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Morro Bay, CaliforniaMorro Bay, California

Each autumn along the California Central Coast, hundreds of thousands of monarch butterflies flock to Morro Bay’s small eucalyptus groves to escape cold weather as part of their complex migration pattern. This spectacle usually begins in October, peaks in December, and is over by March. In 2017, however, thousands of monarchs began arriving in August, their numbers growing each week. Witnessing the monarch butterfly's annual migration is just one of many activities this picture-perfect vacation destination offers. There's also golfing, fishing, sailing, kayaking, paddle boarding, surfing, hiking, shopping, wine tasting, birdwatching, and just plain relaxing. Fly to San Luis County Regional Airport (which has a good restaurant) to start your fall getaway.

  • Each fall and winter, hundreds of thousands of monarch butterflies congregate in the eucalyptus trees of Morro Bay. Here they rest and wait out the winter in Morro Bay’s mild climate, before resuming their long, complex migration pattern in early spring. Photo by Dagmar Collins.
  • The surf looks like frosting over the green at the Morro Bay Golf Course. Photo by Cynthia Zullo via Flickr.
  • Kids love to play in the dunes off Morro Bay. Photo courtesy CentralCoastOutdoors.com.
  • Have a seat on the world’s second-largest skateboard at the Morro Bay Skateboard Museum. Photo by V’ron via Flickr.
  • Kayakers paddle near the sand dunes and the famous Morro Rock, an ancient volcanic plug, now a reserve for nesting peregrine falcons. Photo courtesy CentralCoastOutdoors.com.
  • Rent a quiet electric boat and cruise the calm waters of Morro Bay. Photo courtesy Bay Cruisers and Electric Boats.
  • Cherise Hansson stands outside her unique Embarcadero shop, Under the Sea. Photo courtesy Facebook.com/MermaidUnderTheSeaGallery.
  • The Shell Shop has an outstanding selection of seashells, abalone, glass floats, and fun gifts. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • A long-billed curlew shows off its wing patterns at Morro Strand State Park. Morro Bay is home to numerous species of shorebirds. Some nest here in summer, while others arrive from northern regions in fall to spend the winter in Morro Bay’s mild weather. Photo by Mike Bush.
  • Freshly-shucked oysters at the Galley Seafood Grill & Bar. They also serve steaks and rack of lamb. Photo courtesy Galley Seafood Grill & Bar.
  • Along with great harbor views, the Bayside Café serves up yummy soups, salads, sandwiches, seafoods & chips, pastas, and a wide selection of entrées. Photo courtesy Bayside Café.
  • The Anderson Inn is conveniently located in the same building as the excellent Galley Seafood Grill & Bar, as well as By the Bay Gallery. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • The Morro Bay Campground is adjacent to the golf course. Photo by Michael via Flickr.
  • The Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is in downtown San Luis Obispo, north of the airport. Photo courtesy Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.
  • Sunset over Morro Bay, as viewed from the golf course. The orange color on this day was caused by a forest fire, far to the north. Photo by Linda Tanner via Flickr.

To see the butterflies, head to the eucalyptus groves in Morro Bay State Park, around the Morro Bay Golf Course, and at Del Mar Park in North Morro Bay. Morro Bay's monarchs tend to rest lower on the trees than those in other areas, which allows visitors to see them clearly without binoculars. Almost close enough to touch, their colorful congregation is a photographer's dream come true. For those seeking a night activity, great horned owls often follow monarchs and can be spotted in the same trees as well. The monarchs generally depart around the end of February, heading back toward the Rocky Mountains. While you’re in Morro Bay State Park, visit the Museum of Natural History, where docents are available to discuss the monarch’s annual migration. And by the way, for November and December of 2017, kids get in free or get free stuff at most of the venues mentioned here. The Lighted Boat Parade in early December is free, too.

Morro Bay is full of surprises—no kidding, they have a great little Skateboard Museum, as well as an Estuary Nature Center. At the beach you can go hiking, tide pooling, or beachcombing for sand dollars. To get out on the water, you can go kayaking, stand-up-paddleboarding, fishing, whale watching, or take a boat cruise—some even have underwater windows. Then, pick up a kite on the Embarcadero and fly it at the beach. Morro Bay was named as a bicycle friendly community by the League of American Bicyclists. So, rent a bike or take a bike tour around the beach or through the nearby beautiful wine country.

Mermaid tights (who knew?) and many other whimsical gifts are available at Under the Sea, a gift shop on the Morro Bay Embaradero. Photo courtesy Facebook.com/MermaidUnderTheSeaGallery.

Speaking of wine, downtown Morro Bay has plenty of wine bars and tasting rooms. Mosey in to unique shops like Beads by the Bay (beading and artist’s supplies, wind chimes, and garden art), Junque Love (local artisan-made gifts plus vintage items), and Under the Sea Gallery (mermaids, turtles, moons, suns, and fun yard art). The Shell Shop has an outstanding selection of fascinating shells.

Seafood is the specialty in Morro Bay. Giovanni’s Fish Market and Galley offers fresh-off-the-boat seafood, great fish and chips, and clam chowder. This casual eatery has a walk-up window next to the bay and outdoor patio seating for wildlife watching. Also on the waterfront, Great American Fish Co. has a family-oriented atmosphere and is known for its mesquite-broiled fish. For more upscale seafood dining, choose the Galley Seafood Grill and Bar or Windows on the Water. Other local favorites include Dorn’s Original Breakers Café, which dates to 1942, and the Bayside Café, established in 1986. Frankie and Lola’s rocks breakfast like no other Morro Bay eatery. Stop by The Rock Espresso Bar for your local caffeine fix.

From bagels and lox to French toast or pancakes, your cooked-to-order breakfast is delivered to your room at the Beach Bungalow Inn & Suites. Photo courtesy Beach Bungalow Inn & Suites.

With around 40 inns, booking accommodations in Morro Bay is easy. A couple of standouts include the Beach Bungalow Inn and Suites, a 1960s-style California Motor Inn, now renovated as a bed-and-breakfast. Order breakfast the night before and it’s delivered to your room in the morning. Then just hop on your complementary bicycle to explore the town. The Anderson Inn is a contemporary boutique hotel, right on the waterfront, together with an art gallery and the Galley Seafood Grill and Bar. 

Morro Bay offers year-round outdoor recreation on an unspoiled slice of California’s seaside, midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. This gem of a historic fishing village can fill your weekend by itself, or you can make the short drives to surrounding attractions, including the historic Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, the world-renowned Hearst Castle, and the vineyards of Paso Robles. And for the butterflies, you can’t beat October through December!

Touring Edna Valley’s vineyards via bicycle. Photo courtesy CaliforniaBicycleTour.com.

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Crista Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association. To suggest future destination articles, send an email to [email protected]
Topics: US Travel

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