Set your sights southward and head down the 101 to Morro Bay. Right where the 101 hooks up with Highway 1 you’ll find this small town that offers the perfect spot for a long weekend with the kids that’s full of beach days and a totally chill vibe. Slow down, get to know the welcoming locals and enjoy some of the best seafood that the Pacific Ocean provides. We checked it out and have your next road trip all planned for you!
Located just north of San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay is an idyllic seaside village along Highway 1. Beaches for miles and mountains to climb, it’s an outdoor adventure paradise with a small town feel. Most people recognize Morro Bay for the iconic Morro Rock, which was formed 23 million years ago from the plugs of now-extinct volcanoes.
Sub Sea Tours Whale Watching and Harbor Cruises
Spend some time getting to know Morro Bay from the water. Reserve a spot on a three-hour whale watching tour or one-hour harbor tour. The whale watch tour takes you out past the calm harbor waters to see if you can spot gray or humpback whales that come to feed on the abundant sea life offshore. A shorter, less bumpy option (for those who might get seasick) is the harbor tour. A glass-bottomed boat takes you to visit the sea lions that have taken over a wooden platform in the harbor and the sea otters that frolic near shore. You can also rent kayaks and stand-up paddle boards from this location.
Black Hill Trail Hike
For some killer views of Morro Rock and an easy hike for the kids, head to the Black Hill Trail. To find the trailhead to this 0.62-mile round trip hike, turn off Main Street just past the Inn at Morro Bay and on to Park View Road. Keep left on to Upper State Park Road and follow that to the end where you can park. The trail meanders up to the peak where there are boulders to climb and great spots for a family picture.
Downtown Morro Bay
You can easily spend a whole day exploring downtown Morro Bay. From the life-sized chess board that resides in the center of town to the many souvenir shops along the harbor, there are lots of spots that the kids will enjoy. Pick up a surrey at Farmer’s Kites and Surreys and head out along the bike path to check out Morro Rock up close. Need some protein for the road? Head next door to Morro Bay House of Jerky for a huge selection including buffalo, salmon and even camel jerky.
Looking to learn a little more about the sea life in Morro Bay? A great spot to stop is the Estuary Nature Center. This free spot will teach kids (and grown ups) all about protecting our natural resources for generations to come. It is located on the second floor in the Marina Square Building.
For a rad trip down memory lane, stop by the Morro Bay Skateboard Museum where you can learn how skateboarding got its origins in the 1930s. This free museum has more than 200 boards on the walls. Photo op—kids will love that they can hop aboard the World’s (Second) Largest Skateboard.
Swing by The Shell Shop to pick up some crustacean art to take home with you. Since 1955 this shop has been selling jewelry, corals and shells of all types.
Spend some time with your toes in the sand at Morro Rock State Beach. You can walk there from downtown or drive out and park in the free lot. If you are lucky, you will get to see some surfers catching gnarly waves just off shore. This is also a great spot to fly your kite as the wind whips around the rock. Head to the harbor side to see what the sea otters are eating today.
Where to Eat
With easy access to super fresh seafood, Morro Bay is a seafood-lovers paradise. The Bayside Cafe has some of the best no-frills dining in the area. The California Chowder in a bread bowl is a crowd favorite. This side-by-side combo of clam chowder and green chile soup is the perfect balance of spice and the sea. Save room for their boysenberry crisp, generously topped with whipped cream, it’s not to be missed! Be sure to check out all the cool ceiling art on your way out.
Grab a table at Dutchman’s Seafood House at sunset and enjoy the colors changing with Morro Rock in the background. This family-owned restaurant also owns its own dock, ensuring the freshest fish for its patrons while supporting the sustainable fishing methods of local fishermen. Try the sand dabs and a cup of the clam chowder.
Another option just above the life-sized chess board downtown is Dorn’s Original Breakers Cafe. Open since 1942, Dorn’s offers fresh, local seafood as well as steaks, chicken, pastas and salads. It’s also a great spot for your weekend brunch.
For a more casual option that’s perfect for lunch, the Blue Sky Bistro has tons of outdoor seating (that’s both kid and dog friendly), live music on the weekends and some killer lobster bisque. Try the baja tacos with grilled Mahi Mahi if you like your fish with a little kick. The kids’ chicken quesadilla is very generously sized and comes with both salsa and guacamole for dipping.
There’s no shortage of spots to stop and grab some sweets in downtown Morro Bay. Embarcadero Fudge and Ice Cream has just that—fudge and ice cream—with samples of whatever you are thinking of purchasing. Crill’s Saltwater Taffy has saltwater taffy, carmel corn and ice cream and a very retro vibe. Their sister store a little farther down towards Morro Rock has cinnamon rolls that everyone lines up for (it’s worth the wait).
You may never get the kids to leave Kelli’s Candies with their massive selection of jelly beans, ice cream, taffy and more. With arcade games in the back, you might as well get yourself an iced coffee and a piece of fudge as you’ll likely be there a while.
Where to Stay
The Inn at Morro Bay is a great option for families looking to stay a few days. The rooms are large and each has a private deck that looks out over the harbor or the pool area. The pool is kept a nice, warm temp and there’s a hot tub if you want to relax with the jets on. There’s an on-site restaurant that offers breakfast and dinner during the winter months, and the addition of lunch during the rest of the year. The breakfast portions are huge and there’s coffee and games available in the lobby.
Right up the road from the Inn is the Museum of Natural History in Morro Bay State Park. The museum offers cultural history, Native American life, geology, and oceanography exhibits and activities for all ages. Visit the Chumash garden along the side of the museum and learn how the Chumash used native plants of this area in their daily lives.
Morro Bay is an easy three-hour drive along 101 from San Jose. There are tons of spots for detours to break up the journey a bit. Swing by the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery on your way out of town. It’s 45 minutes north of Morro Bay in Cambria. Kids will love how close they can get to these massive creatures. Volunteer docents are available to answer all of their questions.
If you need a break from the car while heading back along 101, stop at one of the California missions that are along the highway. Mission San Miguel Archangel is right off 101 and has self-guided tours of the mission buildings for you to learn how the mission was built and what life was like for the people who lived there.
Morro Bay is the ideal family destination with the perfect balance of things to do and also ways to relax. Check out the Morro Bay Tourism website for more ideas of what to do on your next weekend adventure. You can find out about seasonal events like when the tall ships will be back in town or when you can come to catch the kite festival.
What’s your favorite spot to take the kids in Morro Bay? Let us know below!
—story and photos by Kate Loweth
Note: This trip was paid for by Morro Bay Tourism but all opinions expressed here belong to the writer.