One of my favorite "new places" of 2012 is Montaña de Oro State Park near Morro Bay. You know you've found a great spot when you've made two trips within two months and have plans to go back.
In July, I hiked the Bluffs Trail -- an unforgettable 3.5-mile out-and-back route along the edge of a magnificent coastline. This easy and nearly level route includes tidepools, dramatic cliffs, arches, sea caves, a secluded beach, and a blowhole -- all set against vivid blue water and flanked by dramatic mountains. This is just one part of a network of more than 50 miles of trails that crisscross the park.
We also checked out the campground. Within easy walking distance of the beach at Spooner's Cove, it's a nice place to camp with partial shade, picnic tables, and a fair amount of space between sites. Compared to the campground at Gaviota State Park, where we had spent the previous two nights, it was a dramatic difference.
Gaviota is adjacent to a nice beach and fishing pier, but the sites are smaller and closer together than any other place I've ever camped. The only place for our tent was 3 feet from a paved footpath and there was a fair amount of noise throughout the night. In addition, there isn't a hint of shade and the campsites cost $45 -- almost twice as much as at Montaña de Oro.
Reserve a campsite at reserveamerica.com from May through September; the rest of the year they are first come, first served.
We returned to the park last Saturday, this time with horses. Not only is this a great hiking park, it's also a great place to ride horses on the beach. Local equestrians helped build many of the trails and the park has since become known as one of the best places in the entire state to camp with horses. You can reserve any of the four family-sized equestrian campsites or one of two 50-person group equestrian sites. Trails connect the sites directly to the beach.
If you don't plan to camp, you'll find horse trailer parking on the right side of the road before you reach Spooner's Cove. We stopped along the road just beyond the turnoff for Sand Spit Road and rode down the half-mile American Canyon Trail through a gap in the sand dunes to the beach.
If you don't have a trailer or an RV, you can drive Sand Spit Road all the way down to the beach. The beach stretches north for more than 5 miles, ending at the entrance to Morro Bay. It's wide and sandy, with views of Morro Rock. We couldn't believe that we saw fewer than 20 people on a Saturday afternoon. Though the currents appeared dangerous for swimming, the beach was a great place for walking, wading (with caution), riding and enjoying the warm sun.
The park's name is no mystery in the spring when its slopes are covered with wildflowers. No matter what the season, it's a beautiful place. Popular with locals, but overshadowed by the nearby and better-known Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, the park wasn't anything close to crowded during either of my visits.
One of its best features: Entry is free.
There's only one strange thing about this park: The surprising absence of signs and maps. Once you pass the entrance sign, you'll see very few others. Want a hiking map? You won't find it on the Web site, which has less useful information than sites for most of the other 277 California state parks (www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=592).
You'll have better luck with an Internet search for "Montaña de Oro State Park trails map."
Adam Blauert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.