Hiking Bishop Peak in the evening and spending the night in one of the “caves” at the top of the mountain has long been a tradition for adventure-seeking Cal Poly students. Many people brave the early morning to climb the trail and witness the sunrise from one of the best views of the city. However, many people don’t know that hiking in any open space area in San Luis Obispo, such as Bishop Peak is illegal in the dark.
Due to numerous requests for extended evening hours for hiking, San Luis Obispo City Council will consider allowing hiking in open space areas until 9 p.m. year-round. The issue was brought to the council by residents wishing to have extended hours, where they voted to reopen the subject and discuss allowing it again.
They simply voted to reconsider. However, it may be a while before we see a decision made. The city council has a busy agenda, so the vote may not happen until late summer or early fall, according to Carlyn Christianson, San Luis Obispo city councilwoman.
Currently, all trails in San Luis Obispo are only open from one hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset, which makes it difficult for people who work during the day to get any time to hike during the winter when sunset is early in the evening. The fine for those caught hiking after closing time is $561.
Hiking after dark was originally made illegal for several reasons, including the impact it could have on the nocturnal animals that live near the trails, as well as the disruption it causes neighborhoods that have trailheads near houses, according to former mayor Peg Pinard in the article “Night Hikes are not the Right Hikes,” featured in the Santa Lucia Sierra Club chapter’s newsletter.
In February, the city council approved a plan to reconsider night hiking hours. It was almost unanimous, except for a single dissenting vote by Councilwoman Christianson.
Christianson opposes reconsideration because of the wildlife impacts, neighborhood disturbances and high cost of night time patrol and rescue efforts.
“The city’s open space policies state very clearly that the primary purpose is for habitat protection and I believe those policies are important and should be followed,” Christianson said.
She also noted that night hiking could be controversial to people living near trailheads because of noise and traffic at night, but she thinks those affected could also include anyone who lives near enough to see lights of people night hiking up the mountains.
“Night hiking tends to be highly intrusive on nearby neighbors or even far away neighbors. I don’t particularly want to watch lights move up Cerro San Luis at night,” Christianson said.
The cost of rescue efforts and patrol services that would be necessary if night hiking was allowed would increase significantly, according to Christianson. Each year, there are a couple rescues required when people are injured while hiking in the dark.
“It definitely costs the city more in patrol and rescue efforts. We do know that one night rescue alone easily costs the city over $50,000 and we have one or two a year even with night time hiking prohibited, much less night mountain biking,” Christianson said.
While the city council vote was in favor of reconsidering night hiking, many residents and outdoors clubs are against it as well.
The Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club is also staunchly against the proposal to extend hiking hours in the evening. They point to the reasons laid out in the article “Night Hikes Are Not the Right Hikes.” Both former mayor Jan Marx and current mayor Heidi Harmon state that the Open Space Program was originally created to protect wildlife and any other recreational activities, such as hiking, were secondary to that main goal.
According to surveys done by the city, residents continuously list protecting the wildlife and their habitats as the number one goal. They think allowing night hiking would infringe on that goal.
A letter the Sierra Club sent to city council, outlines the specific reasons they think that night hiking should not
“As much as we might enjoy hiking at night in San Luis Obispo’s natural open spaces, or how convenient this might be for the schedules of some residents, we must advocate for responsible use,” Andrew Christie, director of the Santa Lucia chapter, said in the letter to city council.
However, many Cal Poly students and San Luis Obispo residents still see the advantages of allowing extended hours. For people with busy work or class schedules, evenings are the only chance they have to get out and spend time hiking or
“Night hiking would add an element of adventure to [San Luis Obispo] that would give a fun, beautiful chance to allow people to get outside and enjoy the differences of nature between night and day,” civil engineering sophomore Brett Crews said.
It could also be a unique way to see all of the beauty San Luis Obispo has to offer.
“Stargazing is hard to do in [San Luis Obispo] due to light pollution, but with an option to get out of town and on the trails a little ways would improve the quality of the night sky, which is something I miss from my hometown in Colorado,” Crews said.
Some see both sides of the conversation. Supervising Ranger to San Luis Obispo Doug Carscaden thinks that recreation and wildlife can coexist. But as a ranger, it is also his job to make sure open spaces are being protected. He thinks there is potential for recreational opportunities on a minimal scale as long as there are no impacts on the wildlife.
“As a ranger, I understand our job is to protect natural resources and minimize impacts on nature and the environment and animals, so I definitely see both sides of it, but I feel that there is some level of opportunity out there that wouldn’t adversely impact either user, whether it’s nature or wildlife, so I think that some level of use is OK,” Carscaden said.
Carscaden also said the way open space hours are set up now could use some improvement. The hours are not set and they change throughout the year as the spaces are open one hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset, which can sometimes lead to confusion or people using the uncertainty to get away with hiking after hours. He is in favor of setting specific times, so there is no murkiness.
“It would just be easier from an enforcing and policing stand point,” Carscaden said. “If you walk by a sign that says you have to be out by 8 p.m. and now it’s 8:30, you don’t have the excuse of not doing the math right or you didn’t know.”
If the extended hours were to pass, Bishop Peak would be excluded and will still not be open for night hiking. This is because the trailheads are located directly in residential neighborhoods, and because of past incidents occurring on the mountain at night.
“Bishop Peak is also one of three of [San Luis Obispo’s] heaviest used spaces, so we say ‘It gets loved to death,’” Carscaden said. “We have to do a lot of work and stuff up there to keep the natural resources in check and happy just because it gets so many users.”