The Morro Bay area's popular state parks aren't the only places to hike in the region. Two nature preserves, Elfin Forest and Sweet Springs, are good bayside jaunts for hikers and bird-watchers who want to meander off the tourist track.
Elfin Forest Natural Area is full of diminutive coast live oaks. In other regions the trees grow to 50 feet or taller, but here on coastal dunes the oaks top out at about 12 feet.
Although the sandy, nutrient-poor soil inhibits tree growth, it helps other native vegetation thrive. Look for morro manzanita, mock heather and deer weed, which blooms yellow in spring.
Silver lupine decorates the dunes with purple flowers April to June. One of the preserve's best overlooks is named Bush Lupine Point. Other spots have grand views of Morro Rock and the rest of the coast.
The area wasn't always so pretty. The forest and dunes suffered from erosion after years of off-road motorcycle use. Now protected, the land is managed by the San Luis Obispo County Parks Department.
The trail to follow here is a wooden boardwalk that loops around Elfin Forest and to the edge of Morro Bay. Nineteen interpretive stops are keyed to a pamphlet available at the trail head.
To get there, take U.S. 101 until you're just south of San Luis Obispo. Exit at Los Osos Valley Road and drive 9 1/2 miles west. Turn right on South Bay Boulevard and drive 1 1/2 miles. At Santa Ysabel Avenue turn left. At 16th Street turn right, go to the end of the block and park.
You'll follow the path as it travels clockwise around the park. Keep an eye out for Wood Rat Hall, a dense stand of 500-year-old coast live oaks. Lacy lichen hangs from the gnarled limbs, creating roomlike spaces that are intriguing, particularly for children.
The neighboring Sweet Springs Nature Preserve, on the other hand, is for the birds. Two freshwater ponds and a saltwater marsh provide sanctuary for waterfowl. A half-mile trail loops around the preserve, which is managed by the Morro Coast Audubon Society.
Bring your binoculars to spot snowy egrets, cinnamon teals and marbled godwits. Other highlights include eucalyptus groves that host migrating monarch butterflies.
To reach Sweet Springs, take U.S. 101 to the Los Osos Valley Road exit, then drive 10 miles west to 9th Street and turn right. Drive half a mile to Ramona Avenue and curve to the left. Half a mile later you'll find the nature preserve on the right.
John McKinney offers more tips at www.thetrailmaster.com.