Some of California's most remarkable coastal scenery is just south of Morro Bay. Happily, much of it has been preserved in a pair of peaceful state parks.
One of them surrounds the Morro Bay estuary that's a haven for birds and responsible for 80% of all sea life along the central coast. The other remains much the same as when Gaspar de Portola camped in the area during his overland expedition in 1769.
Today's visitors will find both primitive and developed campsites in the state parks, along with a welcome surprise. It's the recently renovated 98-room Inn at Morro Bay, now part of an exclusive hotel group that includes Santa Barbara's El Encanto and the Spa Hotel in Palm Springs.
Whether you spend the night in a luxurious room or camp beneath the trees, Morro Bay and Montana de Oro state parks make refreshing destinations for nature lovers.
Get there from Los Angeles by driving north on U.S. 101 to San Luis Obispo and taking California 1 toward the ocean. Just before Morro Bay, exit at Los Osos/Baywood Park to South Bay Boulevard.
Turn right off that highway at the signs to Morro Bay State Park, then continue on that road to the campground, marina and museum.
Where to Start
Begin your visit at the Museum of Natural History to become acquainted with the history and wildlife of the area. You'll find it almost hidden on the left of the road atop a rocky point overlooking the Morro Bay estuary.
Two freshwater rivers and daily ocean tides bring nutrients to a vast delta that provides an unsurpassed habitat for fish and waterfowl. On a single day the Audubon Society counted 173 species of birds. You'll enjoy the ongoing show by egrets, pelicans and herons feeding in the tidal flats.
Examples of native and migratory shore birds are displayed in the museum, as are local fish and marine mammals like the sea otter. Other exhibits are devoted to the California gray whale and the coastal region's early inhabitants, Chumash Indians.
Natural history films are shown at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed Christmas and New Year's Day. Entry costs 50 cents, 25 cents for ages 6-17. Ask for a copy of the Morro Bay Area state park folder and map.
Just north of the museum you'll see a fenced-in reserve, the largest rookery of great blue herons between San Francisco and Mexico. Park off the road and walk to the stand of eucalyptus where nests of the enormous birds are in the treetops.
Beyond the rookery's northern boundary, turn left at the inconspicuous sign to the Inn at Morro Bay. It offers the only non-camping accommodations within the state park, as well as a gourmet restaurant with a panorama of the estuary.
An outdoor terrace off the inn's cocktail lounge is a favorite place to watch sunsets over Morro Bay and a host of birds feeding. From our table we watched a rare black-crowned night heron patiently waiting for its prey at the water's edge.
Some of the rooms at the remodeled inn feature porches with views of the bay and its renowned landmark, Morro Rock. All have country French decor with brass beds and armoires to hide away the TV set. Guests also enjoy gas fireplaces, honor bars and evening turn-down service.
In the inn dining room the food also has a French flair. Very popular are the three-course Sunset Suppers with a choice of seven entrees and a tab of $12.95; they can be ordered between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m.
Sundays between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. you can select from 12 special items for brunch. Lunch is served on other days, and dinner nightly. The lounge has live music Thursday-Sunday.
Rooms at the Inn at Morro Bay range from $75 up to $225 for the honeymoon suite. Reservations: phone (800) 321-9566.
With plans approved for tennis courts and a marina for seafaring visitors, the inn's owners are nearing their goal of becoming Morro Bay's first full-fledged resort. Just across the road is an 18-hole public golf course that has long been an attraction in the state park and welcomes inn guests.
Get to the clubhouse by turning right on Golf Course Road. Close by are picnic tables and the beginning of Black Mountain Road that leads to a grand lookout over Morro Bay and the coast. Like Morro Rock, the 665-foot mountain is one of nine volcanic outcroppings in a row from San Luis Obispo to the ocean.
More ancient coastal landscape is evident a few miles south in Montana de Oro State Park. Get there by returning through Morro Bay State Park to South Bay Boulevard and heading south to Los Osos Valley Boulevard.
Turn right toward the coast, passing through the town of Los Osos to reach Pecho Valley Road that goes south again to enter the park. Cattle grazed over the rugged terrain for nearly a century and the land was spared development.
Kept in Natural State
More than 7,300 acres are park property and will be kept in a natural state except for campsites and hiking trails.
Hiking and camping information is posted near the park office, a rustic ranch house built in 1892 in a grove of cypress trees. It looks down on a protected cove that was a landing spot for bootleggers in Prohibition times.
Soon after you enter the park, look right for a sign to Hazard Canyon in a cluster of eucalyptus. The trees are filled with monarch butterflies that have migrated there for the winter.
A meandering half-mile trail leads down to a creek and the rocky seashore where you'll find tide pools, wading birds, and wet-suited surfers. A longer trail begins near the park office and follows the scenic coastal bluffs.
In springtime the hillsides seem aglow with orange and yellow wildflowers that give the park its name, Mountain of Gold. For more information about Montana de Oro and Morro Bay state parks, phone (805) 772-2560.
Return to Los Angeles via California 1 and U.S. 101.
Round trip from Los Angeles to two treasured parks along the coast at Morro Bay is 440 miles.