As San Luis Obispo creeps slowly into fall and the weather begins to cool off, causing outdoor activity to be that much more enjoyable, a local tradition known as the Tri-Tip Challenge lingers on my mind.
The Tri-Tip Challenge is a series of three hikes up the three mountain peaks that surround downtown San Luis Obispo. These mountains are Madonna Mountain (Cerro San Luis), the Cal Poly “P” and Bishop Peak. Completed one after another in back to back succession, the feat is brought to an end with a tri-tip sandwich from Firestone Grill as a celebration.
I started my journey around 3 p.m. on a Wednesday at the base of Madonna Mountain. I chose Madonna as my first ascent purely out of familiarity, being that I had hiked it numerous times in the past, and based on online reconnaissance it seemed to be of medium difficulty between the other two peaks.
It wasn’t more than 15 minutes into my hike when I was struck with the realization that I may have been overly hasty in embracing the coming winter weather. I’d overlooked the fact it was still over 80 degrees outside, and I could feel it. With less than a quarter of the trail being shaded, I was adequately cooked in the sun, but as I made my way further up the mountain, a nice breeze from the north came to my rescue.
Seeing less than three other people on my way up, I was alone on the mountain top. The hike only took 38 minutes to the top, including a slight detour, and I’d stopped every few minutes to take photos of the views. From the top of Madonna Mountain, you have a panoramic view stretching from the Madonna Inn all the way across town to Bishop Peak. I spent 20 minutes taking it all in, and then began to make my way down the mountain onto the next peak.
The next peak on my list was the Cal Poly “P.” The “P” seemed like a nice interlude of a hike, only being 0.9 miles in total. Overall, the “P” was my least favorite of the three peaks, with paid parking only, no shade and loose rocky terrain, topped off with Cal Poly’s marching band practice doing their best to disrupt any form of tranquility.
That being said, it was interesting to see the “P” up close, and if you continue past the “P” to the top of the mountain, as I did, you can get a very pretty view of the rolling hills beyond Cal Poly’s campus.
Last up was Bishop Peak. My personal favorite, I specifically saved it for the final ascent. By this time, my body was starting to catch up with me, and I began to feel the previous two peaks I had just gotten under my belt.
I was becoming slightly discouraged seeing the final peak looming high above, but that’s when I remembered the tri-tip sandwich waiting for me at the finish line, and the fact that I hadn’t eaten since 8 a.m. that morning. With that reminder of a tasty reward waiting for me, mixed with my excitement to see the sunset from the top, any apprehension about my final trek abandoned my mind, and I took off.
It only took me around 30 minutes to reach the top, and the view was more than worth it. Being the highest of the three peaks, Bishop offers 360 degree views of San Luis Obispo County all the way to the coast line.
I sat in silence as the sun sank below the horizon. I enjoyed absorbing the peace and quiet, listening to the whistle of the wind and feeling the cool dusk air.
It was dark now. I descended the mountain in no time, riding the high of accomplishment mixed with the yearning for a full stomach, and made my way to Firestone Grill. The tri-tip sandwich came out fast, and was gone into my stomach in minutes.
When I reflect on the day’s trek, I see why the tri-tip challenge is a part of San Luis Obispo tradition. I can confidently recommend it to anyone who enjoys the outdoors and is of intermediate hiking ability. The views from each peak give you a new appreciation for the city and county of San Luis Obispo, as well as a reminder of the accomplishment you achieve every time you look up.