In a continuation of our strategy this past pandemic year of staying longer term in places that feature nice weather and plenty of things to do outside, we decided to head to the Central Coast of California. I found a small family run campground that offered reasonable monthly rates, provided easy access to several picturesque towns, and gave us a place to call home for purposes of getting vaccinated.
Morro Bay is one of several small beachside communities that dot the coast halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The town, home to about 10,000 residents, is an operational fishing village and a popular weekend destination for local California beach goers. Because of its location, Morro Bay is almost always about 10 degrees cooler than nearby inland locations and offers an array of opportunities to view wildlife, get out on the water, or just enjoy the beach. (click on any photo for full sized version.)
Referred to by locals as “Three Stacks and a Rock,” the town is known for two impossible-to-ignore features: three extremely tall smokestacks that are visible from miles away, and an enormous volcanic rock located on a spit of land a couple hundred yards from the town’s embarcadero/boardwalk.
The smokestacks are part of a now defunct power plant which is located on prime waterfront real estate, directly adjacent to the town. The 450 foot tall stacks, which at one time burned coal but which were later converted to natural gas, absolutely dominate the landscape and, on a clear day, can be seen from ten miles away:
But the electric plant is bigger than what you can see from the waterfront. Its footprint sprawls across more than one hundred acres reaching from the waterfront all the way back to Route 1, which forms the eastern border of the town. The entire facility is cordoned off with fencing, complete with barbed wire and no trespassing signs. In a state known for its environmental advocacy, it is a shocking to see an enormous, unused industrial plant smack dab in the middle of what is obviously an environmentally sensitive area.
So why is it there? Well, it turns out the electric plant was built in the years following World War II, and was, at one time, the pride of the town. However, back in those years, typical contracts for such facilities didn’t contain language about what would be done with the plant once it was no longer in use. So, when it went offline in 2014, the company who’d maintained it was under no obligation to take it down, leaving it up to Morro Bay to handle removal. With a yearly budget of 10 million dollars, Morro Bay simply has not been able to afford the approximately 30 million dollar cost of removal. So, it has remained; an eyesore to some, an easily identifiable symbol of the town’s long history to others.
Just recently, a Texas company that specializes in storing energy from renewable sources, proposed to use some 22 acres of the plant’s land to build a huge battery storage facility. If approved, the facility will be the largest of its kind in the world, and would make use of some of the old plant’s infrastructure.
The other hard-to-miss feature of this tiny town is Morro Rock, located directly across from the stacks in Morro Bay.
The 575 foot tall rock, sometimes called “The Gibraltar of the Pacific,” is the last of nine such volcanic peaks that extend from San Luis Obispo out to the ocean. Visitors can walk right out to the rock and explore the base of it, but can no longer climb it.
In the meantime, the rock is ever changing given the unpredictable weather of the bay. Now you see it:
Now you don’t:
The town’s embarcadero is full of tiny shops typically found on coastal boardwalks (e.g., salt water taffy), purveyors of fresh seafood, boat charter companies, galleries, and restaurants. The area was consistently quiet during the week, but came alive each weekend.
As we explored the neighborhoods, it was apparent that this was a true fishing village and the town organically grew as time went by. The buildings closest to the water are a mishmash of single family homes, apartment buildings, trailer parks, motels, banks, restaurants, and random small businesses. Some spots have sidewalks, others don’t. The farther away one gets from the water, the more organized the buildings become, the more consistent the roads and sidewalks are, and the more similar the houses feel.
And everywhere you look around town, there are flowers. So many flowers.
The waterfront is also home to a spectacular array of wildlife, most notably otters (also known as “OMGIWANTONE!!!!”)
and one damned fine looking German Shepherd keeping the local avian population on its toes.
Morro Bay ended up being a perfect spot to set up for the month and use as a springboard for our other explorations. We stayed at the very tiny Cypress Morro RV Park, a family owned and operated campground located just a few blocks from the embarcadero/waterfront. The bad news is the sights are packed in with minimal space between them.
The good news is every single RVer who stayed in the park while we were there was respectful and considerate of everyone else. The place was always quiet and tidy.
Additionally, we lucked out by getting the end site, so we had a huge patio area and no neighbor on that side.
Paso Robles is all about wine. The third largest wine producing region in the state of California, driving around Paso Robles is like driving around Italy – the mountains, terrain, and even buildings have a distinctly Mediterranean feel. There are nearly 200 wineries, in addition to olive, almond, avocado and other agricultural producers. In normal times, it’s an ideal place to hop between vineyards to check out some of the offerings, but because of Covid, most of the wineries required reservations to visit and many had limitations on their operations. Fortunately, I was able to find a couple reasonably priced wineries with availability and when we visited, because of all the limitations, we basically had the places to ourselves.
On my birthday, we visited Mitchella Winery, a small vineyard with a beautiful outdoor patio and an array of delicious reds. And, as someone who regularly drinks boxed wine, I would definitely know the difference.
Mitchella’s wine tasting comes with a cheese pairing, which we thought was unique, until we visited a couple other wineries that also included food tastings with their wines. Neat!
Our favorite vineyard experience, though, was Sculpterra. This winery has a large and really impressive sculpture garden on its grounds. We bought a couple glasses of wine and wandered the manicured gardens for an hour or so before walking through the vineyards, which were just starting to show some signs of life.
Paso Robles’ downtown is centered around a pretty, green town square, around which are several blocks of restaurants, wine tasting rooms, and independent shops. We visited the neighborhood a couple times and think it would be a great spot during busy season when the streets would be buzzing with visitors and residents.
While downtown on my birthday, we also enjoyed a delicious dinner at the new Alchemist’s Garden. This place is all about their fun cocktails, but their menu of small plates was excellent as well.
San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo is located about twenty minutes inland from Morro Bay, and is home to California Polytechnic State University. It’s also host to the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, built in 1772 and still an operational church.
Much like Paso Robles, its downtown is full of independent shops and restaurants, these ones running along a small creek that meanders through town. SLO is famous for its absolutely massive weekly farmers market – complete with agricultural products, artwork, street performers, live music and all manner of food vendors. The multiblock event brings out thousands of people each week year round. Except when there’s a pandemic. Boo.
Other local specialties include tri-tip sandwiches at Old Slow BBQ and Firestone Grill (both of which we found to be kindof ‘meh’) and homemade ice cream at Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab, a long time local institution, which was super yummy!
There’s also a bubble gum alley where, for many decades, people have stuck their chewed bubble gum to the walls. Why? I have no idea. But here’s a picture:
Gross, I know.
Finally, we visited Pismo Beach. This is a tourist centric beach town, much more built up and designed to cater to sun worshippers.
The beach is dominated by a huge fishing pier:
and is surrounded by the rolling green hills that define the entire region.
The big waves bring out tons of surfers
who make the whole thing look incredibly easy…
Finally, Pismo Beach is home to Old West Cinnamon Rolls, a place which finally answers that perennial question: “Is it possible to just order a plate of Diabetes?”
The answer is yes:
(Also, Mmmmm delicious. Seriously. I’m not a big pastry person, but this thing was incredible.)
Just about a mile down the road, we found Dinosaur Caves Park, a park that has nothing to do with dinosaurs nor caves, but which makes up for its small size with its gorgeous views.
The rocky coastline leading to Pismo Beach:
The bluffs leading back toward Morro Bay:
Gardens full of flowers:
and us, trying to not get knocked off the cliffs by the wind:
Not only was Morro Bay a wonderful place to spend a month, but it also ended up being the perfect place for both of us to get vaccinated. For a while we weren’t sure we’d even be able to get vaccinated in California because most of the counties were limiting their supply to people living or working in their locales, but when we checked with a local pharmacy in town, they told us we could just bring a copy of the paperwork showing we were staying at our campground for a month, and that would be sufficient to prove we weren’t just ‘vaccine tourists.’
Kevin became medically eligible at the end of March and was, somehow, able to snag an appointment almost immediately. And, funny enough, after all our concern about our residency (and by “our concern” I mean “my concern” – Kevin is never concerned about anything, ever, at all. I could be like “Hey Kev, I just got a notification on my phone that Russia accidentally launched an ICBM and it’s headed our way and we’re totally gonna die” and he’d be all “oh, really? That sucks.” And then he’d go grab a beer and not worry about it while everyone else was losing their mind. It’s pretty annoying, if I’m being honest, but that’s a blog post for another day). Anywho, when Kevin went to hand the pharmacist our campground paperwork to prove he was an eligible ‘resident,’ the pharmacist did not care one bit. Kevin could have introduced himself as a vaccine tourist from Neptune and the guy would have given him a dose of Pfizer.
Anyway, a couple weeks later, I became eligible and also got my first shot. We checked with our campground and they were able to extend our stay for a couple days so we’d still be there in time for my second dose. It worked out perfectly. I got my second shot and we rolled out the next morning.
A trip up the stunning Pacific Coast Highway followed by visits to Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks.
Where we stayed:
Cypress Morro RV Park, Morro Bay, California