Morro Bay, California
Morro Bay is a small picturesque coastal town located halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles on Highway 1. A town of 10,350 people, Morro Bay is a historic fishing village in San Luis Obispo County.
Just a half hour drive from nearby San Luis Obispo and California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), Morro Bay has several good seafood restaurants and motels with bay views making it a good option for parents visiting students at the college.
These same amenities have also attracted visitors from the hotter inland areas such as Bakersfield, Visalia and Fresno. Many bought or built summer homes here and later retired in Morro Bay.
Morro Rock & Morro Bay History
The most prominent landmark in Morro Bay is undoubtedly Morro Rock, the last in a chain of long-extinct volcanic plugs—known as the Nine Sisters—along the California Coast.
Morro Rock was named in 1542 by Portuguese navigator Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo who explored the Pacific Coast for Spain. Cabrillo called the rock “the moor” because it resembled the head of a Moor, a people from North African known for the turbans they wore. Morro Rock is sometimes referred to as the Gibraltar of the Pacific and is California Registered Historical Landmark #821.
During Mexico’s rule of California, huge land grants were made including Morro Bay and its surrounds, however it was not until 1864 when Franklin Riley and his wife moved to Morro Bay from San Simeon Creek and built the first house there, that the real settlement of the town began.
At this time vegetation in Morro Bay was scarce due to the loose sandy soil that would whip into houses, clog wells and was nearly impossible for horses to move through. To combat this problem, Riley bought Eucalyptus seeds and sold the seedlings to citizens of the town and soon the town was covered with trees and other vegetation.
Beginning in the 1870s the town rapidly grew as schooners from the surrounding areas entered the bay and visited the town to pick up necessary supplies for daily living. The silhouette of Morro Rock was changed dramatically when material was removed from Morro Rock to form a jetty, creating a breakwater to protect vessels.
In the 1940s Morro Bay developed into a center for abalone, today however—due to a decline in abalone stock—it exists as a fishing port for slime eels, halibut, rockfish, sole and albacore. Neal Maloney, owner of Morro Bay Oyster Company, has been cultivating Pacific Oysters in Morro Bay since 2004.
While Morro Bay is a natural embayment, the harbor itself is in fact artificial and was constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers who also connected Morro Rock to the mainland with an artificial breakwater and road across the north end of the bay. The channel, which only accommodates relatively small craft, must be dredged every few years and is closed during dangerous weather conditions. A natural four mile long sand spit protects the bay from the Pacific Ocean.
Listen to Tom Wilmer’s Lowell Thomas Award winning travel show, Journeys of Discovery, as he talks with Adrienne Harris, executive director of the Morro Bay National Estuary program which celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2015.
Morro Bay Attractions and Activities
A wide variety of natural attractions and annual events make visiting Morro Bay worth the approximate four hour drive from the San Francisco Bay or Los Angeles metropolitan areas.
The area is particularly popular amongst outdoor enthusiasts who frequent the coastal town for photography, bird watching, fishing, diving, camping and surfing available throughout the year.
The Morro Bay Visitor Center, open 7 days a week, is a good first stop for anyone new to the area. Located at 255 Morro Bay Blvd. easy walking or driving distance to many of the shopping, dining and recreational activities they provide information about.
I watched 200 pound swordfish being unloaded and iced less than two blocks from the visitor center on a recent visit then wandered two blocks in the other direction to enjoy a spectacular sunset at the tasting bar at Morro Bay Wine Seller where Central Coast wines are featured along with selections from around the world.
While watching sunsets while sipping wine is romantic and certainly enjoyable it’s also fun to actually get out on the water. Several companies in Morro Bay provide whale watching tours, bay tours and kayak rentals.
Sub Sea Tours & Kayaks runs a glass bottom boat tour that provides an opportunity to view local wildlife such as harbor seals, sea otters and a variety of birds while learning about the local fishing industry. You also get a look below the waves at some of the local fish which they attract with food tossed over the side.
Kayak rentals from Pleasant Journey Kayaks come with an optional pedal propulsion system that is particularly useful for photographers or anyone who wants to have their hands free as they glide across the water. A small lever on the side (click image for larger picture) controls a rudder for steering.
Pleasant Journey Kayaks is near the visitor center on Embarcadero and there are others nearby. All provide life vests but don’t forget your sunscreen.
Venture beyond the far south end of town to find the Kayak Shack at State Park Marina Morro Bay. You’ll be closer to the estuary and back bay sand dunes so if that is your water destination, or if you are staying in the campgrounds right next door the Kayak Shack may be your best bet. In addition to single and double kayaks the Shack also rents canoes capable of transporting up to four adults.
One of Morro Bay’s most popular attractions is Morro Bay State Park, a protected reserve featuring a lagoon and a natural bay habitat. The park provides opportunities for sailing, fishing, hiking, bird watching, camping, golfing and even has a museum on site. The Museum of Natural History combines exhibits and videos with activities such as nature walks, lectures, docent led tours and even puppet shows and special events.
Morro Rock itself exists as a reserve for Peregrine falcons. Additionally, Egrets and Blue Herons are often spotted here. One of Morro Bay’s most popular events is the Winter Bird Festival held over Martin Luther King weekend each January attracting ornithologists from the surrounding areas and beyond.
The first annual Morro Photo Expo was held in October of 2009 as a prelude to the Winter Bird Festival. A number of local expert photographers led workshops and seminars from sunrise to beyond sunset with lots of hands on training. Keynote speaker George Lepp, famous naturalist and photographer, provided a six hour seminar on Fulfilling the promise of Digital Photography.
A kite festival and music festival are two other annual events in Morro Bay. A Community Market is held every Saturday.
Restaurants in Morro Bay
Several of Morro Bay’s best restaurants are on or near Embarcadero, and while I’ve yet to sample all the options there are several that I can recommend from personal experience.
Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant & Fish Market is a local favorite that, as you can imagine, focuses on sea food. A weekly email keeps customers up-to-date on recent catches from the family boat, the Bonnie Marietta, for direct purchase or consumption in the restaurant.
Windows on the Water is an appropriate name for a restaurant that serves modern California cuisine in a romantic setting where every table has a bay view. Ideal for a special occasion.
Go south on Main Street until it becomes State Park Road and the Inn at Morro Bay will be on your immediate right. 60 STATE PARK RESTAURANT & LOUNGE at the Inn offers a Country French inspired fine dining experience featuring sustainable seafood, local produce and grass fed beef.
Back downtown Front Street branches off Embarcadero and then reconnects two blocks later. There are a couple of good breakfast & lunch restaurants on Front. Frankie & Lola’s Front Street Cafe has a ’30s vibe by design and offers occasional cooking classes and food and wine pairing events. Homemade deserts compliment a full breakfast and lunch menu.
You would expect to get good coffee at the Coffee Pot Restaurant at 1001 Front and you do—even before you’re seated at your table if there is a wait—but what you probably don’t expect is to meet an author, gentleman and restaurant owner that every local seems to know and like. You can purchase Double Luck, Memoirs of a Chinese Orphan at Gordon Lu’s Coffee Pot Restaurant—it is as highly recommended as the hearty and well priced traditional breakfast and lunch fare.
The land slopes up quickly beyond Front Street with the next parallel street, Market Ave, at the ridge top. On a recent visit I stayed just a block beyond Market at Morro Ave and Dunes Street. It was an easy walk to the wharf, and the end of Dunes provided a sunrise or sunset elevated view of Morro Rock and the bay.
La Serena Inn has well appointed rooms with several decks and public spaces for enjoying the view from the third floor. Scuba divers or anyone who spends any time in the water will appreciate another amenity at La Serena Inn—a dry sauna.
The next time you are headed either north or south on the California central coast consider stopping in Morro Bay for an overnight romantic interlude or week long family vacation.