Campground Reviews: Morro Bay, California

In his latest batch of campground reviews, Courthouse News’ western bureau chief documents his visit to Morro Bay on California’s Central Coast.

The trusty camper at the site at Morro Bay State Park. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

Tired of waking up at campgrounds with a stiff neck and back in the cramped quarters of a Honda Element, I made the rash decision more than three years ago to spend most of my savings on a used truck and camper. Since then, my trusty co-pilot Klaus the dog and I have been to dozens of campgrounds in seven states, from Southern California to near the U.S.-Canada border in northern Montana. We’ve camped on coasts, mountainsides, friends’ driveways and at RV parks.

We’ve survived breakdowns, camper doors that wouldn’t open, truck doors that wouldn’t close, plenty of dead batteries, a flood (in the camper) and multiple fires (outside). I’ve learned to overpack food, medicine and beer, to appreciate air conditioning and to roll slow in my studio apartment on wheels.

With a second canine companion in tow, we continue a series on campground reviews with a visit to California’s Morro Bay.

Morro Strand State Beach

Not for the first time, I realized after reaching my spot I could have avoided driving through an entire campground had I read the map or looked around.

Not that it took long. The campground at Morro Strand State Beach on California’s Central Coast is small, with 76 sites smooshed into a long, thin parking lot.

Morro Strand State Beach. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

The southern, inland section includes some full hook-up sites that cater to RVs and trailers up to 40 feet long, while rigs in the northern end must be 24 feet or under. Unlike many campgrounds where length limits are unenforced, the blue lines of tape 24 feet apart at the entrance kiosk show these rangers mean business.

And for good reason. My 24-foot camper filled almost every inch. When I arrived, the front end of my neighbors’ van poked into my spot while they busily unloaded a small trailer with their tents and other supplies.

Friendly as could be, they apologized for the intrusion and moved out of the way. I parked and took Klaus and Grace the dogs out for a walk, realizing as I passed one of the few spigots with thread that my water tank was empty. After moving the camper to fill up I pulled in facing the other direction. Otherwise my camper door would open to the front of the neighbors’ van, a few feet from their tents. I hoped the site on the other side remained empty. Luckily, it did.

In addition to drinking water, the park has two restrooms with running water, but neither showers nor a dump station. A ranger said campers could access both for free at Morro Bay State Park six miles away.

Cramped it was, and home for a time to at least one loud conspiracy-theory-spouting loon, Morro Strand ranks as my favorite place in town, and one of the better beachfront campgrounds in California.

It is right on the beach, after all. Bushes block what would be ocean views for most of the sites on the side closest to the water, but they also dampen the impact of frequent winds, and well-placed gaps let people view the water from fencing set up to protect snowy plovers, a small, threatened bird that breeds on beaches.

Those forced to slum it on the inland side can see the ocean from picnic tables set on a slight hill above the sites or climb the hill above that for a more encompassing view, including that of Morro Rock a mile to the south.

The last in a chain of long-extinct volcanoes known as “The Morros,” Spanish for the hills, the 576-foot rock sometimes called “the Gibraltar of the Pacific” was much larger before crews mined away large chunks to create breakwaters throughout the California coast.

Protected today, the monolith is a refuge for the endangered peregrine falcon. Climbing is prohibited.

Morro Rock and clouds. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

Alas, the dogs couldn’t join me down one of the paths that lead to the beach, closed to canines to protect the plover. But fret not, dog owners. An off-leash dog beach is a mile away, and the neighborhood above the campground is suitable for dog-walking.

Well-maintained bike paths lead to the heart of town a little more than a mile to the south, and shops including a grocery store and a brewery I’ll need to hit up on my next trip are closer.

Future trips there shall be. I hope to snag one of the full hook-up spots for an extended stay. With its mild year-round climate, Morro Bay is a haven for campers hoping to escape the cold of winter, heat of summer or, like me on this trip, relief from seasonal allergies.

Morro Strand is also popular. Campers would be advised to make reservations when they become available six months in advance, especially for weekends and during the summer.

Morro Dunes RV Park

Narrow though the spots were at Morro Strand, they were deep, and for the most part, campground folk tend to not socialize too much with neighbors.

Not so at Morro Dunes RV Park.

An elderly neighbor guided me around his parked truck that edged into my site. His wife was ready with a greeting when I stepped out of the truck and they chatted me up while I set up camp.

Morro Rock stands tall above Morro Dunes RV Park. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

Soon after the neighbor on the other side asked the couple about the bike parked behind my site. The woman said I should lock it up when they told her it was mine. Thieves got off with a few bikes the night before, she said.

The moment I stepped outside the woman repeated what she told them and insisted any thieves would cut my thick, heavy-duty metal lock. I thanked her and told her I was a light sleeper, as were my dogs, and I wasn’t worried. She stared at me, incredulously.

If I left the bike in my camper, I wouldn’t be able to move around after all.

Turns out they all lived at least most of the time at the park, and hailed from California’s Central Valley, as did seemingly most of the people at Morro Dunes during my visit. During the winter Morro Dunes is also a favorite of snowbirds.

Gregarious neighbors notwithstanding, Morro Dunes is a clean, well-run RV park, and my view of sand dunes leading to the Pacific Ocean from my back window would be hard to beat.

The park includes a fenced-in dog area, clean bathrooms with showers and multiple laundry facilities, all of which require a key code to enter, and a well-appointed if slightly expensive store. The staff is friendly and ever present. Tents are allowed, as are large RVs, in an expansive area with more than 150 sites that is mostly concrete. Dogs are forbidden in the only areas outside the dog park that pass for grass.

The dog “park” at Morro Dunes RV Park. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

Seafood restaurants, art galleries, souvenir shops and both covered and uncovered public seating areas fill the busy embarcadero area down the road. The diverse crowd on the commercial strip that weekend included vacationers, surfers, anglers and locals.

Fisherfolk can drop lures from the shore or kayaks and sailboats on the water not far from Morro Rock, often close to groups of sea otters. Large commercial shipping vessels lurk further out. The waters in and around the bay are home to snapper, bass, salmon and tuna.

Not the nicest RV park I’ve visited, Morro Dunes is also far from the worst, and it might be just what some including families and the socially inclined are looking for in a vacation spot.

Morro Bay State Park

I prefer the ambience of campgrounds and a bit more space. Over a hill from the busy embarcadero, Morro Bay State Park had both.

Spread out over 2,700 acres, the 129 sites for RVs and tents border a challenging 18-hole golf course on one side and a marina with a busy cafe on the other. Boat slips and kayas are available for rent. A small launch is available for people who bring their own kayaks, though during my visit many preferred a small, quiet speck of a beach between the golf course and bay.

(Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

A dog-friendly boardwalk at the marina leads through mud and sand flats and a protected estuary that is one of the most important stops for birds migrating between Alaska and South America.

Closed due to the pandemic, a museum of natural history stands atop a large hill next to the marina that provides excellent views of the rock, the stacks of a shuttered power plant and the sailboat-lined embarcadero area.

Closer to the action than Morro Strand, hills on both sides made a bike ride to town a bit more arduous, but I made it to a brewery in the middle of the commercial area in approximately 10 minutes.

Still not comfortable eating or drinking inside, the patio full of rowdy revelers, I decided against a beer, probably for the best since I had to ride up the bigger hill on the way back.

Though the park offers showers and a dump site, the 30 sites with water and electric connections do not include sewer hook-ups.

Friendly and helpful, the rangers let me check in early, provided the campers from the night before had vacated the site. Luckily, they had.

The trees near my site provided the right amount of shade, and I could move my chair and solar panels to catch plenty of rays. The large firepit with a grill came in handy the first night.

My neighbors were friendly without being intrusive, and while one group on the other end blared music most of the time, at least it was good, they were having fun and they turned it off well before quiet hours started at 10 p.m.

Come checkout I didn’t want to leave, but it was time to head home. I gassed up in town and — despite the foggy morning — took the scenic route up Highway 1 to the famed Big Sur Coast Highway that starts approximately 40 miles from Morro Bay.

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