Like the ocean? Enjoy quaint little beach towns? How do you feel about huge rocks? If you’re a fan of these things, might I suggest Morro Bay State Park and the city of Morro Bay itself, home of the Morro Rock. If you’re taking a Pacific Coast Highway road trip, Morro Bay is a great stop along the way.
While Alcatraz Island might have been known as “The Rock” during its glory days operating the most hardcore prison on earth, since it was deemed “cruel and unusual punishment” (WEAK!), that crown should now go to Morro Rock. (Locals instead know it as the Gibraltar of the Pacific.) Seriously, Morro Rock is awesome. When you approach the embarcadero from the hill in town that leads to the beach, the rock towers over the shoreline in an imposing manner.
In addition to Morro Rock, Morro Bay State Park has offers sailing, fishing, hiking, and bird watching. There’s also a small museum in the State Park with exhibits detailing the the area’s natural features & geology, cultural history, Native American life, and oceanography. Across from all this is a vacant power plant, putting a slight damper on what is otherwise a beautiful little community.
The first time I visited Morro Bay, I arrived at night. At first, I thought Morro Rock was a large, low-level cloud. Surely it couldn’t actually be that big. After a bit, my eyes adjusted, and I realized it was Morro Rock. It’s an iconic draw for the city of Morro Bay, and something you’ll definitely want to see for yourself.
Obviously, a big rock isn’t reason-enough to spend a day or even half-day somewhere, especially when there are so many wonderful spots along Pacific Coast Highway. Beyond Morro Rock, I’m a fan of Morro Bay for a few reasons. In fact, when I eventually get my Ultimate Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Guide up, this town will be an overnight stop.
First, it’s a sleepy little beach town that has unique character and (most importantly) is cheap, with a variety of hotels and motels with ocean views that are under $100/night. Pismo Beach is the nearby alternative if you’re planning an overnight stay along this stretch of California’s Central Coast, and prices in Morro Bay are generally a decent amount lower. I’ve stayed in both cities, and I like both–but I prefer the cheaper rates in Morro Bay!
We have stayed at Beach Bungalow Inn & Suites, which looks like a cheap motel from the exterior, but is a delightful little boutique spot, complete with local art, fireplaces, and breakfast delivered to your room in the morning. There are several other motels and hotels all around the embarcadero and Morro Bay State Park, so this is hardly a definitive recommendation. If you find another option with good rates and reviews, by all means, book that.
Second, there are a variety of charming restaurants along the embarcadero that serve fresh seafood (and delicious clam chowder). Harbor Hut and its eclectic tiki stylings lures in a lot of tourists, but based on recommendations from locals and only a 3-star showing on Yelp, we skipped it.
Locals instead recommend Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant, which is a casual spot that feels like a fish market with nightly specials based upon what was caught that day.
Finally, location. Regardless of how many days you have, Morro Bay is a great place to spend the night before visiting Hearst Castle the following morning. This gives you a chance to dine on the embarcadero the night before and enjoy sunrise at Morro Rock.
Afterwards, you can walk to the other side of the embarcadero to the sandy Morro Bay State Beach where hoards of surfers gather early in the day if the waves are good. During our first visit, we spent about 30 minutes just watching the line of surfers bobbing in the water awaiting the next big swell, which was entertaining. With all of that done, you’ll still be ready to make the drive to San Simeon by about 9 or 10 a.m. at the latest.
With all of that said, I still don’t think Morro Bay will offer enough to justify spending a lot time exploring. It’s a nice town that draws in a decent amount of tourists thanks to Morro Rock, but still retains its rough-around-the-edges ‘locals-only’ charm so at least you don’t feel like you’re in a touristy place. I like Morro Bay, but it’s better viewed as a compelling waypoint with a few places of interest than a destination unto itself.
Have you been to Morro Bay? What did you think of Morro Rock? Any other dining or hotel recommendations to add to our list? Have any questions or other thoughts? Please share below in the comments!