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Central California: A Wonderland of Untouched Beaches, Castles and Dunes

Central California: A Wonderland of Untouched Beaches, Castles and Dunes

We passed what Bode dubbed  a “gang of pelicans” as double-crested cormorants, albatross and crimson-billed black oyster catchers dove for food. We paddled across the bay until our arms ached and were relieved to reach our destination:  Morro Dunes Natural Preserve, a protected area that divides Morro Bay from the ocean. From the moment our kayaks docked on the sand, our kids were racing to explore this geological oddity.

What looks like a single strip of land is actually a living, breathing preserve and after a few minutes of hiking, we were ensconced in complete isolation.  We eventually emerged from the sea of golden sand to the cerulean Pacific Ocean. We raced the waves and sandpipers, felt the wind shifting as the ocean lapped at our toes, mimicking our own heartbeats. We were sure this was the last untouched place in California.

Our adventures weren’t over.  We kayaked to the Back Bay where we watched a colony of harbor seals bobbing in the surf, blinking inscrutably. We drafted the winds back to Morro Bay State Park where we lunched at Bayside Cafe with relaxing views of the marina, indulging in a delicious farm-fresh menu and killer mud pie. 

That afternoon, we skipped our plan to laze around Pismo Beach’s popular white-sand swaths and followed John’s recommendation to go tide pooling at Corralina Cove via the Bruin Trail in Montana de Oro State Park. With its two different worlds–the northern kingdom is dominated by wind-swept sand dunes while Big Sur-like cliffs rule the southern–the state park’s true treasures were discovered when the ocean retreated, leaving rock layers teeming with life.

As we hiked back to our car, I took it all in. The sound of my kids’ laughter and the smell and feel of the untamed Pacific–all were sensory gifts.  At times, Central California has a rough beauty, sublime and foreboding, with sheer cliffs carved by time and quaint coastal villages standing up bravely against the over-development that has overtaken so much of the state. This is California at its finest. 


Great Eats & Sleeps

Tognazzini’s Dockside

If you’re a lover of awesome seafood, you’ll find it at Tognazzini’s Dockside restaurant on the harbor.  A proud supporter of historic Morro Bay’s commercial fishing fleet, restaurant owner Captain Mark Tognazzini has been a commercial fisherman for 40 years and their daily specials regularly feature locally caught seafood. From our table, we watched the sunset over T-pier while eating the best clam chowder of my life and the Admiral’s Combo Platter (grilled shrimp, scallops, halibut, salmon, and the fish of the day) in a cozy, casual setting.  1245 Embarcadero, Morro Bay, Calif.

For a more upscale option that doesn’t break the bank (yes, that exists!), Dorn’s Original Breakers Cafe on Market Street is located just a block above the Embarcadero and offers expansive views of the Morro Bay. This family owned and run restaurant is three generations deep and their son, Chris Dorn, took over as manager.  The Seafood Brochette, Filet Mignon and Lobster Tail made us teary-eyed about returning to our land-locked state; the mixed-berry cobbler’s  strawberries, blackberries, blueberries and red raspberries made us vow to return. 801 Market Street, Morro Bay, Calif. 

Frankie & Lola’s. Great breakfast is tough to find but I am so happy to have stumbled upon Frankie & Lola’s Front Street Cafe with to-die-for Chilaquiles and pumpkin spice pancakes with cream cheese drizzle. But the true show-stopper was their famous French Toast Brûlée Soufflé Flambé where French bread is soaked in crème brûlée and topped with a caramelized topping. If heaven has a favorite dish, this is it and that sugar-rush will keep you on Cloud 9 all day long.   1154 Front Street, Morro Bay, Calif.

456 Embarcadero Inn & Suites. Serenity and relaxation await you at the newly redesigned and renovated 456 Embarcadero Inn & Suites. Enjoy the tranquility of one of our 33 boutique guestrooms with vistas of Morro Bay Estuary, Morro Rock, the Sandspit and the Pacific Ocean. The family owned and operated inn is uniquely located on the Embarcadero in Morro Bay, California and provides pet- and family-friendly accommodations.  Room rates start at $125. 456 Embarcadero, Morro Bay, Calif.

Madonna Inn. As an international landmark destination, Madonna Inn redefines unique with 110 whimsical guestrooms, enchanting décor, and resort amenities, including a spa, horseback riding, boutique shopping, terrace pool and bar, and two award-winning dining experiences. Room rates start at $209. 100 Madonna Rd, San Luis Obispo, Calif.


Favorite Finds Along Morro Bay’s “Embarcadero”

Visit the Estuary Nature Center located upstairs in the Marina Square Building at 601 Embarcadero. The Center is free and open to the public and provides a place to experience the beauty of the estuary and learn about protecting habitats and wildlife; (805) 772-3834;

Farmer’s Kites & Surreys provides a unique experience in Morro Bay.  Rent your surrey to take a pedaled tour of the Embarcadero or buy a kite to use on those breezy days.  (805) 772-0113

The Shell Shop at 590 Embarcadero is family-owned and operated since 1955 and exhibits the largest selection of marine sea shells on the Central Coast.

Morro Bay Skateboard Museum See the complete history of skateboarding – from the early 1930′s to present day, featuring more than 200 skateboards from all eras with rotating exhibits from extensive private collections 805-610-3565;

Crills Saltwater Taffy at 903 Embarcadero is a must stop on the Embarcadero. Here you’ll find a selection of taffy, caramel corn and ice cream; (805) 772-1679;

Junque Love specializes in an eclectic mix of vintage and repurposed goods, and represents the heart and soul of old coastal California, featuring artists from all over California that repurpose vintage items into new goods; (805) 821-1154;


Amber Johnson
Author: Amber Johnson

Amber is the founder and editor of Mile High Mamas, travel writer and former columnist for The Denver Post. She is a passionate community builder and loves the outdoors. She has two awesome teens and is happily married to a man obsessed with growing The Great Pumpkin.

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Amber is the founder and editor of Mile High Mamas, travel writer and former columnist for The Denver Post. She is a passionate community builder and loves the outdoors. She has two awesome teens and is happily married to a man obsessed with growing The Great Pumpkin.


  1. You’ve touched on one of my favorite area in California. A few of our favorite things:

    The seasonsonal Monarch butterflies are awesome in Morro Bay ((Oct-Feb).

    Whale Watching at North Point and Morro Strand Beach

    There are some great bike paths that run along the beaches.

  2. I’m so glad you mentioned Montana de Oro. It gets overlooked except for the locals and it’s a really special place. Spooner’s Cove is awesome for watching the waves crash into the huge cliffs and rocks.

  3. Wow, great article. Like you and most people, I’ve done all of California’s popular areas but have never even heard of this one. Adding this to my list!

  4. Sorry, I have a few other things to add to your list!

    The Coastal Discovery Center on San Simeon Bay is super fun for kids with interactive exhibits and free admission.

    The Whale Trail is along the Highway 1 Discovery Route and has some great views of marine animals along the way.

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