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Trailblazing: Take on SLO’s Tri-tip Challenge for an up close view of trails, flora 

GET OUTSIDE - SUMMER/FALL 2022

click to enlarge go-tritip1-trailblazing.jpg

PHOTO BY BULBUL RAJAGOPAL

“What do you call a cow with three legs?” my friend and botanist Nora Bales asked as we scanned a herd of cows at the base of San Luis Obispo’s Madonna Mountain.

“Tri-tip!” she said gleefully.

I chuckled a bit too hard. Probably because I’m a big fan of on-theme jokes, and the sun—already glaring at 10:30 a.m. that March 22—made me lightheaded. We were about to start our final leg of the Tri-tip Challenge. We’d already knocked out the Cal Poly ‘P’ and Bishop Peak trails. But the unshaded Madonna route seemed daunting.

I was ready to fast-forward to the end where I get to dive into a tri-tip sandwich and claim my bragging rights as a new Central Coast transplant. Instead, we yanked our hats down tighter and stomped upward.

For the uninitiated, the Tri-tip Challenge is a SLO County quirk requiring undertakers to hike up three peaks on the same day and top it off with a tri-tip sandwich.

Cal Poly ‘P’

We recommend kicking off your Tri-tip Challenge with the “P” as a warmup. Nora and I started our climb at exactly 8 a.m. At almost a mile, it took us 22 mins to get to the 50-by-30 foot painted “P” on the hill.

We weren’t alone. Five minutes into the hike, we crossed paths with a deer and her fawn, followed soon after by a California quail and a white-crowned sparrow. But it’s the native flora that truly excited Nora.

“Oh my God, Bulbul, today’s your lucky day! It’s the San Luis Obispo mariposa lily. Look how cool it looks. It’s only found in SLO, and it’s my first one of the season,” she exclaimed.

Bright, buttery yellow with crimson tufts, the lily is bell-shaped. Two of them were peeking out through dry bushes on the hillside.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY BULBUL RAJAGOPAL
  • PHOTO BY BULBUL RAJAGOPAL

The “P” is home to other native plants, too, such as yucca plants with sword-shaped leaves and white fibers. The Chumash Tribe uses the fibers to make cordage and rope, Nora said, and the plant is also called our Lord’s candle. We found other iconic elements near the “P” as well, like the small, pink Brewer’s spineflower, graffiti, and a discarded can of Coors Light—just in case we forgot the hill’s college roots.

From a wooden deck near the painted symbol, hikers can look out over SLO’s cityscape overshadowed by Cerro San Luis (aka Madonna Mountain), and Bishop Peak, which is the next on our list and supposedly the hardest to tackle.

Bishop Peak

After driving through the scenic Highland Drive neighborhood, Nora and I started our 3-mile hike up Bishop Peak at 8:38 a.m. The tallest of the Nine Sisters volcanic morros, the Summit Trail is supposed to be moderately challenging because it’s peppered with rocks, shrubs, and loose rubble.

Much to my surprise, this was my favorite stretch of the challenge. I love a technical trail over a straightforward steep one. The Summit Trail’s smattering of rocks make you pause and use your arms as you scramble up them. It’s tactile, engaging, and encourages you to think. It reminded me of my weekly South Hills hike that’s loaded with serpentine rock.

Bishop Peak’s trails also enjoy some canopy cover from trees. We stopped to smell sage bushes, and shared a trail for the first time with other hikers and a Western fence lizard.

“Western fence lizards intimidate other lizards: They do push ups like gym bros!” Nora said.

But watch out for poison oak!

“Poison oak is good for animals. It provides food and shelter for bunnies and birds. Just because people don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s bad,” Nora said as we carefully climbed over swathes of the triple-leafed clusters.

One and a half hours later, we hit the top and took in the panorama. Experiencing it with Nora reminded me of why I love hiking so much. There’s nothing like being awestruck and challenged by nature with a friend by your side. Gleaming and grinning, we grabbed a seat on a mountaintop bench etched with the words, “End of Trail.”

click to enlarge PHOTO BY BULBUL RAJAGOPAL
  • PHOTO BY BULBUL RAJAGOPAL

Well, not yet for us.

Cerro San Luis Obispo

Here’s where the “challenge” in Tri-tip Challenge reared its head. All the comforts of Bishop Peak, with its shaded trails, mental and physical maneuvers, and cooling breeze disappeared by the time we arrived at the Cerro San Luis Obispo trailhead. The temperature soared by 10 degrees, the trail was blatantly steep, and I could feel the dull pain of blisters forming under my feet.

To add insult to literal injury, the demographic on this hike comprised mountain bikers and trail runners who swiftly skirted past us while I grumpily took frequent breaks. Nora was patient and kind, and helped me keep going.

Almost 2 miles later, we got respite: the familiar sight of the white pole on the peak that’s instantly recognizable to SLO residents. T-shirts off, sports bras out, and sweat rolling off our backs, we gained a second wind for the final scramble to the top. All that was left to do was meander back down to the car and finish a sandwich.

“I’m gonna have weird tan lines. It’s the mark of summer,” Nora said.

Aftermath

Tri-tip Challenge purists will recommend Firestone for the victory capper. But our favorite is Old SLO BBQ! It doesn’t matter which one you pick, just make sure the sandwich includes a Central Coast specialty: tri-tip (or a meat alternative if that’s what you prefer).

It took us four hours to cover three peaks, and we were more than happy to sit on the patio with my tri-tip on sourdough, Nora’s gluten-free meaty fries and beans version, and our strawberry sodas. No talking, only munching and slurping.

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