For people in the university community, Poly Canyon is old news, as much a Cal Poly fixture as Kennedy Library or Mustang Stadium. But there are many who have never set foot on the dirt road tucked away in the northern part of the campus.
For my money, Poly Canyon is the most enjoyable, relatively level walk, this side of the beach. The adventure begins with an easy 1.5 mile walk, starting above the dairy barns and cattle unit, leading into the foothills that rise above Cal Poly Hikers, joggers, cyclists, entire families, people on horseback, dogs, and a few very lazy people with cars converge on Poly Canyon daily.
From the initial grove of eucalyptus trees, it’s only a matter of yards before one in enveloped in a pastoral setting. The sense of quiet so close to a major university is surprising. Cattle grazing off to the right keep an eye on all who pass by.
About halfway in, Stenner Creek appears, down and to the left, rushing steadily, except in the dry summer months. There’s a small picnic area just ahead, where the creek forms a small wading pool; always a mandatory rest stop for Topper. The trees return. Shade is plentiful.
This is as far as cars are allowed. The visitor now has three choices Go off to the right, across the footbridge, and begin the arduous trek up the backside of the hill that brings you out above the Cal Poly “P.” The view of the campus and the town below is worth every step.
One can also venture straight ahead into the foothills and experience the official 6.5 mile Poly Canyon Loop Trail.
Or there is a third choice–the most unusual one in my opinion. Head off to the left, following the path bordered by knee-high stone walls, cross the creek, and visit the experimental housing sites built by Poly architecture students.
Design Village resembles a low-budget movie, a dozen sites in various states of disarray, all within close proximity of each other. I particularly like the geodesic dome. Some are completed structures; others highlight specific building designs. There’s no other place quite like Design Village on the Central Coast.
I first discovered Poly Canyon during my brief tenure as a faculty member. Between classes, Topper and I would sneak a quick walk up to the wading pool. My academic career took me to many college campuses, but never one with its own canyon escape. I knew I had to be in California.
The best time to visit Poly Canyon is a weekday morning–the earlier, the better, to avoid the often scorching afternoon heat. Use the Grand Avenue entrance to the university. Drive past the Performing Arts Center. Turn right on North Perimeter Road. Drive along the loop, passing student dorms on your right.
Take a right at the first stop sign.m Go a few hundred feet down this street. The entrance to Poly Canyon will be on your left. But be sure to pay for parking and get your permit at the entrance kiosk. Also remember that visitors to Poly Canyon must abide by university regulations, especially involving parking and alcohol. Be responsible. Be respectful.
Poly Canyon holds some very special personal memories. It always will. If you haven’t been, please go check it out. If you haven’t been in awhile, head back and rediscover this Central Coast getaway. Take a friend. Walk a dog. Ride a bike or a horse.
And smile politely at the lazy people as they drive by in their cars.
San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune (April 1997)
Author’s Note: The entrance to Poly Canyon has changed somewhat in the last 20 years. There is now a giant dormitory complex where the entrance used to be. Just park your car and walk along the paved road that divides the dorms and you’ll eventually come to the canyon. Enjoy.