E. A. French Park to Islay Hill Park and Return
Would you like to get some outdoor exercise in a stunning environment while safely socializing in nature? Look no further than San Luis Obispo’s wonderful park and trail system.
This story features one of the region's best neighborhood park-to-park walks. So much of a personal favorite that I've done it dozens of times. It's a serene, beautiful and gentle meander.
Start at pretty little French Park tucked into a great San Luis Obispo neighborhood at 1040 Fuller Road just off Broad Street. Park in the park's lot then take a few minutes to stroll around, taking in the great amenities - tennis courts, basketball court, pickle ball courts, a baseball diamond, generous bbq and picnic area, a children's play area and lots of grass and trees. It's a perfect place to lounge about if you're into that kind of thing. It's also a great place to get some exercise, or as a start point for a beautiful walk.
For the walk, cross Fuller Road, and take a slight jog left from French Park's parking lot entrance. Find the broad walkway across from the park that leads through the tree-lined neighborhood.
Most days you'll have the path to yourself. On the rare days that's not the case, all locals are highly considerate, friendly and appropriately masked, thankfully. Some walk their leashed dogs. All smile and offer friendly "hellos" when greeted. Perfect! Good feelings and beauty abound.
The path winds through a lushly-planted and heavily-treed well-established neighborhood for several hundred yards before crossing Sunflower Way and bearing slightly left. When you cross Sunflower stay left on a broad sidewalk paralleling Poinsettia Street that runs for about 150 feet. You'll rejoin the path curving slightly left away from the homes and toward a set of railroad tracks you may not have realized were nearby. You'll also pick up a seasonal creek to your right. In this same stretch of trail, you'll come to an attractive grass area with two, almost-always vacant picnic tables, perfect for an impromptu feast if you’ve planned ahead.
The trail then changes character briefly as it winds under the tracks through a concrete tunnel.
Three easy steps lead down to the tunnel, which may flood after a heavy rain, past an area at tunnel’s end that can form a mini waterfall and up a flight of about 20 stairs. Run these a few times if you want to add real aerobics to your walk, or use them for calf stretches. Climbing them once and continuing is also an option of course.
After a slight left turn, the trail crosses Spanish Oaks Drive and becomes more rustic in nature as it winds beside an arroyo to its left and begins to skirt the base of 776 foot Islay Hill to the right. More about this later.
In a short while you’ll cross the arroyo on a bridge. If you look right in this area you’ll be gazing up the grass-filled canyon to the crest of Islay Hill.
Moments, and a few hundred steps, later, a more artful bridge carries you across the canyon under a near-total tree canopy. Finally, a long wooden bridge again crosses the creek bed transporting you to the uppermost secluded reaches of Islay Hill Park. If you seek solitude, one sunlit picnic bench sits there inviting quiet reflection or perhaps a short meditation session. Then the park proper beckons.
The park itself features acres of open space and dozens of mature trees. About 10 picnic tables dot the pristine landscape. If you’ve brought the right toys and teammates, there’s a baseball diamond, a full basketball court, a tennis court and a sand volley ball court. A huge kids play area, with many intriguing swings, slides and climbing challenges, is there too. Just so we’re clear on this, it’s not a play area for huge kids, AKA adults, but rather an extensive play area for children.
However, if you’re chock full of energy waiting to be expended, turn right out of Islay Hill Park, walk 0.5 of a mile up the grade along Tank Farm Road to Spanish Oaks Drive, turn right, and find your way to the start of the Islay Hill Trail. That trail climbs 520 feet in 0.9 of a mile to the top of Islay Hill. From the peak you’ll be treated to spectacular views of the surrounding farm and ranch land and wine country off in the distance.
Return the way you came or wander through the neighborhood back to French Park. If you’re in explorer mode you’ll see some other options on the way back. Near the tunnel that passes beneath the railroad tracks is a dirt path. Taking it to its end will land you one short block short of French Park. Turn left at this point and you'll be back at your car in a flash. Other options include a return path alternative that ends lower on Fuller Road. Turning right at this point leads you up to French Park again.
Feel free to make your own discoveries. You can’t really get lost in the area. Your always close to homes and friendly helpful San Luis Obispo residents.
Striding briskly park to park and back again can be done in about half an hour. Meandering, playing, exploring, eating and gazing off into the lushness that surrounds you can take hours or even most of a wonderful sunny day.
The parks and vicinity described are an easy walk, drive or bike ride from many local locales. You’ll find yourself outdoors in a beautiful, safe, friendly and healthy space yet surrounded by fun options if you desire more than just a walk in the woods and a neighborhood.
Give it a try. The French-to-Islay Park Trail and beyond provides a great break to your quarantine routine.
Approximately 0.7 miles in each direction