Prefumo Canyon Road to Avila Beach

Distance: 30 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 3270 ft

(A Best of the Best ride)

I’m delighted to add this ride to Bestrides for two reasons, beyond the obvious one that it’s great: a) it’s in an “under-represented” area of California—San Luis Obispo had no rides in Bestrides before this (there are now two, this and Huasna Road); and b) I was tipped off to it by a reader who told me I had to check it out, which is always my favorite way to discover a ride.

It’s a marvelous ride, full of everything we ride bikes for: beautiful woods, grand vistas, some easy rolling, some moderate climbing, a little tough climbing, some thrilling descending, a charming village at the turn-around—even a bit of rideable dirt. I didn’t put it in the Top Ten best of the best list, but I was sorely tempted. It’s a high-energy thrill-fest, along a creek through dense, magnificent riparian oaks, then up to a mountaintop where you can see forever, then down the back side through more oak canopy to the village of Avila Beach, a perfect spot for getting off the bike, having a bite, whale watching, and all the other things one does at the beach. The last time I was there, the humpbacks where coming out of the water to feed just off the beach.

For a 30-mile ride, it’s a bit of a workout. Most of the 3200 ft of climbing you do in 4 miles—the two miles on either side of the summit. Mapmyride says you’ll do some 12-13% on the ride out and touch 14% on the ride back, and I won’t dispute those numbers.

If you want to see green hillsides, the window is small. I am told that the SLO spring is very short-lived—two weeks or so. Apparently I was supremely lucky to first do this ride in mid-April, when the wildflowers were flourishing and everything was green. But I’ve also done it in the fall and was similarly smitten.

This ride has possibly the grandest vistas in Bestrides after the Santa Rosa Road Wall and the Mt. Tamalpais ride. On a clear day from the summit you can see much of SLO spread out below you 10 miles to the east and Morro Bay and Morro Rock on the coast 10 miles to the west. Since much of the specialness of the ride is in the vistas, try to find a day with immaculately clear skies.

There’s no reason not to do the ride starting at the other end. It just means you hang out in Avila Beach at the end of the ride instead of at the turn-around.

https://ridewithgps.com/routes/37966387

You can start where Prefumo Canyon Road leaves huge Los Osos Valley Road, but it’s shoulder riding through generic residential/apartment complexes, so I drive the 1/2 mile down PCR to Castillo Ct., park curbside on Castillo and ride from there. The first 3 miles are mellow ascending rollers, so you can warm up on them before doing anything hard. The scenery here is pretty oak riparian woods. Then it gets better, and better, and better.

From mile 3 to the summit (at c. 4.5 miles) you will work, but you won’t mind because there’s a lot going on. The road is never straight and never climbs at one pitch for long, so you get constant breaks and variations, the landscape opens up, and the vistas start. By the time you get to the hilltop summit, the view is unimpeded to the west, north, and east. If you like to complete things, there are short views to the south as well.

Looking north from the summit of Prefumo Road, with Cerro San Luis Obispo (?) in center

Roll across the hilltop for a short mile (with several mega-mansions for company), then begin the obvious descent down the back side. Of course you can turn around at the summit if your climbing legs are toast, but you don’t want to, because the rest of the road is really, really pretty. Instantly the road surface, which has been unproblematic, goes to hell, but it doesn’t matter because it only lasts for about 1/4 mile and then you’re on dirt. I’m not big on dirt, but this is rideable (25 mm tires are a good idea), it only lasts a bit over a mile, and the oak canopy on the dirt leg is the best non-vista scenery on the ride. Near the end of the dirt a dirt road goes off to your R at a large gate and a road sign tells you Prefumo Canyon Road is ending and See Canyon Rd. beginning, but it’s easy to miss.

Pismo Beach and Pismo Rock, left, from Prefumo summit

When the dirt ends, you begin two miles of descending that is very different from the slope on the north side of the summit. This is relatively straight, therefore fast, with just enough bending to keep it from being boring (and one big esse curve to catch out the inattentive). It feels good, after all that work, to relax and let the bike rip. Once off the slope, you have 4 miles of effortless riding over easy rollers through a garden-pretty hillside with oaks on one side and often old apple trees on the other. See Canyon apple cider is a local thing, and I encourage you to stop at one of the apple stands and sample the cider. I recommend the See Canyon Fruit Ranch. They’ve been making cider since 1894, so they’ve gotten really good at it.

See Canyon Rd. dead-ends at San Luis Bay Drive. Take it R for 1/2 mile until it dead-ends on Avila Beach Drive (unsigned). Take it to the R and ride the mile or two to town. When you get there you won’t be alone—Avila is the turn-around point for lots of local cycling routes.

Just before SLBD dead-ends at Avila Beach Drive it crosses the Bob Jones Trail (hard to see, heading off to your LEFT surprisingly), a paved rec trail that will take you straight into Avila if you want to avoid the sometimes-busy Avila Beach Drive. It’s very back-water, with informational plaques on the local geology, kids playing on their BMX bikes, a trail-side stream, and lots of root-broken pavement. It’s fun but not exactly road riding—I did much of it at 8 mph. For me it’s a do-it-once sort of thing—others swear by it.

On the ride back, the first few miles of See Canyon Rd. are dreamy, but the last 2 miles before the dirt are an unaltered, mostly straight grind at a pitch just steep enough to make you work. It’s the only leg of the route I can’t say I enjoy. After the dirt, the short climb to the hilltop is murder—very steep on a bad surface—but, as I said, short. You can see the summit up ahead of you, which is a comfort.

The descent from the hilltop is at first a bit too rough, a bit too steep, and a bit too full of speed-scrubbing hairpins for aggressive riding. Mistakes can be costly. I overcooked a turn and crashed straight into a rock wall—if it had been an outside turn instead of an inside one, I might still be falling. Instead of maximizing speed, relax and take in the ambience, which is transporting. Once past the 2 miles of steep, the descending is great—dropping rollers through pleasant esses at comfortable and controllable speed on unproblematic pavement. Castillo Ct. comes all too soon.

The rewards of the dirt leg

You’ll see some cars at the two ends of this route, and the hilltop is a popular place for nature lovers and their cars on weekends, but I didn’t find it to be a problem. Passing lines are good, and much of the route is almost deserted. Even in the road’s busiest season, traffic wasn’t at all bad.

Shortening the route: Ride to the summit and turn around, from either end. If you do this, I encourage you to come back the next day and do the other side.

Adding miles: From Avila Beach Drive the Pacific Coast Highway (the surface road that parallels Hwy 101, not the highway itself) runs north (toward SLO) and southeast (along the coast). Both directions have their charms and are worth riding. East is better. That way takes you to Pismo Beach, another charming village built around its pier, the Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Preserve (unmissable on your R), and ultimately Grover Beach with its easy access to beachfront at Oceano Dunes Natural Preserve. There’s extensive exploring to be done among the seaside cottage cul-de-sacs and village side streets along the way, and I encourage you to do lots of it.

From Avila Beach, Avila Beach Drive continues for another mile or so and dead-ends at Harford Pier, a charming, bustling wharf with sport fishing, an active pod of seal lions, and two fun restaurants, one at the end of the pier with a patio over the water. Much less touristy, more blue-collar, than Avila Beach.

Avila Beach

If you’re looking for rides further afield, the SLO area is particularly blessed with route resources, thanks largely to the SLO Bicycle Club website. There you’ll find a list of favored local rides, though the some 40-odd rides detailed there aren’t evaluated for quality or character. I have a paper ride map of the SLO area called the San Luis Obispo County Bike Map, and it highlights every ridable road in the area, though of course it doesn’t rank or grade the rides. See if local bike shops have copies. Downloadable maps of the area are at https://bikeslocounty.org/resources/maps/.

Pecho Valley Road, which runs from Los Osos through Montana De Oro State Park and dead-ends, is a car drive down Los Osos and is a particularly charming stretch of road, all up and down and back and forth through great scenery. Half of it is through a striking eucalyptus grove, half through open rolling hills with grand views of the shoreline. But it’s short (10 miles round trip, 1140 ft of gain), connects with no other good riding, is routinely plagued with motorists, and has no shoulder and little passing room. The road actually continues on the other side of a gate, but it’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant land and I don’t think trespassing would be smiled upon.

Prefumo Canyon Rd: Dropping off the edge of the hilltop on the return to SLO. Downtown SLO is barely visible on either side of the mound at 1:30

10 thoughts on “Prefumo Canyon Road to Avila Beach

  1. Alan Shoebridge

    Fully agree with your rating this ride a “best of the best.” The climbs were tough, but the view at the summit was unbelievable. I rode up from Pismo Beach where I was staying, so it added some nice ocean scenery along the way.

    Reply
  2. Brian M

    The one advantage of making it a loop from Avila Beach is the Bob Jones Bicycle Path, which meanders along a really pretty creek. It eventually DOES dump you on that frontage road, but it is not that bad, and I find SLO a very interesting city.

    Reply
    1. Jack Rawlins Post author

      The BJBP, which I haven’t done, looks pretty short on the map, so you’re buying into a lot of big-road riding for a small pay-out. I’d just drive to the bike path and do it, but see the comment below.

      Reply
      1. Brian M

        It’s not bad. You really ride on a pleasant, low-traffic frontage road, not 101 itself. And Higueroa Street in SLO proper is actually kind of interesting in a mixed residential/commercial/light industrial way. (I am a City Planner by profession, so I find city riding interesting. Your mileage may vary!) Plus, you pass several breweries, a cool sandwich shop, an amazing bread bakery, and all of the interesting elements of downtown SLO, which I think is the best smaller city downtown in the state (better than Chico, even!). SLO would be a consideration for a post-lottery retirement landing spot for me.

        Reply
  3. Nibbles

    Rode this last weekend from Downtown SLO to Avila Beach. and wow, what a wonderful ride. Even in Oct. with all the hills burnt golden the experience was memorable.

    Riding the last 2 miles to Avila beach is imho an unmissable choice. Besides the satisfaction of riding to land’s end, you get to see an utterly charming coastal village. The downside is that it can be hard to want to leave!

    The ride back is indeed a grind, but at least it’s almost all in the shade. But the toughest part was the first bit of pavement on the way back after the dirt ends. Past the sweeping views of the summit, the Prefumo canyon descent is in fact a laugh-out-loud thriller.

    Lastly, SLO is a beautiful town full of character, and starting from downtown gives the ride a tinge of local flavor which the canyon roads, beautiful and rewarding though they may be, on their own cannot.

    Reply
  4. Paul

    Consider using the Bob Jones Bicycle Path to ride into Avila Beach, as opposed to Avila Beach Drive. The bike path is quite scenic and the heavy traffic on Avila Beach Drive was a bummer after the very quiet roads on the rest of the ride (Avila Beach Drive does have good bike lanes/wide shoulders, however).

    Reply
  5. Ian Stuart

    The Bob Jones Bike Trail is great. We always use it to avoid the traffic on Avila Beach Drive. If you take it all the way around the golf course, across the bridge, and up to the Avila Bay Inn it’s not as short as you think. And the waterfowl you see will make it more than worthwhile.

    The market at the corner of Avila Beach Drive and Ontario Rd (right by the entrance to the Bob Jones Bike Trail), the Avila Valley Barn, is a wonderful place to buy high-quality, local, organic produce and backed goods. The pies are excellent! It’s the one with the goats and chickens for the kids to enjoy.

    Reply
  6. Bryce C Breslin

    We rode this this weekend and, like everyone else, loved this ride. Started in Los Osos, 10 miles of flat warm-up on the busy Los Osos Rd. to the Prefumo turnoff. We went very early but Los Osos Rd would be a bummer any other time with 60-mph traffic a few ft from your left shoulder.

    Riding the Prefumo/See Canyon section in the early hours is a bird-lover’s paradise.

    Once near Avila, we skipped the downtown which looked choked with traffic and very busy (these are Covid times and we’re shy of crowds) and rode as far west as the road went. After a few short, flat miles along the water, the road terminates at another pier, where there’s a cafe, a restaurant out on the pier itself, and overall a really pleasant area to spend a while. You can ride to the end of the pier, admire the sea lions that festoon floating docs and buoys, catch some food, refill water… Really neat spot.

    Reply
  7. David

    Prefumo/See Canyons are a great addition to the Best of the Best! It doubled the miles, but I started in Avila Beach and took a left at the end of Prefumo and headed to Morro Rock via Los Osos Valley and Turri Roads. Los Osos is nearly dead straight and flat, but with a wide-enough shoulder so you never feel too close to traffic. Turri is a moderately scenic, low-traffic bypass of parts of Los Osos and S. Bay Blvd. A short ride through Morro Bay State Park leads you to the waterfront, which you can follow around to the Rock itself.

    Reply

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