Elfin Forest Natural Preserve (also know as Los Osos Elfin Forest and El Moro Elfin Forest Natural Area) lies between the communities of Morro Bay and Los Osos on the coast of San Luis Obispo County. A mile of boardwalk circles the 90-acre preserve, providing opportunities to gaze across Morro Bay and admire nearby peaks in Morro Bay State Park. There is a thin 80 feet of elevation gain along the loop, making it suitable for strollers, walkers, and wheelchairs. For a little something extra, there is a 1/3 of a mile long dirt trail that ventures off the east side of the boardwalk for more views inland toward Hollister Peak and Cerro Cabrillo.
There are several access points to Elfin Forest Natural Preserve in the neighborhood of Los Osos on the south side of the park. Boardwalk extends all the way to the trailhead on 16th Street, making it the most obvious place to start. If you set out from 17th Street (also shown on the map below) or one of the other nearby streets, you’ll need to walk through a bit of sand to reach the boardwalk loop. Starting from 16th Street, follow the boardwalk a few hundred feet to the start of the loop and pick up a trail guide. In addition to a map, the guide provides information about vegetation in the park that corresponds to numbered markers along the loop. One plant to look out for is poison oak, which pops up in a few places around the boardwalk.
To reach Bush Lupine Point, the southernmost of two viewpoints overlooking Morro Bay, turn left and begin a clockwise loop around the boardwalk.
Hike west for a quarter mile and stay to the left through another junction to reach Bush Lupine Point. The blue waters beyond the point should be hopping with water foul like ducks, cormorants, and egrets. Across the bay, a long dune of white sand protects the bay from ocean waves. To the northwest, you’ll have a great view of Moro Rock, an iconic mass jutting into the sea just beyond the mouth of the bay.
Get to the second overlook by backtracking about 300 feet to the trail split and turning left. Continue around the boardwalk for another three hundred feet to the next junction. Turn left to reach Siena’s View. Much like the first viewpoint, this spot offers a good look at estuary wildlife. Siena’s View has a better perspective of the inland side of the bay where the most birds play. Above the bay to the northeast is Cerro Cabrillo, the highest point in Morro Bay State Park.
Continue the loop by backtracking to the junction and turning left. The boardwalk passes through sage, chamise, and a variety of shrubs. Beneath these plants is a hill of sand, which grasses and trees gradually converted from dune to forest.
An eighth of a mile past the turnoff for Siena’s View, you’ll reach another trail spur. Take a brief side trip into an oak grove on the right. Short but sprawling pygmy oaks spread their branches overhead, providing a shady shelter. Moss hangs from the oaks like tinsel. You might be surprised to learn that these twenty-foot-tall California live oaks are a couple hundred years old. The dune environment limits the growth potential of the oaks, resulting in their dwarfed height (and the name Elfin Forest).
Leave the oaks and continue up the boardwalk. It is 0.2 miles from here back to the start of the loop by 16th Street, venturing uphill to cross the high point of the boardwalk. At 0.07 miles past the trail spur into the grove, you’ll pass a dirt trail that leaves the boardwalk on the left. This side trail is 1/3 of a mile long and makes a curve around the east side of the park, rejoining the boardwalk another 0.07 miles up the hill. The dirt trail offers more views of Cerro Cabrillo and Hollister Peak. If you take the dirt trail in this direction, just bear right past a few side paths to complete the loop.
Just past the point where the dirt trail rejoins the boardwalk, a bigger sandy trail will leave the boardwalk to connect with the trailhead at the end of 17th Street. From here it is only a short distance farther around the boardwalk to complete the loop back to the junction with the boardwalk to 16th Street. As the hike comes to an end, you will get a nice overview of the park, Morro Bay, and surrounding mountains. Elfin Forest Natural Preserve is protected as a collaboration between Small Wilderness Area Preservation (SWAP), California State Parks, and San Luis Obispo County Park. A majority of the 90-acre preserve is actually part of Morro Bay State Park. Dogs are welcome on leash. No bikes. No fee or permit is required to hike in Elfin Forest Natural Preserve, so get out and enjoy!
To get to the trailhead: From Highway 1 in Morro Bay, take exit 277, following signs for Los Osos and Baywood Park. Turn south on South Bay Boulevard and drive 2.5 miles to Santa Ysabel Avenue. Turn right and drive two blocks to 16th Street. Turn right and proceed to the trailhead parking at the end of the street.
From Highway 101 south of San Luis Obispo, take exit 200A onto Los Osos Valley Road and drive 9.8 miles west to South Bay Boulevard. Turn right and drive 1.4 miles north to Santa Ysabel Avenue. Turn left and drive two blocks to 16th Street. Turn right and proceed to the trailhead parking at the end of the street.
Trailhead address: 16th Street, Los Osos, CA 93402
Trailhead coordinates: 35.331678, -120.82539 (35° 19′ 54.04″N 120° 49′ 31.40″W)
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