Central California’s Morro Bay Loop Favorite Ride

[This Central California’s Morro Bay Loop Favorite Ride was originally published in the December 2011 issue of Rider magazine]

One of my favorite rides includes a road loaded with demanding curves and fantastic Pacific Ocean views, a road through peaceful and solitary farmland, and a road meandering over the sweeping curves of rural back country on the central coast. This ride starts at Morro Bay, California, heads north on Pacific Coast Highway (PCH 1) to Monterey, California, then turns south on the back roads of the Salinas Valley and Paso Robles area to end up at—surprise—Morro Bay.

By pushing hard I could do this whole loop in one day, but I usually ride it over two days and take an overnight in Monterey. I like to stop occasionally to smell the flowers, enjoy the beautiful vistas and, of course, take care of those things that old guys occasionally have to.

Since I live 150 miles south of Morro Bay, I start out at zero dark hundred and push my Guzzi past Santa Barbara as fast as possible. This has two benefits—I miss the heavy morning commuter traffic through Santa Barbara, and I have a chance to get a great breakfast at Kay’s Country Kitchen in old town Orcutt. Their raisin-walnut-cinnamon French toast is unsurpassed by any other breakfast place! Also, this early start puts me on PCH 1 before the tourists head out and lumbering motorhomes and trailers break camp.

Salmon Creek Waterfall
Salmon Creek Falls is a short hike from the road.

The first stretch from Morro Bay to San Simeon is mostly straight two-lane with some gentle curves. Beyond Hearst Castle and the elephant-seal viewpoint, the curves start to become more demanding and numerous. About 1.5 miles north of the San Luis Obispo county line past Ragged Point, there is a sharp curve into Salmon Creek canyon. I like to stop here and see how the Salmon Creek waterfall is flowing. This is a bifurcated waterfall with the top spill easily seen from the road, but a short walk on the marked trail south of the creek takes you to the falls. Back on the road you are served more and more curves interspersed with beautiful ocean vistas. In the spring you get the occasional field of flowers backed by the blue Pacific.

Farther up the highway, you will reach Nacimiento Ferguson Road, which heads east over the Santa Lucia Moun­tain Range into the Central Coast back country. This is a great motorcycle road, but in the rainy season the numerous hairpin and blind curves are usually coated with sand or gravel. Today I’m continuing north on Highway 1, enjoying curves, views and an early morning lack of traffic.

Eventually, those riders who appreciate historic bridge architecture are treated to the Big Creek Bridge. Besides having graceful design features, all the historic bridges along Highway 1 are unique because of the different engineering demands of their specific location. Big Creek Bridge is a multiple-arch concrete span completed in 1937. Riding onward I reach Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. This is the location of the beautiful McWay Falls that pours 80 feet into a picturesque beach cove. You have to walk a short trail along the seaside bluff but the view is worth the effort. Saddled up again I enter the Big Sur area and I encounter more traffic and civilization. I could stop at one of the many cafés but I’m saving my appetite for something special for which I’m always hungry.

Bixby Bridge, CA
Construction on the famous Bixby Bridge, which is more than 280 feet high, was completed in 1932.

Upon leaving the Big Sur region, if the coastal fog lifts, you can see the Point Sur lighthouse. Farther north another example of beautiful historic bridge architecture starts coming into view. The Bixby Bridge is a concrete single-arch design completed in 1932. One unique design feature is that the arch is not anchored to the sides of the canyon but to the canyon floor. You can see the vertical structures at each end of the bridge that take the horizontal loads and the connecting ramp structures from the bridge to the roadway. From here on there are still some enjoyable curves to lean into but traffic increases and PCH 1 tames down considerably.

By now I’m really getting hungry so I continue north on PCH, through Monterey to Moss Landing, where a bowl of outstanding creamy red clam chowder is waiting for me. When I reach Phil’s Fish Market on the west side of the Moss Landing harbor the parking lot is, of course, full; fortunately the Guzzi fits into a small opening at the end of a row. With my chowder fix satisfied, I search out a motel for a night’s rest before heading south along the Salinas Valley back roads.

Elephant seals, San Simeon, California
Elephant seals at a viewpoint along Highway 1 north of San Simeon.

Come morning after a tasty breakfast at the Black Bear Dinner, I’m riding east on Highway 68. I could have taken the more challenging route of Carmel Valley Road (G16) to the Salinas Valley, but I’m going to take it easy on the homeward leg. Before coming to Salinas city I turn south onto River Road (G17) and enjoy a leisurely cruise over empty farm roads and gentle curves. The G17 actually runs into G16 at Elm Avenue close to Greenfield. Crossing the Arroyo Seco Creek on an old green single lane iron girder bridge, I take Central Avenue to its end at Highway 101. Yes, sad to say this route requires 2.5 miles of freeway. But getting off at Jolon Road (G14), I’m now treated to 104 miles of Central California’s finest back-road country—chaparral with stands of beautiful huge old oaks and rolling hillsides of scrub oaks. Best of all I’m pretty much alone.

Hearst's Hacienda, CA
The mural in the dining hall of Hearst’s Hacienda was painted by soldiers serving at Fort Hunter Liggett.

Close to the Army’s Fort Hunter Liggett, I come to the historic Dutton Hotel. This was a two-story adobe structure of the 1876 era. The locals have tried to protect the re­maining structure but the adobe is melting away. A quarter mile farther on I enter Fort Hunter Liggett (license, registration and insurance if the gate guards are on duty—no one was at the gate so I just rode in) to see one of the few remaining pristine California missions, the San Antonio Mission and William R. Hearst’s Hacienda. Since the mission is hidden inside an Army base, there are no encroaching developments or cities. You can even stay the night, but I like my lodging a little less Spartan. About a quarter mile away is Hearst’s Hacienda. We all know of the Hearst Castle designed and built by Hearst’s architect Julia Morgan; of course at Hearst Castle you can look but not touch. Well, guess what? At Hearst’s Hacienda, designed and built by the same Julia Morgan, you can actually stay overnight or stay several nights, just like Hearst’s rich and famous friends. Word of warning: The speed limit throughout this area is strictly enforced.

Lake Nacimiento, CA
Lake Nacimiento is known for its 165 miles of unspoiled shoreline, great waterskiing and fishing.

Heading south again, I continue to be treated to more lovely Central California countryside and gentle sweeping curves. The lack of traffic continues until I get close to Lake Nacimiento—civilization again! After Nacimiento, I ride G14 until reaching Chimney Rock Road. Once on it, I’m cruising by myself again—except for the deer; stay alert! On to Adelaida Road, and by Adelaida cemetery I’m entering wine country with all the wineries and traffic. This is what you get here and all along Vineyard Road until reaching Highway 46. Still, the countryside is quite scenic; there are more curves but also more traffic.

At Highway 46 I head west to the coast and PCH 1 and then south back to Morro Bay, the start of this enjoyable loop. I have ridden 330 miles on some very challenging, really sedate and solitary roads. I’ve seen fantastic ocean vistas, lovely waterfalls and beautiful undisturbed Central California countryside. Best of all, being late winter/early spring, there was very little traffic!



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