Kayaking through the shallow waters of the Morro Bay Estuary over to the Sand Spit, where 80-foot high sand dunes separate Morro Bay from the Pacific Ocean.
As a Central Valley California native, I spent a fair amount of time in the towns that dot our gorgeous central coastline. I learned to swim in Cayucos as a baby, partied my ass off in Pismo during my high school years, woke up early way too many times to fish off our pontoon boat in Lake Nacimiento, was re-baptized off the windy shores of Jalama Beach and have driven along Highway 101 & 1 between Ventura and Big Sur too many times to count.
And even though I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Morro Bay over the years, there’s always been two places I never had the opportunity to visit.
The Morro Bay Power Plant was completed in July 1955 on a 140-acre site that was formerly a U.S. Navy Base during World War II.
The three 450-foot tall smokestacks have become almost as iconic as the 581-foot-high mountain of volcanic rock rising from the water just across the bay. As a child, I often fantasized about gaining access to the stacks and power plant that once provided electricity to over a million customers living along the Central Coast and the Central Valley of California (primarily Fresno and Bakersfield). But after shutting down in 2014, the future of the property and the opportunity for me or anyone else ever gaining access to the site remains uncertain. Dynegy continues to provide 24-hour security, so unless they decide to start offering tours, it doesn’t look like my fantasy of gaining access to this place will ever come true.
I was able to finally make it over to the other place I always wanted to visit though, the barrier beach known as the Morro Bay Sand Spit (or Sandspit).
Last summer while visiting Morro Bay for a family reunion, I gathered a few of my fellow explorers and headed over to A Kayak Shack, located in the Morro Bay State Park Marina.
After renting two double kayaks, we made our way across Morro Bay Estuary which is protected as part of the Morro Estuary Natural Preserve, a vast 800-acre wetland that is home to more than 250 species of animals.
It’s the only major California estuary south of San Francisco not significantly altered by human activities.
A very high percentage of all sea life along California’s central coast originates in Morro Bay Estuary, where nutritive-rich waters of different salinities mix, creating an amazingly fertile environment.
Beneath the surface of the shallow bay are oysters, clams, worms, snails, crabs and shrimp.
Since the bay is protected from the open ocean waves, kayaking here is usually easy. Just make sure to time your trip during high tide or you may get trapped in the mud flats that emerge during lower tides.
After cruising around the estuary for awhile we headed over to the spot that I always wanted to check but could never figure out how to get over to it.
The dunes are massive and rise up to 80 feet in some places.
Bird watchers may spot the threatened snowy plover (not pictured). Sections of the dunes are closed off during their nesting season (March through September) in order to protect their eggs which they bury in the sand.
Since the dunes are difficult to access, you’ll often have large sections of them to yourselves.
A 1/2 mile hike is all it takes to reach the Pacific Ocean side of the 5.5-mile long sand bar.
The top of the dunes offer up greats views of the 581-foot-high “Gibraltar of the Pacific,” first sighted by Juan Cabrillo in 1542. The 23-million-year-old volcanic peak was used as a rock quarry from 1880 to 1969, but is now protected as part of the Morro Rock State Preserve, managed by the California State Parks system.
What’s the best way to have fun in Morro Bay? With a little Morro Play (#morroplay) of course.
Looking south towards the Back Bay and a very foggy Los Osos.
Heather, salt grass, coyote bush, sea rocket, evening primrose and silvery dune lupine, which hosts the threatened Morro Blue Butterfly, are just some of the hardy plants that seem to thrive in this harsh, wind-lashed environment.
Along the eastern shoreline of the sand spit you should be able to spot some of the other ancient volcanic peaks that make up the Nine Sisters, which are also known as the Cerros or Morros. The craggy mountains arose from the ocean approximately 23-25 million years ago and were formed when volcanic plugs of magma welled up and solidified into softer rock. Over time the softer rock eroded away, leaving behind steep, rocky buttes that provide the area with a unique, natural skyline. Due to the fog on the day we visited, we were only able to see a portion of Black Hill, a 665-foot peak located within Morro Bay State Park. The other major peaks in the chain are Cabrillo, Hollister, Cerro Romauldo, Chumash, Bishop, Cerro San Luis and Islay Hill.
After an hour of exploring the dunes we headed back to our kayaks…
…and took a refreshing dip in the bay to help cool us off after our hike.
Jumping into the bay was the perfect way to wrap up our first visit to the Spit. Now that I know how to get to it, I’ll definitely be making a return trip.
AKayak Shack rents single kayaks ($14), double kayaks ($18) canoes (($18) and stand-up paddleboards ($16) at hourly rates and are located in the marina across from the Morro Bay State Park campground.