"Come forth into the light of things, Let Nature be your teacher." ~ John Muir
I don’t know if John Muir ever visited what is now Montaña de Oro State Park, but the bard of California’s natural beauty would have appreciated the feeling of solitude one experiences at this gorgeous stretch of land along California’s Central Coast.
The Montaña de Oro State Park is perhaps the most beautiful spot in California that few people have heard about. Just south of Morro Bay and west of San Luis Obispo, it’s one of California’s largest state parks, covering 8,000 acres, including over 50 miles of trails and 7 miles of coastline. Trails for hiking and biking snake along the edge of the coast, through eucalyptus groves and up mountain passes. The park may not have the spectacular scenery of Yosemite, but provides just as precious an opportunity to commune with nature. In Montaña del Oro, there’s a sense of solitude and serenity that is often missing in Yosemite.
The park headquarters, known as the Spooner Ranch House, sits atop a bluff overlooking Spooners Cove. At the visitor's center, open on weekends and daily in the summer, you can pick up a free map of the park that outlines the multitude of trails.
Surrounded on three sides by rocky cliffs, the cove offers an ideal spot for solitude and contemplation. I sat in the pebbly cove at sunset and felt a sense of peace that is lacking at more open, crowded beaches. There were only a handful of people there, and I found the calm atmosphere nurturing to the spirit. Sunset and sunrise are equally spectacular here.
The beaches at Montaña del Oro are not great for swimming, but they’re good for tide pooling and rock climbing. There's an abundance of marine life: you might spot hermit crabs, sea otters, starfish and sea anemone. I also saw a coyote peeking out from the bushes along Spooner Cove just after sunrise. Many visitors enjoy kayaking from Spooners Cove as well.
Half a mile north of the visitor’s center is a popular surfing spot. Follow a trail that winds down the hill to an isolated, rocky cove.
The park entrance and parking at Montaña de Oro are free, and there are campgrounds available near Spooners Cove. Make a reservation beforehand if possible. Bring jackets and sweaters as it can get chilly at night, even in the summer. Bring food and water also and pack them on your hikes. There are wonderful spots to have a picnic, but food is not sold here.
Docent-led nature walks are available on nearly a weekly basis, but if quiet and solitude are what you came for, you may want to hike on your own. Ambitious hikers might choose the Valencia Peak Trail up to the 1,347 ft.-high Mt. Valencia peak, where they can enjoy magnificent 360-degree views of the area. The Oats Peak is another popular mountain hike. Both hikes take around 3 hours and cover 5.5 miles.
Just up the road from the visitor’s center, the more modest 2-mile walk along Bluff Trail reveals lovely vistas of the coastline. I also hiked the Bloody Nose Trail, which winds through a eucalyptus grove. The name of the park, Montaña de Oro (“mountain of gold”) derives from the brilliant wildflowers that bloom in the spring. Coon Creek Trail takes you past these wildflowers and into gorgeous riparian woodlands.
On any hike, beware of poison oak and rattlesnakes. But these are minor nuisances compared to the wonders of the area. Bring a camera, as there are many photo-worthy views throughout Montaña de Oro.
Nearby Morro Bay is a pleasant town and a good spot to stay if you’re not camping. As you enter the park from the north, watch for an overlook with a magnificent vista of the Pacific and the most famous landmark of the area, Morro Rock.
Hofbrau Restaurant by the water in Morro Bay offers a great view of Morro Rock along with tasty fish dishes and steaming clam chowder.