Hiking Mount Madonna (Cerro San Luis) in a Day at San Luis Obispo, California

by Jackie
Views of San Luis Obispo from Mount Madonna hiking trail

Mount Madonna, also referred to as Cerro San Luis or San Luis Mountain, is one of the best hikes to do in San Luis Obispo (SLO), California. There are a few trails to choose from ranging from easy to moderate levels. As you make your way along the trail, you’ll get some amazing views of Bishop Peak (another tall mountain in the area and a recommended hiking spot) and San Luis Obispo County. 

Whether you’re staying locally or visiting SLO for the weekend, this moderate hike can be done in an hour up to 2+ hours round trip. Plus, it’s free to visit!

We decided to do a double peak day as we already completed Bishop Peak earlier in the day. Compared to Bishop Peak’s out and back trail, we got lost trying to find the peak of Mount Madonna. We eventually made it to the top and enjoyed the views.    

In this Mount Madonna hiking guide, we’re sharing how to hike to the top of Mount Madonna, how to get there, and other important hiking details. 

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Mount Madonna Hiking Overview

This Mount Madonna day hike is doable to complete in a few hours depending on the trail that you choose. 

  • Challenging level: Easy to Moderate 
  • Distance: 2 to 6+ miles round trip
  • Elevation: 1,270 feet (387 meters)
  • Time to complete: 1 to 2+ hours round trip depending on the trail
  • Helpful tips: 
    • Use the bathroom before you arrive at the trail. We didn’t see any bathrooms at the beginning of the hiking trail. 
    • At the beginning of the trail, there is a map. Take a photo of the map so you can see where to go. 
    • Dogs are allowed here. We saw a dog on a leash on this trail.

How to Get There

There are two places to start the hiking trails – Charles A and Mary R Maino Open Space or Laguna Lake Park Open Space.

From Downtown to Charles A and Mary R Maino Open Space 

To find the trailhead from Charles A and Mary R Maino Open Space, type “Marsh Street Parking Lot” in Google Maps. 

From Downtown to the parking lot, take Marsh or Higuera Street and head towards 101-South. You’ll cross the freeway underpass and then see a sharp right opening before going on 101-South. This is where you’ll turn on Fernandez and park in the parking lot. (If you miss the opening, you can get off of the next exit and turn around.) Click here to see the driving directions. 

*Note: You can walk here from the Downtown SLO area and there is a sidewalk that leads to the parking lot. 

**There are a few bike racks to park your bike here.

From the parking lot, you can connect to the following trails:

  • Lemon Grove Loop – It’s estimated to be 2.1 miles round trip with total climbing of 420 feet (128 meters) – Easiest route and great for beginners!
  • M Trail – This trail is 2.6 miles round trip with total climbing of 640 feet (195 meters)
  • M Trail to the Madonna Peak – This trail is over 5 miles round trip. (We took this trail after going partially on Lemon Grove Loop.)
Entrance to Cerro San Luis Mountain from the Charles A and Mary R Maino Open Space parking lot in San Luis Obispo, California

Here is the Mount Madonna entrance from the Charles A and Mary R Maino Open Space parking lot.

From Downtown to Laguna Lake Park Open Space

There is a trail that connects to the peak of Mount Madonna with the starting location at the Laguna Lake Park Open Space. Input “Laguna Lake Park” or 504 Madonna Rd into Google Maps. 

From Downtown to this parking lot, take Higuera Street and then continue on Madonna Road. The parking lot will be off of Madonna Road. Click to see the driving directions. 

From here, you can take a trail that connects to the peak of Mount Madonna. Mountain bikers take this trail. 


When To Hike Mount Madonna

Mount Madonna is open one hour before sunrise until one hour after sunset. If it’s still dark outside, don’t forget to bring headlamps for safety. 

You can do the hike at any time of the day. It does get warm in the afternoon so you may consider hiking in the early morning or late afternoon. We did the hike in November and after 2:00pm so the weather was still warm for us. The average temperatures can reach 65-80℉ throughout the year. 

The hiking trail is open and wide so it’s a great spot for social distancing. 


What to Wear for the Mount Madonna Hike

  • Technical t-shirt – Wear a moisture-wicking t-shirt to absorb the sweat.
  • Comfortable hiking pants or shorts 
  • Comfortable walking shoes or trail running shoes – Hiking boots are not needed. Just a comfortable pair of walking or trail running shoes. We wore Altra trail running shoes. Buy Altra Superior Men Shoes or Altra Superior Women Shoes here. 
  • Comfortable walking socks or moisture-wicking socks 

What to Bring for the Bishop Peak Hiking

  • Daypack (optional) – While it’s not necessary to have a backpack with you, it’ll be easier to hold snacks, water bottles, and other necessities that you need on hand. Check out our favorite daypacks here: men’s day pack option / women’s day pack option.  
  • Reusable Water Bottle – You must have water with you as there isn’t any water fountain at the start of the trail. Stay hydrated during your hike and use a reusable water bottle. These are our favorite reusable water bottles to bring with us everywhere.
  • Snacks 
  • Hat – There is shade along the trail but you will need a hat for the open areas. Buy this hat.
  • Sunscreen – Protect your skin from the sun. Check out this sunscreen.
  • Sunglasses – Here are our favorite sunglasses.
  • Trash bag – Do not litter. Let’s keep the trail clean. 

Our Experience Hiking Mount Madonna

We were ambitious and decided to hike Madonna Mountain right after completing the Bishop Peak hike. 

We started from the Charles A and Mary R Maino Open Space parking lot. The starting location is located within walking distance to the Downtown SLO area and can be visited after exploring the Downtown area. 

We followed the path that lead to the Lemon Grove Loop. It was pretty flat with some gorgeous views of the city and the mountains. When we were about to go down the loop, we decided to change course and travel along the “M” Trail. 

The M Trail is more challenging than the Lemon Grove Loop as the trail has some uphills. There are some walkways to make the hike easier. Most of the trail has shade so it’s a good area to cool off from the heat. 

Jackie Szeto, Life Of Doing, walks on a platform in the Mount Madonna hike in San Luis Obispo, California Walking platform on Mount Madonna hike in San Luis Obispo, California

We eventually reached a landmark along the trail –  a giant “M” in white paint. It’s visible when driving along 101 freeway. It’s thought to represent Madonna Mountain, but in reality, it’s for Mission College Prep High School. This high school isn’t far from the trail. 

We continued the trail and noticed that the trail went back down to the parking lot.

How are we supposed to reach the peak? When heading down the M Trail, there is a fork in the road that leads to an unmarked path. If you continue along this path, then you’ll end reaching the hiking trail that goes to the peak. 

At first, we were a bit lost since there wasn’t any signage. Yet, This part of the trail connects with the trail starting at Laguna Lake Park Open Space. We saw mountain bikers and a few hikers. 

The hiking trail is much wider and goes uphill. It seems like the trail goes on forever since the trail is mostly gravel and not that exciting. Plus, there isn’t any shade here so a hat will go a long way. 

Justin Huynh, Life Of Doing, walks along the gravel Mount Madonna trail in San Luis Obispo, California

We’re on our way to the top of Madonna Mountain.

After making our way around the mountain and seeing Bishop Peak, we eventually made it to the top of Madonna Mountain! WooHoo!

View of Bishop Peak from Madonna Mountain

You can see Bishop Peak when hiking towards the peak.

There is a platform to take a break and rest. 

Wooden platform to rest before reaching the top of Mount Madonna in San Luis Obispo, California

Feel free to take a rest here. You deserve the break.

Or, climb up some boulders for undisturbed views of Cal Poly and the surrounding areas. The boulders are not as sketchy as the ones in Bishop Peak so it’s doable to climb up. There was only a handful of people at the peak.

Don’t forget to take photos from here. SLO is so pretty and green! There is a pole where you can step up and take a photo with. It’s similar to Mission Peak’s post in Fremont, California. 

Justin Huynh, Life Of Doing, stand on the pole on the top of Mount Madonna Peak in San Luis Obispo, California

Look at the views that you can see from here!

View of the hiking trail from the Mount Madonna Peak in San Luis Obispo, California

This is the view of the hiking trail from the peak of Mount Madonna.

Going back down the path is the same way as coming up. Or you can continue your way back to Lemon Grove Loop to do more mileage. 

Since we were tired from walking around the mountain, we just went down the M Trail to reach the parking lot and called it a day. We were pleased with hiking this trail and would love to come back to do this again.   


Final Thoughts

Mount Madonna is a fun day hike to experience when visiting SLO. From the easier Lemon Grove Loop to the more challenging peak summit, this hike is a fantastic way to get some fresh air and spend time outdoors. Enjoy this exciting outdoor activity in SLO!

Looking for other places to visit nearby SLO? Check out the posts below:

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