Harbor seals, sea otters, and egrets aplenty await where the land meets Morro Bay on California’s scenic Central Coast. Just under 4 hours south of San Francisco or north of Los Angeles by car, what was once a remote fishing village offers families an ideal combination of nature and recreation, and without the crowds and exorbitant price tags that come with many California beach towns (shhhh). While the scenery is hard to top and dock-to-dish dining options abound, Morro Bay also registers high on my family-friendliness-ometer for some very practical reasons: available free street parking, abundant public restrooms, and great walkability. All together, it’s what a great coastal family destination should be. When you get there, and I hope you do, here are 4 great ways to experience Morro Bay with kids, along with recommendations for 1 great place to eat and 1 great place to stay while you are there.
1. Get Your Bearings at Morro Bay Natural History Museum
Morro Bay has the only California state park with a Museum of Natural History, and it happens to be FREE for kids up to 17 years old and is only $3 for adults—which might lead you to believe there’s not a whole lot there to see. To the contrary, I was quite surprised to find room after room of interactive exhibits and viewing areas that gave a fantastic overview of the natural forces shaping the landscape of the area and the marvelous creatures that call it home. It’s a great place to start your visit to Morro Bay with kids (or even without) and will especially help you identify many of the bird species you are bound to see and get the lay of the land. There is also excellent viewing of the bay from the museum’s lofty vantage point–keep an eye out as you never know what kinds of critters you might spot. Find out more: www.facebook.com/MBMuseum.of.Natural.History
2. Visit the rock—and sea otters, and hermit crabs…
A surprising number of visitors to Morro Bay are satisfied to enjoy Morro Rock as the photogenic landmark that it is as viewed from throughout the town. I encourage you to not be one of them. A visit out to the rock itself is easy enough and free—and may just prove to be your kids’ favorite highlight of your trip to Morro Bay. Forged as a “volcanic plug” twenty million years ago, Morro Rock is now an ecological reserve and home to numerous nesting birds as you’ll see when you walk the short trail from the parking area out to its south-facing side (stay left), where weather-worn pocks … and of the 200 peregrine falcon nesting sites in California, Morro Rock is home to two. Here’s a little peek at Morro Rock from my Facebook live video.
But don’t stop there. As you can see in the video, the beach below Morro Rock’s south side has foot-friendly sand and enormous boulders that make the perfect setting for some serious hide-and-seek (or hide-and-ambush, as my kids prefer). As you get closer to the beach’s end, the rocky jetty that juts to the left helps shelter this part of the beach from ocean wind, and there you’ll find more rocks and smaller pools that form between them when the tide is low—leaving many hermit crabs to be found. But one of the best reasons to venture out to the rock is for your best chances of viewing (and photographing) the adorable sea otters that favor this part of Morro Bay and often spend their midday slumber “rafting” in this area (the otters’ way of latching on to each other for safety while resting). Make sure to tell the kids you need to keep your distance and use very soft voices when observing these protected creatures.
Tip: For an even more memorable family visit out to Morro Rock, go by Surrey Bike! We picked up a four-pedal surrey (seated 5 of us just fine) from nearby Farmer’s Kites & Surryes and laughed our whole way there pedaling out along the bike path toward the rock—and giggled fantastically as we parked our “surrey with the fringe on top” right alongside the other cars in the area nearest the resting sea otters. Regular bike rentals are available, too. Find out more: Farmer’s Kites & Surryes
3. Kayak Morro Bay
More than 250 species of birds—including land, sea, and shore birds—frequent the Morro Bay Estuary Natural Preserve and its 800-acre wetland. Paddling along quietly in your kayaks, you will have some of the best opportunities to see the herons, cormorants, egrets, and other feathered residents of this protected region, especially on a guided tour with Central Coast Outdoors that will take you to the best viewing locations on the water and at the shore’s edge, and teach you all about their lifestyles and life cycles.
Pssst! Don’t miss the map of our Morro Bay recommendations and pinnable at the end of this feature.
Keep your eyes peeled for harbor seals as well along the way. If conditions are right, you may also have the chance to paddle the “back bay” where we had the good fortune to paddle by several harbor seals snoozing on a sleepy “haul out” they favor in this quieter part of the bay. Central Coast Outdoors has several paddling tours available, including 1.5- to 2-hour family-friendly short paddles, half-day tours, sunset paddles, and private tour options (great for families and those with wee travelers). Find out more: www.centralcoastoutdoors.com
4. Hike Black Hill
As you drive up and up through the Morro Bay Golf Course toward the Black Hill trail head, you might wonder just how much of a hike there will be left once you reach it. Though the view from the staging area is impressive already, the 3-mile round trip hike up through coastal pines, brush, and wildflowers will gain you another 600+ feet in elevation, and earn you a spectacular 360-degree view of Morro Bay and its neighbors once you reach the top of Black Hill. For us, it was the perfect way to end our visit to Morro Bay, looking out at the places we had played, kayaked, bicycled, and dined during our visit, and getting our legs well-stretched before the drive to Los Angeles. Find out more: http://morrobay.org/things-to-do/outdoors/black-hill
1 Great Place to Eat: Tognazzini’s Dockside
If you like extremely fresh seafood that’s sustainably harvested by small fleets–whose boats dock within a mere block or two from where you sit, you will love dining in Morro Bay. And Tognazzini’s Dockside restaurant, as it happens, is owned by a commercial fisherman whose fishing operation and fresh fish market are right next to the restaurant. The casual atmosphere at “Dockside” puts families at ease and kids menu options ensure everyone will be happy here, even as mom rolls her eyes back in ecstasy over one of the day’s specials: halibut cheeks piccata. But don’t kid yourself–no matter how full you think you are after dinner, you will find room for dessert when you first lay eyes on that strawberry-banana chimichanga, and I say go for it. You’ll need something to occupy you while the kids enjoy making at-table s’mores anyway. Find out more: www.morrobaydockside.com
1 Great Place to Stay: Inn at Morro Bay
Bird lover’s will especially delight in The Inn at Morro Bay’s location–adjacent to the heron and egret rookery (for optimal viewing, go down to the inn’s large waterside deck that ends right at the edge of the rookery, and bring your binoculars). Our king room with queen sofa bed was plenty spacious to also fit a rollaway (extra fee), as well, and we still had room for the five of us to stretch. Flipping on the fireplace in the evenings was also a special treat once we could finally get the kids out of the courtyard swimming pool and Jacuzzi. Note that the rooms have mini refrigerators and coffeemakers, but just showers and no bath tubs. I leave it up to you whether or not to reveal the 32″ flatscreen TV concealed behind the panels above the fireplace.
The Inn at Morro Bay’s on-site restaurant, 60 State Restaurant, serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner with extraordinary views of the bay (I took the lead photo from their outdoor dining patio before breakfast one morning). While they don’t offer a children’s menu, there are plenty of breakfast items so suit–just be warned that an order of “pancakes” turned out to be three fluffy plate-sized pancakes that could have easily fed all three kids, but I heard no complaints from my crew as I myself delighted in the spinach eggs Benedict (full menu available on website). Find out more: www.innatmorrobay.com
For more help planning your visit to Morro Bay with kids, visit www.MorroBay.org. For more California family travel recommendations click here.