Visiting Morro Bay is a bit like taking a step back into the mid-20th century. A nostalgic fishing village along Highway One on California’s Central Coast, Morro Bay delivers an unmistakable sense of place. If you’re new to the region, the coastal landmark is a surprising 581-foot-tall volcanic plug dominating the entrance to the harbor. Its hunky silhouette may take some getting used to.
Considering that Morro Rock has dominated this spot for about 23 million years, there’s plenty of time to let its ancient bulk grow on you.
Put Pelicans in Your in Morro Bay Photos
When “pelican” is part of your hotel’s Wi-Fi password, you catch on to the local scene pretty quickly. Sea, sand, and surf are on the chilly side in this pocket of pelican-populated Pacific shoreline on an estuary midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. And there are summer days when the sun makes no appearance at all. Bring a sweater for your selfies with Morro Rock.
But when the fog lifts, this rocky “Gibraltar of the Pacific” outshines everything, including other unusual landmarks of Morro Bay, such as The Stacks. They’re decommissioned now, but nevertheless dominate the skyline, striking in their appearance.
The best thing about the smoke stacks is a cozy wine bar across the street named STAX. Go there for wine by the glass or the five glass tasting flight. It’s accompanied by impressive paired bites from the kitchen like Morro Bay Grassy Bay oysters, locally made cheeses, and California king salmon when the catch comes in. Stay for the live music.
On the Whale Trail
Put away the car keys in favor of activities up and down the Embarcadero from the boardwalk to the boat launch. Fuel up with a hearty house-made breakfast at Frankie and Lola’s Front Street Café—eggs benedict is popular and the just-right roast potatoes are the best part—before hitting The Whale Trail.
Early birds should book ahead to snag a ticket on the Sub Sea Tours 22-passenger power catamaran Dos Osos, the first whale watching boat heading out in the morning at 9 a.m. Be sure to wear warm layers (we’re talking woolly hats and gloves) and bring a camera.
Hundreds of feeding humpback whales call this home. Morro Bay is their summertime feeding grounds and the skipper explains that, amazingly, the giant mammals even recognize this very boat. Catch their deep water show: spouting, lunge feeding, tail lobbing and full breeching. Following a three-hour outing, you’re back on land. Check your photos for the whale money shot (I didn’t get one) while shedding a couple of those layers over a casual lunch on the patio overlooking the water at Blue Sky Café.
Paddling Out on the Bay
Kayaking or paddle boarding? Morro Bay is a great place to do both. A four-mile long sand spit separates the bay from the Pacific Ocean, providing flat, protected expanses of water in the nutrient-rich estuary that make it ideal for first-timers. Get up close and personal with the abundant wildlife.
Morro Bay’s maze of tidal creeks, mudflats, and marshes are teeming with life due to shallow waters that serve as nursery grounds. Observe talkative sea lions, adorable frolicking otters, herons, egrets, cormorants, pelicans, and many species of wintering birds that use this as a critical migratory stop whilst feeding on shrimp, crabs, and other tiny invertebrates.
Destination: Morro Bay State Park
Designate a destination as you glide along the waterfront, heading south toward the Heron Rookery. It’s right near the Natural History Museum in Morro Bay State Park, a gorgeous spot with superb views beside a marina and an 18-hole golf course.
A light hike in the park is a 0.7-mile loop called Marina Peninsula Trail overlooking the estuary. The moderate Black Hill Trail provides a three-mile roundtrip hike up to 660 feet in elevation for panoramic vistas from atop one of the ancient Nine Sisters volcanic chain that runs east-to-west through San Luis Obispo County. Note that although Morro Rock is part of this chain, it’s a home for nesting peregrine falcons and off limits to climbers.
Plan on getting a bite with a view at Bayside Café. Don’t let the line put you off…locals know it’s well worth the wait for longtime menu favorites such as clam chowder, bacon wrapped albacore skewers and scallops on fried green tomatoes.
Embarcadero is Ground Zero
By now, you’ve had plenty of one-to-one encounters with Morro Bay locals to appreciate their friendly, laid-back style. It’s downright neighborly, tinged with a bit of 1950s and 60s nostalgia, as expressed in this bronzed memorial of a Ford pickup front seat. It’s a special tribute Nick Howell who serviced his neighbors’ fishing boats for decades.
Rent a beach cruiser from Morro Bay Kites & Surreys to cruise right out to the rock or take a stroll on the Embarcadero to absorb the hometown feel of the place. Stumble upon the kind of shops that grandma knew and loved: The Shell Shop since 1955, Crills Saltwater Taffy since 1970, and Morro Bay House of Jerky where 20-year-old family recipes (like chocolate dipped bacon) are sold in the store with a Western-themed electronic shooting gallery. Don’t miss the Morro Bay Skateboard Museum where the 200-plus collection dates back to the 1930’s.
Meet several more of the locals when you dine at some of the best seafood spots in town. Of course, they’re all family-owned and they’re all family-friendly. Established in 1942, Dorn’s Original Breakers Café has been serving fresh and local seafood and more from its present location since FDR was in his third term as U.S. president. Take a hint from the restaurant shaped like a boat and go to Tognazzi’s Dockside for super fresh seafood from the owner’s own commercial fishing operation.
At dinnertime, you can’t do better than a window table at the aptly named Windows on the Water, Morro Bay’s most elegant, romantic dining spot (with an impressive wine list) where their “decadent chocolate cake” accompanies a sunset for dessert.
Especially for Raw Oyster Lovers
Flavored by cold, nutrient-rich waters where wind and waves meet streams flowing from age-old volcanic aquifers, oysters have been part of this quaint seaside village’s rich fishing history since 1923. Top chefs know that nobody knows the oyster scene better than Neal Maloney, owner of Morro Bay Oyster Company.
And because Maloney’s small oyster farm is opening a state-of-the-art waterfront retail space overlooking Morro Rock, everyone will have the chance to savor these distinctively local, freshly shucked Pacific Gold beauties at the peak of their perfection.
Where to Stay in Morro Bay
The walkability score is sky-high along the Embarcadero, so the complimentary parking at your hotel is a big plus. Get a warm greeting at 456 Embarcadero Inn & Suites, close enough to walk everywhere from the quieter end of the street.
One guest described it well, writing in the guest journal, “The lullaby of the gulls and the faint faraway foghorn through the night. The sun peeking through the clouds behind the rock.” Another guest wrote, “Great town, good vibes, great staff, gorgeous room and loved the view. Nothing quite like enjoying a glass of local wine while watching a killer sunset!”
Many of the renovated 29 guest rooms and four suites have vistas of Morro Bay Estuary, Morro Rock, sandspit and Pacific Ocean. Some have gas fireplaces as well. Two spacious family suites accommodate four or six people comfortably; the corner king has a private balcony, mini refrigerator, microwave, and in-room coffee. A complimentary continental breakfast and access to the hot tub Jacuzzi is included. Book direct for the best rates and call ahead for pet arrangements, including a cozy blanket, doggy biscuits and a dog-friendly beach map for pleasant walks along the water.
The Morro Bay tourism folks like to say, “Put life on coast.” The only problem with this homey destination is that you may not want to go home.
Note: The author was a guest of Mental Marketing representing Morro Bay; she received no financial incentives and all views expressed are her own.