24 Hours on California's Central Coast: A Guide to Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo

Spooner Cove at Montana de Oro State Park near San Luis Obispo, California. 

Spooner Cove at Montana de Oro State Park near San Luis Obispo, California. 

At the southernmost point of the Big Sur coastline lies the communities of Morro Bay, Los Osos, and Baywood and two state parks, Morro Bay and Montana de Oro. Named for the California poppies carpeting its hillsides, Montana de Oro includes stunning beaches and cliffsides, sweeping views of the central California coastline, and tidepools. Morro Bay State Park is best known for its monolith, Morro Rock, but is also home to a golf course, lagoons, and a marina. 

The coastline on the Bluffs Trail at Montana de Oro State Park. 

The coastline on the Bluffs Trail at Montana de Oro State Park. 

Where to Stay: I hate staying at chain hotels. They lack character, their complimentary breakfasts of powdered eggs, lukewarm orange juice and stale mini muffins for the lack of a better word suck, and they're usually way overpriced. So I'm always looking for boutique hotels, hostels, or guesthouses. When I have more time to plan a trip, I typically like to use AirBnB because the places are usually in interesting and less trafficked neighborhoods, homey, and cheaper. I planned our trip to San Luis Obispo three days ahead and after researching I booked a queen room at Beach Bungalow Inn. Pro Tip: Book directly with a hotel website and you will often receive a discount. 

When I arrived in the stormy dark, I expected to get the room key and collapse into bed. Turns out, they had a number of cancellations and upgraded us from a queen room to a king suite. Our new room or suite of rooms had a full kitchen, a living room, a bedroom with a king-sized bed, and a bathroom. Because a window was left open, the rooms were freezing but heated up quickly with the gas fire. The lack of water pressure left something to be desired, but we are in a drought and the water was hot.

The complimentary breakfast options were vast. I went for the brie and sun-dried tomato omelet with toast and a cappuccino while my boyfriend opted for eggs over easy with toast and coffee. They delivered me an omelet of spinach, mushroom, caramelized onion, and feta. Initially, I was disappointed as I don't usually like mushrooms or onions, but this omelet was delicious and surpassed my expectations for a hotel breakfast. 

Recent rains turn the hills a lush green at Montana de Oro State Park. 

Recent rains turn the hills a lush green at Montana de Oro State Park. 

What to Do: With four state parks, an aquarium, a California mission, the university, and plenty of places to go shopping, there's enough to do in the San Luis Obispo area. I love visiting new parks so we decided to go to Montana de Oro State Park. 

As we meander through Los Osos-Baywood, we are arrested by the sight of the most glorious statue I've ever seen in person, and it might be the third-most amazing statue I know of, only second to naked man roundhouse kicking babies in Norway and ogre eating children in Bern. We pull the car over to the side of the road and walk back to investigate it. Before us stands a bear-cow, the lower half festooned with California poppies wearing sunglasses and monarch butterflies behind its ear. If this were not enough to marvel at, the cow-bear is stand up paddleboarding. The statue was part of a larger artistic charity project in San Luis Obispo county which you can check out here

Winds and rain whipped at the groves of eucalyptus and leaves rustled wildly across the road; we were certain that a branch would fall on us. Our first stop brought us to Spooner Cove, a spot which was used during the Prohibition for smuggling. Prohibition-era California history fascinates me because I always thought of rum running as an east coast thing. The cove features golden sandstone cliffs, tidepools, and almost black sand. Like much of the Big Sur coast, the landscape is dramatic and the water oscillating between eau de Nil and dangerous Titanic iceberg blue. 

After attempting to film several videos, we retreated from the sporadic downpours and gusts of winds into the truck. Driving for a few minutes further into the park, we hit the end of the road and a parking lot. Here we hiked along the Coon Creek Trail, which takes you into the hills past creeks and the burnt remains of oak trees. The wind and rain slashed against us and eventually we admitted defeat to the elements and made our way back to Morro Bay to get coffee. 

"Udderly Osos" a half-bear half-cow statue paddle boarding the sidewalk. 

"Udderly Osos" a half-bear half-cow statue paddle boarding the sidewalk. 

Where to Shop: Shopping is not an activity I normally look forward to unless it involves thrift store shopping with a specific purpose, bookstores, or buying the new Violent Femmes album. San Luis Obispo used to be home to a number of thrift and antique stores and the only chain store I remember back in the mid-nineties was Ross (which is still there). Now, the downtown is littered with Pottery Barn and Starbucks. Phoenix Books attracted us with its disorganized stacks and crowded shelves. I scored four books for less than twenty-five dollars: two Margaret Atwood's and two Christopher Moore's. 

Spiced persimmon jalapeno soda from Luna Red in San Luis Obispo. 

Spiced persimmon jalapeno soda from Luna Red in San Luis Obispo. 

Where to Eat: I do not know anything about San Luis Obispo's restaurant scene. I am going to make some broad generalizations and assumptions. It's an area with an up and coming wine region nearby (Paso Robles and Atascadero), it's a college town, and it's in California. This leads me to make the following assumptions: there's a wide variety of cheap food options, hipster food establishments with good beer, and excellent wine options at most fine dining restaurants. Oh, and there's probably at least ten taquerias, one of which must be in a laundromat. 

For real, we dined at two establishments in the San Luis Obispo area: Top Dog Coffee in Morro Bay for afternoon coffee and snacks, and Luna Red for dinner. Sheltering from the pouring rain, we ordered Dominican mochas at Top Dog Coffee, a rich, dark mocha along with a chocolate chip scone. Top Dog offers excellent coffee, a cozy ambiance, and fast, reliable wi-fi (a remote workers necessity). 

Luna Red was participating in San Luis Obispo's restaurant month and offering a three or four-course tasting menu $30-$40 per person respectively. Having to drive home soon, I opted not to order an alcoholic beverage and go for a spiced persimmon jalapeno soda. While five dollars is steep for a non-alcoholic beverage, the soda perfectly balanced the spiced autumnal sweetness of the persimmon with the heat of the jalapeno. 

First course was a selection of two pinchos, or small bites. We ordered the chorizo and blue cheese, soft egg and bacon, poached albacore and whipped avocado, and cherry tomato and goat cheese. The chorizo and blue cheese and the soft egg and bacon were both disappointments. The chorizo had the texture of SPAM and not nearly enough flavor while the soft egg had no yolk and the bacon flaccid. I don't eat tomatoes so I can't comment on the goat cheese and cherry tomato but the poached albacore and whipped avocado was the true winner of the entire meal, if a little oily. 

Second course was a garden salad with beets, candied walnuts, and blue cheese. It was a lackluster salad that really had no place with the rest of the meal. For the main course, I ordered the chuleta valluna, a crispy fried double pork chop served with whipped avocado, arugula, and shoestring sweet potatoes. The arugula was actually frisee on my plate which was a bit tough to eat, but the charred flavor on it was good. The salsa provided acid to a rich dish and the whipped avocado's creaminess paired well with the crunchy exterior of the moist and flavorful pork chop. My boyfriend ordered the tortilla Espanola dressed with micro greens and saffron aioli. I usually like tortilla Espanola but this one had a squidgy texture, one that causes me to shudder slightly. 

San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay is a beautiful area with tons of activities, shopping, and restaurants to experience. If you're looking for a day trip or a weekend stay over, the area is a great place to check out.