SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY, Morro Bay with Kids: 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. Among them: free parking, abundant public restrooms, and great walkability. All of which makes it a good alternative to bustling Pismo Beach (30 minutes to the north) for families with little ones in particular.
All together, it’s what a great California coast family destination should be. When you get there, here are my top recommended things to do in 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 the Morro Bay Museum of Natural History
Morro Bay has the only California state park with a Museum of Natural History. Better still, 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 vacation in Morro Bay (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 Morro 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.
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.
However, 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. They 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 & Surreys and laughed our whole way there. We pedaled 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 frequent the Morro Bay Estuary Natural Preserve and its 800-acre wetland. Paddle along quietly in your kayaks, and watch closely. You’ll have some of the best bird-watching opportunities right from the water. Herons, cormorants, egrets, kingfishers, and other feathered residents are regularly spotted in this protected region.
A guided kayak tour with Central Coast Outdoors 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. 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” with your guide.
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’ paddling tours include 1.5- to 2-hour family-friendly short paddles.
Want more time on the water? Book a half-day tour, sunset paddle, or 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 trailhead, you might wonder just how much of a hike will be left once you reach it. And the view from the staging area is impressive already.
Yet the 3-mile round trip hike up through coastal pines, brush, and wildflowers gains you another 600+ feet in elevation. Suffice to say you’ll earn yourselves the spectacular 360-degree view once you reach the top.
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. Not to mention, our legs got well-stretched before the drive to Los Angeles. Find out more: http://morrobay.org/things-to-do/outdoors/black-hill
For more great hiking trails in and around San Luis Obispo County, check out the Central Coast section of my new Hiking with Kids Southern California guidebook from Falcon Guides (shown here). 😀 More Morro Bay family tips follow below.
1 Great Place to Eat in Morro Bay with Kids: Tognazzini’s Dockside
Do 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 as you dine? If so, you will love dining in Morro Bay. And Tognazzini’s Dockside restaurant, as it happens, is owned by a commercial fisherman. Need proof? Stroll past his fishing operation and fresh fish market right next to the restaurant.
The casual atmosphere at “Dockside” puts families at ease — as do the prices. And the 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. Clam chowder fans should also note they serve what my husband remains convinced is the BEST New England-style clam chowder on earth.
But don’t kid yourself–no matter how full you think you are after dinner, you will find room for dessert. Particularly 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 in Morro Bay with Kids: 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. Bring your binoculars!)
Our king room with queen sofa bed was plenty spacious to also fit a rollaway (extra fee). Even then, we still had room for the five of us to stretch.
Flipping on the fireplace in the evenings was also a special treat. Though we first had the challenge of once getting 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 flat screen 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. In fact, I snapped the lead photo from their 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 (menu 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.