How Morro Bay was the Ideal Halfway Point Up (Or Down) the Pacific Coast Highway

J.M. Lesinski

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Photos by Ashley Johnson

For the longest time, one of my life’s dreams was to travel California’s Pacific Coast Highway. The scenic byway was the stuff of dreams, both literally and figuratively, I remember having very vivid visions of what the odyssey up and down the West Coast would be like.

The dream was blessed to come true more than once. The planning of those weekslong trips up and down the California coast was no easy task though. I devoted entire nights to researching specific geographical portions for the best hotel, food, etc.

At the time of this specific Pacific Coast Highway trip, as a grad school student, I planned the trip for a full week at the end of my semester. The general outline I went for with the trip had us starting in San Diego and ending in San Francisco. I believe the car rental company we used was Budget, just for reference, who allowed a car to be returned in a different city.

The ratio for Northern California and Southern California days was an even three and three. Having lived and driven in California, I knew leaving one day in the middle for rest (and still some beach, of course) would be a smart idea. The question in the last steps of planning then became: where is the perfect mid-point on the Pacific Coast Highway?

I had been to San Luis Obispo once before, considered that geographically about the halfway point, and split my initial search between there and Pismo Beach. After a few days of searching on and off, I just was not finding the prices I wanted, and shifted gears.

A little bit of clicking around on Google Maps led me to Morro Bay. The oceanside town had an alluring array of natural playgrounds, like marshes, swampland, and mountain trails alongside the beach. After a short deliberation, I began browsing Morro Bay hotels, and was delighted to go with one of my first picks within about an hour.

The Sandpiper Inn, previously known as the Rodeway Inn & Keystone Inn, was truly a gem of a find. Nestled in the middle of Morro Bay, five minutes from the highway and beach alike, the quaint lodge was honestly one of the few hotels that satisfied me one hundred percent.

Previously being a Rodeway Inn, a hotel chain of which I have had mixed experiences, I was skeptical of the bones of the place. I was very pleased to be wrong. The room was incredible, the staff was courteous and welcoming, and the premises felt very safe (another major concern with any California hotel).

The Sandpiper Inn, named for the sandpipers that populate the local beaches, was also an incredible value. Rooms back in 2016 during this trip were the same price they are now in 2021, around $50 depending on the booking site. The value was undeniable.

Being a nature buff, I was also naturally curious about the sandpipers themselves in the area. The majority of our time in Morro Bay was spent at the beach, walking up and down, and of course relaxing the rest of the time. The sandpipers along the beach, bobbing up and down like tumbleweeds in the water, were a welcome change to the seagulls harassment on other beaches I have been to.

The natural beauties in the area, along with the key location of being a halfway point up the Pacific Coast Highway, were the selling points for making Morro Bay our mid-point stop. Morro Bay State Park specifically was one location I wanted to see right away, even though I regret to say we never made it there.

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The ancient volcanic mound of Morro Rock was a sight we followed through in seeing, however. The sheer face of the rock surface was stunningly majestic. Coming out of the ocean, the monolith towers like a fallen piece of moon, yet seems so peaceful at rest at the same time.

Access to the beach at Morro Bay was splendidly less hectic than trying to pay for parking anywhere in Venice or Santa Monica. Off-street parking, as well as unpaid parking right along the beach in certain areas, made the experience that much more enjoyable being a broke college student.

The local community was very relaxed, as were the majority of other tourists during our stay at Morro Bay. Local stores were not open as late as other major California cities, which did prove difficult coming in to Morro Bay as late in the evening as we did.

Coming off the highway initially, we stopped at a local store for beverages and something to snack on after the long drive up from Santa Barbara. After checking in to The Sandpiper Inn, we went out for some dinner along the beach area. Unfortunately, being the off-season, most beach front restaurants were closing up that late in the evening.

After hopping back on the Cabrillo Highway for a few exits, we found a twenty four hour McDonald’s restaurant. Being a gastrotourist, I was crushed to have fast food for a meal on a vacation, especially fast food I have already experienced.

However, the next day we more than made up for it with breakfast. Checking out of The Sandpiper Inn just a few minutes before eleven in the morning, still catching up on rest from the crazy California driving, we were ready to explore.

Driving up and down the main streets of Morro Bay, we discovered one of the local gems: Carla’s Country Kitchen. Serving up all day breakfast in a calming seaside establishment, Carla’s blue placemats and atmosphere will always have a place in my heart.

The three breakfast platters are always a solid go to for value and variety of food. There was also a good number of seasonal scrambles and omelets to choose from for the more indecisive. The staff was also incredibly kind and conversational. Carla’s Country Kitchen provided the optimal fuel to refuel on our coastal highway trip, and Morro Bay most certainly made for the best halfway point one could ask for.

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Professional journalist for over five years, covering topics all up and down both coasts of the United States, including arts, music, food, politics, and culture. I have a B.A. in English from SUNY Fredonia with minors in Psychology and Creative Writing, as well as an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from California State University, Fresno.

Buffalo, NY
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