A Natural History Lesson in Morro Bay

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Morro Bay State Park is one of the most developed on the Central Coast: a large campground and picnic area, an 18-hole golf course and a marina with a cafe and kayak rentals. But the park’s undeveloped east side--former ranchland gone wild--beckons hikers with grassy swales, scrub-covered hills and coastal live oaks.

A well-signed trail system provides lots of options, including “mini morros” (some unnamed) that offer fine views from easy-to-climb promontories. For a panorama of Morro Bay, Morro Rock and the estuary, hike up volcanic Portola Hill. I like starting on the Park Ridge Trail simply because few hikers use this trail head.

Just remember that parking is limited to half a dozen cars, and no facilities are available. (The main eastern trail head, which has plenty of parking, is a short distance north along South Bay Boulevard.)


To learn more about the bay’s ecology, visit the state park’s Museum of Natural History. It closed in November to install 26 new exhibits, which will make it the largest natural history museum in the state park system.

The $3-million modernization project is nearly complete, and the grand reopening is scheduled for Aug. 4.

“We’re telling the story of the natural history of California’s Central Coast in a whole new and interactive way,” curator Nancy Dreher said. “The fabulous coastal view, the new exhibits and a new nature hike program add up to a great experience for the visitor.”

Museum docents will lead “Half-Hour, Half-Mile Hikes” that explore the bay shore and estuary. If the hikes are popular, they will be offered regularly.

Our hike this week, however, focuses on a different route: a loop from Park Ridge Trail to Quarry Trail and the point atop Portola Hill.

Directions to the trail head: From U.S. 101 south of San Luis Obispo, exit at Los Osos Valley Road and drive 9 1/2 miles. Turn right onto South Bay Boulevard and go 2 1/4 miles to the Park Ridge Trail parking area on the right. (If needed, you can find a larger parking lot about a quarter-mile farther up the road.)


The hike: From the Park Ridge Trail head, follow the path to signed junctions with Live Oak Trail on the left and Crespi Trail on the right. The latter, named for Father Juan Crespi (diarist for the 1769 Gaspar de Portola expedition along California’s coast), is a loop that meanders through grassland and offers fine views of Morro Bay Estuary. This side trip will add two miles to your hike.

Back on Park Ridge Trail, you’ll see a tiny, unnamed morro before descending toward Quarry Trail. Head west a short distance on Quarry, then swing south on Live Oak Trail.

From here, a signed summit trail less than half a mile long rises up Portola Hill to the best views of Morro Bay.

Retrace your steps to Live Oak Trail, where you will turn south among handsome oaks. Rejoin Park Ridge Trail, head west and soon you will be back at the trail head.

For more of John McKinney’s tips, please visit his Web site,