Just a few miles north of Morro Bay on highway 1 is the charming small beach town of Cayucos. A popular US travel magazine voted it the best beach town in California in 2009, so while it is still relatively undiscovered, traffic is likely to pick up. While Morro Bay has undeniably beautiful views and deserves its tourist draw, Cayucos is smaller, less developed and very low key. There isn't a line of restaurants and shops along the waterfront like in Morro Bay, but a mix of small, old time motels, local shops and a few restaurants. The wharf is a good place to go for great views - you can see Morro Rock in the distance - or to watch the surfers just below.
You may just find, like we did, that after staying in Morro Bay, our later trips were all based out of Cayucos.
The Los Osos Elfin Forest is a unique area of pygmy oaks, coastal trails and beautiful views of Morro Bay and the area around it. This nature preserve has easy access to a well maintained boardwalk. This area seems relatively undiscovered by tourists. When we visited we met several people, but all were locals, either going for a run, looking for birds, or walking with children and/or dogs.
This small garden is located in Montana de Oro State Park, just up from the parking lot at Spooners Beach, by the end of the road. They have done a good job on presenting and labeling many of the native plants in the area in sectioned beds, so you can be familiar with the flora of coastal California.
Montana de Oro is one of California's most under-appreciated parks, with miles of uninterrupted and undeveloped coastal landscapes. Thousands of visitors visit Morro Bay, but few venture just a few minutes south to this park. Here you will find rugged cliffs, a secluded beach, streams, canyons, and rolling hills. As you drive into the park you will see just to the north great views of the estuary and Morro Bay in the distance. There are mountain biking and horse riding trails, along with miles and miles of hiking. The park also has camping facilities. For those that are interested, there is good birdwatching too. The first thing my wife saw as we entered the park was a relatively rare Cooper Hawk.
One of the things that draw people to Morro Bay is the Blue Heron Rookery. Located within the Morro Bay State Park, the setting is a forest of eucalyptus trees that have aromatic leaves filling the air with a soothing scent.
Looking high into the branches, you can see the nests of the blue heron and many of them are flying above as to say, "hey, stay away". Many other species of birds reside in this grove of trees that is right next to the bay.
In it heyday, Morro Bay was a big abalone fishing area; abalone are tough to find today, but halibut, sole, rockfish, albacore, and others are commercial and sport fished. Oysters are farmed artificially in the shallow back bay.
The natural bay extends some four miles from Morro Rock to the south. The harbor was man made by placing fill between Morro Rock and the beach and blocking off the northern opening to the bay.
The huge power plant that towers over Morro Bay was built in the 1950s, and it has three 450 foot-tall towers. There are plans in the works for this power plant to be replaced with a modern plant, swapping out the tall stacks with much shorted 145-foot tall towers.
Morro Rock stands 576 feet tall and marks the entrance to the Morro Bay Harbor. The first European to see Morro Rock was Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542, and he named it the Morro, or pebble. The rock was originally a natural island, but the northern side was filled in to create the protected Morro Bay Harbor.
Morro Rock is the northern most of the nine major peaks that make up the "Nine Sisters." The other peaks are Black Hill, Cabrillo Peak, Hollister Peak, Cerro Romauldo , Chumash Peak, Bishop Peak, San Luis Mountain, and Islay Hill. These nine major peaks along with numerous smaller peaks and hills were created some 20 million years ago in a unique line of volcanic plugs between Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo.
There are only two places in California where you can view the elephant seals: Año Nuevo State Reserve (north of Santa Cruz) and Piedras Blancas (just outside of San Simeon). We chose Piedras Blancas to see the seals because Año Nuevo is so busy you must reserve a spot weeks in advance and they charge a fee for a guided tour, with no self-guided tour option.
At Piedras Blancas the seals are visible from two main parking areas between the lighthouse and the entrance to Hearst Castle. There are also a few small pull-offs and trails north of the lighthouse that allow you to avoid the tourists and fences to view a smaller number of seals (from a safe and respectable distance of course).
Our first stop was at one of these small pull-off area with a walking trail to the water. Here, we were the only visitors in sight, and we got to enjoy a view of some 20 seals, mostly females and pups unrushed and uninterrupted. After about 30 minutes we moved south to the first of the two paved parking lots which also was the less busy of the two. From here you can see dozens of seals up close, with the bulk of the seals off in the distance maybe a half mile away and surrounded by throngs of tourists.
Elephant seals were thought to be extinct in the 1950s, but have since recovered to approximately 100,000 individuals with all of the breeding colonies in Mexico and California. The group at Piedras Blancas first arrived in the 1990s, and now numbers about 7,500 and is growing at a faster rate than the older, 5,000-member colony at Año Nuevo. These elephant seals are massive creatures, with average meals tipping the scales at 4,000 pounds.
Three of the more disappointing but hard to miss features of Morro Bay are the 450 foot tall smokestacks that rise from the Morro Bay Power Plant right near the scenic rock. The plant is owned by Texas energy giant Duke Energy, but feeds power to the Pacific Gas and Electric System Grid right off the plant grounds. Fortunately, there are plans to reduce the number of smoke stacks to two shorter ones, and change over to a state of the art natural gas generation system which will actually also raise power production slightly. Currently units 1 & 2 are 1950's technology, while units 3 & 4 are 1960's technology. The modernization plan will have two 150 foot tall clean burning exhaust stacks, sea water will continue to be drawn from Morro Bay as a coolant in a once through system that has an ocean outfall at Estero Bay. See the link below for more detailed public information.
I spent more time walking the dog along the part of the embarcadero where the commercial fishing fleet is moored, than along the part where the seashell shops, and other tourist concessions are located. Flowers were blooming in boxes right in front of the ships, so I couldn't help but shoot a few images. For those interested, this is the place to sign up for a day fishing out at sea, or taking an afternoon cruise.
It's illegal and unsafe to actually climb Morro Rock, but with a pair of binoculars birds are easily seen all over the rock. Some 250 different bird species inhabit the rock, so there's plenty to discover. Birds nest in the cracks and crevices in the rock, and among the variety of vegetation that grows on it.
The wide beach to the north of Morro Rock allows dogs on leash while there's a small beach on the south side, near the breakwater rocks, which the tide washes daily, providing a legal place to let the dog run free. Our dog had a great time running here, chasing sea gulls, and looking for squirrels among the rocks. I also did as many do, walk the dog along the embarcadero in the morning light.
Head down to the marina area, and unless you are deaf, you are going to hear the constant yelping of seals follicking and having fun. Walk down the marina boardwalk area and you will see them first hand. I can look at these guys for hours.
Morro Bay has a great little walking downtown area appropriatly named Main St. Nice little unprentious restaurants, (much like this town) Surf shops, old fashioned Saltwater Taffy shops, very fun place to browse. Of course, the great Morro Rock is looming large in the background.
This is something I didn't actually do but looks good to me especially as I've now found out there's a bar on board! Tiger's Folly II offers daytime 1 hr harbour cruises for about $10 in a replica paddle steamer and a couple of other options including a Champagne Sunday Brunch and Dinner Cruises. I can't find a particularly informative website anywhere but here's the phone number: