Chasing Adam: Where NorCal and SoCal Meet to Run
Columnist Adam Chase shares where to run, stay and eat in California's Central Coast.
This is the latest edition of “Chasing Adam,” a new column from longtime running writer Adam W. Chase aimed at telling thought-provoking stories from all corners of the running world.
Right smack in the middle of the California coast, precisely 240 miles south of San Francisco and 240 miles north of Los Angeles, rests beautiful Cambria, in what is aptly named the Central Coast of California, on the scenic Highway 1 Discovery Route.
And, just to its south, you will find Morro Bay, Los Osos, San Louis Obispo and Avila Beach. All of these locations are close to, if not right on, sandy beaches or steep, rocky cliffs that abut foothills that jut up to mountain meadows that, during the cooler or wetter months (more of a rarity the last several years, unfortunately) are green enough to conjure notions of Scottish highlands.
The natural beauty, clean air, awesome trails, year-round temperate weather and a die-hard community of runners make the Central Coast a runner’s paradise, one that is made all the better by the plethora of pre- and post-run activities and fine eating and drinking establishments, not to mention a great running shoe store.
The allure to running in the Central Coast area is that there are so many options: flat, rolling, mountainous, trail, road and, of course, beach. Morro Bay is a great running hub. From Morro Bay State Park you can run up Black Hill, as a moderate short trail that takes you more than 600 feet above the bay and offers an excellent vantage point to plot out more running adventures. Black Hill is one of the Nine Sisters, a volcanic chain of peaks that runs east to west through San Luis Obispo County—Morro Rock, being another.
For top-shelf beach running, check out the “Rock to Pier” half marathon course from Morro Rock to the recently restored Cayucos Pier. It is best to do so during low tide so check the charts.
Irish Hills and Johnson Ranch, with a short connector trail, are located between Avila Beach and San Luis Obispo. The Central Coast Concerned Mountain Bikers (CCCMBN) have been instrumental in building and maintaining outstanding trails like those found at these locations, complete with runnable switchbacks and sustainable grades. That is also the case with the trail network of Montaña de Oro State Park. CCCMB’s stewardship generously extends to the trails in Morro Bay State Park and, as such, these relatively smooth singletrack trails are well maintained.
If you want some speedier running on pavement without motor traffic, the Bob Jones Trail is a bike path that skirts Avila Creek and extends from the Harford Pier, near Avila Beach, to the outskirts of San Luis Obispo for a total of 8 miles.
To the north of Cambria, Leffingwell Landing and the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve Nature Walk, with about six miles of trails, are easily accessed from Moonstone Beach Drive. And, if you like running on the resilient surface of boardwalks, Moonstone Beach offers a great out-and-back that affords Pacific views, ones that, upon sunset, are compelling enough to halt traffic. To the south of Cambria, a highlight run, especially as a shakeout because it is relatively flat and short, Harmony Headlands State Park is just shy of three miles south of the blink-and-you-miss-it town of Harmony. The trail heads west from the trailhead and then along the ocean with its ribbon-like undulations that just pull you along and make you smile.
Heading North along Highway 1 Discovery Route, Ragged Point is a great stop for the views of the Big Sur area and for a gnarly hike on the cliff side trail. The narrow singletrack drops precipitously down to the Pacific and there is often enough flow to see the 300-foot Black Swift Falls.
PHOTOS: Scenes from Morro Bay and Avilia Beach along California’s Central Coast
Runners are solid snack and dessert eaters and, as such, Avila La Fonda Hotel makes an easy choice, especially with its 19th-century Mexican village feel, balcony beach views and quaint luxury. There are daily wine receptions, hors d’oeuvres, sweet treats and coffee, chip and cheese bar with fresh local salsas and imported beers and soft drinks, but make sure to save room for the nightly ice cream and fresh Avila Valley Barn Pie.
If you want to be right on the water, the Inn at Morro Bay is located within the Morro Bay State Park and right across the street from Morro Bay Golf Course, which is also the base of Black Hill.
The Fogcatcher Inn is located on Moonstone Beach in Cambria and affords Pacific views, a hot tub, accommodating amenities and a great vantage point for starting and ending runs.
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Food and Drink
There are some excellent restaurants along Highway 1 Discovery Route. In Morro Bay, Galley Seafood Grill & Bar, a staple since 1966, is owned by a runner and serves fresh seafood with views overlooking the beautiful harbor. Another seafood location for casual fare and outstanding outdoor seating is Mersea’s on the Harford Pier at Port San Luis, just north of Avila Beach.
Hungry runners with eclectic taste will want to hit Ocean Grill in Avila Beach. It is located in downtown Avila and features local farm ingredients, including appetizers, pizza and salads, offering many gluten-free, dairy-free and vegetarian options. And, for a local feel, the Bayside Café is right on the Back Bay Marina of Morro Bay is a fun and friendly walk-up café with both casual indoor dining and comfortable outdoor patio facing the bay with relaxing views of the marina.
If you want a wide selection of microbrew beer, Libertine Pub offers hand-crafted brews with a focus on barrel-aged, sour, “wild ales” and up to 48 craft beers on tap at all times. The menu has some delicious and generous appetizers. And, in Cambria, be sure to patronize Linn’s Restaurant, which offers hardy fare, carryover from its origin as Linn’s fruit stand. The famous Olallieberry pie for dessert is worthy of the acclaim.
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Recovery and Non-Run Activities
For a unique and active way of seeing Morro Bay, check out the Paddleboard Company, for a standup paddleboard tour of the harbor. That’s just one of many activities you can avail yourself of in this playground of the Central Coast, truly a wonderful place for a runner to chill. Easy access to trails and non-running activities make this an obvious destination, given its reputation as one of the world’s “healthy pockets.” The water adventures, such as kayaking, sailing, and surfing are a great balance to running, as is the excellent hiking and biking, whether on mountain or road.
The Avila Valley Barn is another fun stop, given its goofy goats and awesome pie. For more than 20 years, the Barn is a local favorite for the freshest fruit and vegetables of the area. Walk around the grounds to visit goats, ponies, horses, sheep, donkeys, and some exotic animals as well. And, speaking of farms, San Luis Obispo’s Farmer’s Market is of a grand scale, attracting vendors and shoppers from the entire Central Coast area.
About The Author
It’s actually easy to chase Adam W. Chase because, as a guy who just hit 50 and has run more than 150 marathons and ultra-distance races, he’s self-admittedly rather slow. Adam writes a little faster and also serves as President of the American Trail Running Association and works as a lawyer in Boulder, Colo. Adam was inducted into the Colorado Running Hall of Fame on April 20.