California’s central coast – basically the entirety from Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz – is worth exploring. Beautiful rocky coastline nestles with sandy beaches, historic towns sit alongside stunning resorts, and mountains meet the blue of the Pacific in ways that are bound to capture both your heart and imagination.
Sitting just north of San Luis Obispo – where US 101 and Pacific Coast Highway diverge – off of PCH is Morro Bay, a sleepy town of about 10,000 that shockingly makes for an amazing central hub to explore this part of the coast. The bay itself is small, and subject to very visible tidal forces; during low tide it seems to almost dry up. This makes it ideal to explore via kayak, since you’ll only share the shallow waters with small craft and otters. (For those operating larger craft, the bay is regarded as one of the most dangerous in the country according to the US Coast Guard, due to its shallow waters and sand spits.)
Morro Bay. This view was actually from the living room of my Airbnb in Los Osos, on the southern end of the bay.
Dominating the bay itself is the majestic Morro Rock, a 600 foot tall volcanic plug made mostly of dacite, a volcanic stone, combined with petrified bird feces, giving it a silica content of nearly 70%. The rock is unstable – and illegal – to climb, but a walk alongside it, especially in the morning hours, is completely worth doing. Befriend one of the local birdwatchers and share a telescope to look into the nest of a peregrine falcon!
Morro Rock towers over the bay
A stroll down Morro Bay’s Embarcadero will remind visitors of Monterey. Seafood restaurants, gift shops, and salt water taffy stores will greet you as you approach the town’s T Pier (named for its shape), a perfect place to spot otters floating or the occasional sea lion.
Just south of the city is Montana de Oro State Park. Take the mostly flat, but incredibly scenic, Bluff Trail for stunning views of the craggy coast and hidden inlets. The trail runs the entire length of the park, but frequent turn-offs back to the main road allow for one to customize an appropriate loop. If you bring binoculars and find a nice spot to sit facing the water, you might be lucky enough to spot a pod of dolphins or a whale spout. The entire California coast is on the migration routes of nearly a dozen whale species, and hosts various types year-round. If you’re more interested in flora than fauna, you’ll be delighted by California’s golden poppies blooming alongside the trail in spring.
The coastline as seen from the Bluff Trail in Montana de Oro State Park
A half hour north of town lies San Simeon, home to two of my favorite central coast spots: Hearst Castle and Elephant Seal Beach. Hearst Castle (closed currently due to Covid) was the mansion of eclectic newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Built in the early to mid 20th century (it was completed in 1947 after about 30 years of constant construction), it was built as a palace to combine European and California-Spanish styles, furnished with the finest art and furniture from frequent European getaways. The castle can only be explored via a tour, and some tours even feature actors in period dress acting out their roles as guests.
For a more natural view of some of California’s coolest denizens, San Simeon is also home to year-round viewing of elephant seals. Named for the males’ large trunk, elephant seal bulls can weigh up to 5,000 pounds! Here on the beach, huge bulls fight each other for territory and the right to mate with the females there. The females are downright petite next to the males, typically about 1/5 to 1/4 the size, and a male can impregnate as many as 50 in a single season. From the viewing area, you’ll be able to watch all of this in action, or just watch them lazily sleeping on the sand, depending on the day and time. Just don’t walk down to the beach; elephant seals are not only threatened and therefore need distance from humans, but they can also be aggressive, especially bulls in mating season.
Elephant seal bulls doing battle
While it doesn’t get the publicity of larger central coast towns, Morro Bay is a lovely place to spend a weekend relaxing, taking in the vistas, and exploring the surrounding communities. Perhaps I’ll see you there!
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