There’s no sense in restricting these travel guides to Southern California.
Because if there’s one thing about Southern Californians, it’s that sometimes we need to head north.
And one of the easiest places to reach – after an incredibly scenic drive – is the Central Coast’s Morro Bay, along historic Highway 1.
Located in San Luis Obispo County, about a three-hour drive from L.A. and just two hours from Ventura or Santa Barbara, Morro Bay’s Mediterranean climate offers a refreshing getaway from our hotter environs farther south.
In many ways, it anchors the Central Coast – from both land and sea – because of its monumental namesake rock. But there’s so much more to Morro Bay than its geological landmark (or even its embayment).
So, here are five of the best ways to explore the history, wildlife and watershed of the coastal communities that comprise the seaside paradise of Morro Bay.
1. Embarcadero, Morro Bay HarborThe first place to go in Morro Bay is the most obvious one – the bay, whose harbor was constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1940s. Make a beeline to catch a glimpse of any of the many Southern sea otters that hang out by the docks at the "T" pier near the Harbor Hut restaurant. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch an entire "raft" of otters floating together on their backs, with little fluffball babies napping on their bellies (or even still nursing). If you’re really lucky, some of them will be particularly active – somersaulting, logrolling, wrestling and swimming are all possibilities. Their fur, both light and dark, alternately glistens with dewdrops and mats down, slicked back and fluffed out in a giant puffball.
If you don’t see them on your first visit, make time to return. When they're not sleeping 14 hours a day or grooming by the pier, they're probably out hunting elsewhere and will be back. Their pelts are so warm that the animals can survive full-time in the ocean without a layer of blubber. They're really smart, too—like humans, they use tools to access their food supply (for example, banging a rock to open a shell and get the seafood inside). They're federally protected and still endangered – so, no touching!
You’ve also got a good chance of seeing some otters in the water closer to Morro Rock (named “El Morro” by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo). Lost Isle Adventures offers tiki boat cruises of the Bay that – while serving Mai Tais to those over 21 – are also surprisingly educational. Over the course of 45 minutes, you’ll learn about the Morro Bay marine life – including harbor seals and sea lions (some of which have commandeered a former dock to lounge upon) – as well as Native American land use and even geology.
The family-friendly bay cruise sails right by Morro Rock – but you can also walk pretty much right up to the "Gibraltar of the Central Coast" by parking off of Coleman Drive. This volcanic plug is one of the “Nine Sisters,” a grouping of various peaks throughout of San Luis Obispo County. The craggy dome was once the site of a WWII-era lookout, a training ground for sailors getting ready for battle in the Pacific and a rock quarry. It’s still used as a navigational aid. Native Americans (including the Chumash and Salinan tribes) still consider it a sacred site. So as not to desecrate it (or disturb the nesting peregrine falcons), climbing is forbidden.
2. Marina, Morro Bay State Park Although you can rent and launch from the harbor, you’ll find more peace and quiet at Morro Bay State Park. There, Morro Bay’s shoreline is protected from the open ocean by a sandspit that stretches for four miles – providing plenty of calm waters for non-motorized boating.
At the marina, Central Coast Outdoors will take you on a guided tour from the “Kayak Shack” (which rents out kayaks for self-guided paddling), north toward Morro Rock, south through the “back” bay’s Morro Bay State Marine Recreational Management Area and into Morro Bay State Marine Reserve. When the tide is high, glide over and above the submerged pickleweed to get closer to the salt marsh and its unique vegetation and inhabitants. In some cases, your guide may take you onto the sandspit – a rare treat.
Keep the water traffic (and splashing) to a minimum by grabbing a buddy and hopping into a tandem kayak, which is less likely to disturb wildlife. Then, with a gentle stroke of your paddle, you can just sit back and observe – maybe an otter, or maybe a feeding frenzy of pelicans diving down and fish leaping up out of the water, right there between the sand bar and the shore.
Entrance to the marina is immediately across the street from Morro Bay State Park Campground and shares the same parking area as the Bayside Café. When you’re in the area, be sure to pop into the Museum of Natural History (the only such museum that’s part of the California state parks system) to learn more about what you’ve seen – and what more there is to see.
3. Montaña de Oro State Park, Los OsosThere are actually two California state parks in the Morro Bay area – the second located about 12 miles south of Morro Rock in the neighboring community of Los Osos (a.k.a. the “Valley of the Bears”). It’s all part of the former Rancho Cañada de los Osos y Pecho y Islay, granted in 1845 by Governor Pio Pico – now known as Montaña de Oro, or "Mountain of Gold" (named after the golden wildflowers that bloom there in the spring). With 8,000 acres – including seven miles of shoreline and 65 miles of trails – it’s one of the largest of California’s state parks.
Although the coastline is rugged here – and the camping is primitive – this state park is actually still recovering from the decades of ranching, grazing and farming that only ceased in 1965 when the State of California purchased the land. Learn about human history at Montaña de Oro State Park by chatting with a ranger or docent at the Spooner Ranch House Museum and General Store (circa 1892), open daily between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. Most of the outbuildings of Alden B. Spooner II’s seaside dairy farm, Pecho Ranch & Stock Co., are gone – but you can still visit the ranch house and a concrete creamery (built in 1915). At one time, this operation helped San Luis Obispo County become the largest dairy county in the world.
The remains of the former ranch are perched high above Spooner's Cove, which some have been inclined to nickname “Smuggler’s Cove” due to the rumors of bootlegging that occurred there during Prohibition. But today, the main booty is for the birds. Cormorants are poised on rocks and well positioned to go fishing. The incoming tides send waves crashing against the cliffs, drowning the beach and launching lots of fish onto the shore in its gigantic swells. At low tide, the secluded beach makes for productive tidepooling and beachcombing.
Heading away from the coastline, you can walk along the Bluff Trail and up to the state park campground, where some non-native peacocks (actually, peahens) may greet you. Multitudes of cottontails dine and dash along the trails you’re treading. You can keep climbing the hills until you reach the 1,347-foot Valencia Peak – or you can switch from hiking to bicycling, horseback riding, camping (including parking for horse trailers), picnicking and even surfing. Stay for an hour or all day – day use admission is free. A fee applies for campsites. Reserve online ahead of time.
4. Monarch butterfly migration, Morro Bay Golf CourseThere are a few Central Coast “hotspots” to look for monarch butterflies during their annual winter migration. But with populations declining in recent years, it’s become more difficult to find any park or grove that’s a “sure thing” for monarchs – even in parks named after them. An exception – at least, as of the 2018/9 winter season – is the Morro Bay Golf Course.
The U.S. Golf Association (USGA) provides funding to an Audubon International and Environmental Defense Fund project to establish and conserve monarch habitats on golf courses, called Monarchs in the Rough. As a participating partner, Morro Bay Golf Course not only provides habitat for migrating monarchs (partially by planting native milkweed) – but also helps raise awareness by installing educational signage onsite and reaching out to members and the surrounding community.
These migrating monarchs arrive and roost in the golf course’s eucalyptus groves as early as August, when (weather permitting) non-golfing naturalist onlookers can take a short hike to the viewing area on a free guided tour. (Accessibility accommodations can be made for those with disabilities.) Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee of how long these magnificent creatures will actually stay in the natural grove throughout the winter and could easily be gone by January.
If you get the timing right, though, you can see thousands of them clustered together – close enough to see that what looks like brown leaves is actually the underside of orange wings! Keep your eye on the Morro Bay Golf Course Facebook page for updates, and contact the Morro Bay Golf Course clubhouse at (805) 772-8751 for tour information.
5. Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival, various locationsThe Morro Coast Audubon Society has been going strong since 1966 – but it’s only been just over two decades since bird lovers have amassed together and congregated in Morro Bay for its annual winter bird festival, in its 24th year in 2020. Central Coast birdwatchers have never had to limit themselves to just one weekend a year to spot hundreds of species in this designated Globally Important Bird Area along the Pacific Flyway. But the Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival provides both locals and travelers a one-stop shop to explore the vast natural area and spot over 200 species of birds in one big bonanza.
Lectures, talks and other educational programs are headquartered in Morro Bay, with many programs provided locally (including a tour of Pacific Wildlife Care, not normally open to the public). Many other field trips, however, extend out to Los Osos, San Luis Obispo, Carrizo Plain National Monument and even the Santa Ynez Valley. Eagle-eyed visitors, however, can spot Great Blue herons, peregrine falcons and an osprey or two perched out in the open in Morro Bay Harbor (particularly on masts of docked boats). Out on the water, you’ll see brown pelicans and gulls hanging out lazily on the sandbar and cormorants on the docks, with their black, iridescent feathers looking green, purple and blue in just the right light. At the breakwater by Morro Rock, look for black oystercatchers.
When you head into the estuary of Morro Bay State Park – either on foot or by kayak (as above), look for sandpipers, sanderlings and white pelicans in the salt marsh. A great egret might fly overhead or simply watch you from a distance. Loons and grebes bob and weave through the water. On dry land, you’ll find California scrub jays (Aphelocoma californica, formerly known as the western scrub jay) perching and screeching, swaying to the wind and the waves. House finches, song sparrows and wrentits sing out in the open, while bushtits stay under cover. A California towhee might pause just long enough to pose for a picture. The Pigeon Guillemot (Cepphus columba) nests in the nooks of rugged shoreline cliffs, its plumage jet-black in the mating season, and its mouth and legs blood-red.
Can’t keep track of it all on your own? Or find yourself confusing the long-billed curlew with a willet? That’s what the festival’s expert birders are for. They’ll point every species out to you, even identifying some only by their call. The 2020 festival runs January 17 through 20. Registration will open on November 2, 2019.