Oak. The wind may increase as you climb higher so a sweat shirt or long sleeve shirt are advisable. I would also recommend lots of water and snacks to recharge spent calories. Some sort of leather gloves might be nice for working over the rocks. Our hands had some scrapes from the rocks as we climbed.