Morro Bay along the Pacific Coast Highway is filled with a variety of things to do for nature, animal, and food lovers. Although technically a city, this place still retains the vibe of an old fishing village.
Close your eyes and imagine an idyllic oceanside escape in America. The constant music of rising and receding waves at the beach. Sea and shorebirds lending their voice to this repertoire. Boats bobbing at the dock and bringing in fresh seafood to your plate in one of the waterfront restaurants. Wildlife like sea otters and sea lions living their daily lives in plain sight, unencumbered by bars and glass walls. Mountains rising in the distance streaked with trails offering vantage points to admire this view. Now, let’s put all this together and also add an extinct volcanic peak for good measure. And with that, you’ve just pictured Morro Bay!
I was smitten with this place at the first sight of Morro Rock, a 576 feet tall remnant of extinct volcanoes formed about 23 million years ago, jutting from the ocean shrouded in a dense layer of fog. The rock is visible even from a great distance as you travel along Cabrillo Highway from San Luis Obispo. Over the next few days, I found myself returning time and again to this hidden-in-plain-sight treasure along California’s Central Coast.
Sometimes, I went for fresh seafood. Other times for kayaking and hiking. And yet other times for simply doing nothing – just watching the sea otters lying on their backs and admiring the lofty Morro Rock reaching from the Miocene Epoch age to the present day. Here is a collection of 8 rejuvenating things you can do in Morro Bay to soak up its beauty and nourish your soul. There’s also a handy map at the end for quick reference.
1. Watch marine life in their natural habitat
A big draw at Morro Bay is the ample marine life like sea otters and sea lions that you can watch freely going about their daily lives.
While you will find otters throughout the bay, the best spot for watching them is the Morro Bay T Pier along the Embarcadero. These cute, fluffy mammals can be found floating on their backs alone or in small groups. They cling on to seaweed or hold paws with a friend to avoid drifting away during midday naps. If you carefully observe for a while, you might even get to watch them eating meticulously. They use their chests as tables and use a rock to crack open crab shells or clamshells. They have the densest fur including pockets under each forearm where they can hold these snacks and rocks.
The ease with which you can spot sea otters in Morro Bay may give the impression that these are aplenty but in reality, they are an endangered species. Once hunted extensively for their fur, a million sea otters were killed between 1760 and 1900 almost wiping out this smallest North American marine mammal. Only 50 survived at the time in Big Sur and the present-day otters in Morro Bay have descended from that group.
The distinctive, boisterous bark of sea lions can be heard from a distance before you can even see them. The best spot for watching sea lions is at the coastal access lookout right next to The Galley Seafood Grill and Bar. From here you have the closest, clearest view of a floating dock in the middle of the water packed with sea lions.
Sea lions like to rest out of the water so to keep everyone safe in a busy harbor like Morro Bay, they were provided with their very own floating dock. When the original dock wore out in 2018, the Friends of the Morro Bay Harbor Department raised funds to build a new one. You can use the pair of pedestal-mounted viewing binoculars that were installed from the extra funds raised at that time to get a closer look at these large pinnipeds.
Keep an eye out for these animals as you walk or eat along the Embarcadero. We caught a pair of sea lions snoozing in the afternoon at the back of a boat aptly named ‘Cheers’. Another time, we were treated to a front-row show when waiting in line to order lunch at Giovanni’s. A sea lion nimbly pulled itself up on the dock right next to the restaurant and started sunning and grooming itself for several minutes.
2. Circle the path around Morro Rock
The towering Morro Rock is a unique geological formation called volcanic plug which is formed when lava hardens within a vent in an active volcano. The name comes from the Spanish word morro which means domed rock or turban and was given by the explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo when he arrived in 1542. The California Indians called this place home for thousands of years before Juan’s arrival.
Morro Rock is part of a chain of morros between San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay fondly named the “Seven Sisters”. Most people only stop at the parking lot for a quick view of the rock and the bay. But the best way to see this landform is to walk alongside it on Coleman Dr and the adjacent wide dirt trail that takes you almost around the entire girth of the rock. A small section at the back is filled with fallen rocks and debris so it’s best to avoid that part. Climbing is prohibited on the rock so this is as close as you can get to it.
It is fascinating to see the rock from such close quarters after seeing the 576 feet formation towering in the distance while walking around town. It is easy to see why the indigenous people in the region still consider this a place of special spiritual significance. Up close, you can see the brown and gray rockface scarred by the constant shifting and sliding due to geological and human activity over the years.
The rock, part of the Pacific Plate in Earth’s crust, traveled from Palm Springs to Morro Bay over a period of 25 million years and continues to move northwest about 2 inches a year. Morro Rock was twice its current length until quarrying began in 1890 and continued for the next 80 years. A million and a half tons of rock were blasted and used to construct the breakwater and causeway around the rock. The blasting finally stopped in 1989 when Morro Rock was declared a State Historical Landmark.
A walk around the rock allows you to see birds like Great Blue Heron and Black-crowned Night Heron. With your back to the rock, you can get a distinct view of the bay with the three 450 feet tall smokestacks of the defunct power plant, a sight that has become as synonymous with Morro Bay as the rock itself.
3. Stroll along Morro Rock and Morro Strand State Beaches
Morro Rock Beach starts from the base of the rock and extends northwards connecting with Morro Strand State Beach and North Point Beach to provide over six miles of wide sandy shores for leisurely beach walks.
Long-billed curlews, North America’s largest shorebirds, walk gracefully near the water probing the sand for aquatic invertebrates with their long, thin, and curved bills. Beyond the sandy stretches, there are large palm trees and a hillside neatly stacked with neutral-colored houses. The beach offers some of the best, uninterrupted views of Morro Rock in its entirety and the power plant chimneys rising behind the sand dunes.
You can easily spend an entire day here with beach games or relax with a book. This is a great spot for surfing if you’d like to ride the waves or simply watch from the shore.
4. Engage in water sports
The calm, gentle waters of Morro Bay are protected from the ocean and offer the perfect environment for kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding. It is also the perfect way to get the closest look at Morro Bay’s thriving wildlife.
Several outfitters along the Embarcadero provide kayak and paddleboard rentals. We opted for Rock Kayak and I’d highly recommend them for their impeccable service and expertise. The staff was very friendly and efficient. As beginners, we even received a quick tutorial on kayaking basics at the dock.
They will provide you with waterproof bags to secure and carry any items like cameras and phones with you on the kayak. You can leave the rest of your belongings in the office. The rates start at $15 (for a single kayak and SUP) or $25 (for tandem kayaks) an hour and go up by $2.5 every additional 15 minutes. What’s great is that you don’t need to decide the length of time for your rental beforehand. You can decide how much ever time you’d like to spend after getting on the water. The maximum rental is 4 hours or half a day.
Getting to the level of the water and gently swaying to its rhythm on a kayak was one of my most cherished experiences in Morro Bay. It was incredible to watch the smooth brown bodies of sea lions glistening in the sun and the inside of their mouths as they let out their characteristic bark.
5. Hike in Morro Bay State Park
There is something special about climbing the peaks near Morro Bay and seeing the large 576-feet rock reduced to a small gray and brown semicircle resting in the vast blue ocean.
Morro Bay State Park has several easy to moderate trails that help you admire the zoomed-out city and ocean views. The most popular of these is the Black Hill trail. Black Hill is one of the seven morros or volcanic plugs, apart from Morro Rock, that lies between Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo. At 665 feet, this is a moderate but highly rewarding hike with panoramic views.
There are several routes to scale Black Hill. The easiest and shortest route runs about 0.5 miles out and back starting from Black Hill Road. The longest route runs at about 2 miles out and back starting along Parkview Drive. We started with Carmel Loop Trail which connects to Black Hill Trail since it’s best route if you’d like to walk from the city center instead of taking the car.
The Carmel Loop Trail is fairly easy and straight. There is a fair incline of about 180 ft after you get on the Black Hill Trail and about six switchbacks before you get to the top. You have a really good view of the northwest and southwest sides while going up but it is the view from the summit that really makes your day. The uninterrupted 360-degree view is one of the best panoramic views I’ve ever seen, especially for such a short trail.
Green rolling hills dotted with power lines and lone houses stretch to the east. Morro Rock rises up from the Pacific Ocean along with the three smokestacks and the city stretching out nearby to the west. The south holds views of the water and canals that are part of the Morro Bay Estuary and State Marine Reserve. The wavy Cabrillo Peak rises to the southwest with the rocky Hollister Peak close behind it. These two are also part of the seven morros, apart from Morro Rock.
This hike truly showcases the unique topography and natural beauty of the region in a nutshell.
6. Walk along the California Coastal Trail
A great way to relish the beauty of Morro Bay is to walk along the waterfront by Embarcadero. But instead of sticking to just the sidewalk, you can get up close to the water by walking the coastal access route which is part of the California Coastal Trail.
The California Coastal Trail (CCT) is a continuous interconnected public trail system along the California coastline. It is still a work in progress with only about 50% of the entire 1250 miles of coastline paths in existence today.
Look out for the blue wave coastal access signs pictured below and follow the route dotted with public access benches and lookouts. The trail winds along docks and even goes behind restaurants so it’s easy to mistake it for restaurant seating at first glance. There are several boards along the path with detailed information about everything from the history of Morro Bay to the importance of Eelgrass.
Stop by the T-pier and access lookouts to watch the marine mammals and birds that call Morro Bay home. Amble into the galleries and shops along Embarcadero that sell a variety of items from clothes to candy. There’s even an entire store called The Shell Shop which houses the largest selection of seashell specimens on the Central Coast.
7. Gorge on the finest seafood
Have you ever been to those fancy restaurants situated by an ocean or lake that charge a premium for the beautiful water view? In Morro Bay, you can have a premium waterfront dining experience without the premium price tag. The seafood is sourced from the bay and nearby areas and is so fresh that you can tell the difference in a single bite.
There are several great dining options in Morro Bay but our absolute favorite was the family-owned and operated Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant. Their grilled fish of the day with a side of vegetables and rice is such a simple and flavorful preparation that just brings out the freshness of the catch. Definitely try the shrimp bisque if it’s on the menu and of course the coastal favorite clam chowder.
Dining is indoors so you’ll have a comfortable seat even in the slightly chilly winter months. There are several window-side tables so you’re never far away from a beautiful view of the bay and Morro Rock. The service is very efficient with usually short wait times. The place has a very warm and casual ambiance allowing you to really sit back, relax and enjoy a hearty meal.
There is the Dockside Too Restaurant by the same owners, Miss Bonnie and Captain Mark, right next door with outdoor dining. They have local musicians providing live music on most days and the place is dog friendly if you’re eating with your furry companion.
Another good option along the Embarcadero is the family-owned and operated Giovanni’s Fish Market and Galley. Look out for the specials like Los Cabos Swordfish that we’d tried aside from the regular menu items and the famous clam chowder. The seating is outdoors right by the water but be prepared to wait in line to place your order if you arrive at peak times. And don’t forget to check out the tub of live crabs by the entrance.
8. Treat yourself to something sweet
Indulge your sweet tooth after a full day in Morro Bay. You can start by getting some chewy and not-too-sweet saltwater taffies at Crills Saltwater Taffy or Carousel Taffy along Embarcadero.
Crills also has a second location called Crills II further north on the Embarcadero that serves warm, gooey cinnamon rolls. There are handmade chocolates like peanut butter cups and chocolate honeycombs sold loose by the pound.
The blue-colored cute building of Sun N’ Buns Bakery is hard to miss in the center of the city. There’s ice cream, coffee, several pastries, and cookies to choose from here. The bakery interiors and staff are very friendly and welcoming. I got my strawberry turnover and coffee to a table by the window overlooking the street for a lovely afternoon.
So these were my top recommendations of things to do in Morro Bay. As you can see, this is definitely more than what one can pack into a single day. There are several inns, motels, and vacation rentals with oceanfront views that allow you to pace out your activities over multiple days. If you are traveling along the Pacific Coast Highway, do consider making a stop at Cambria too that’s about 21 miles further north.
Another great option is to make the city of San Luis Obispo (SLO) a home base and explore the Central California region in-depth. This allows you to return to Morro Bay for multiple-day trips as we did. RTA (Regional Transit Authority) runs a great bus service in the region and you are less than a half-hour bus ride away from SLO on the 12N route.
Keep an eye out for events happening at the time of your visit. Depending on the time of the year, you may be able to enjoy some local activities like the Kite Festival, Waterfront Market, or Lighted Boat Parade.
Would you like to visit Morro Bay? If yes, what are the attractions that you’re looking forward to seeing the most? Please share in the comments below!