El Moro Elfin Forest Natural Area
An ancient oak grove, the Elfin Forest is home to trees that grow only 4 to 20 feet tall. Walking the path among these itty-bitty beauties, adults often stand a full head taller than the trees! Skirting the Morro Bay Estuary, this enchanting area offers plenty of moments for seeing wildlife, native plants, and ocean views.
History of the Elfin Forest
At 90 acres, the El Moro Elfin Forest Natural Area faces northwest toward the Morro Bay Estuary. The natural area was so named for its pygmy trees: California Live Oaks that grow to a maximum of 20 feet tall. (Elsewhere in Los Osos, California Live Oaks grow up to 50 feet tall.) Even after centuries, these trees remain small due to a combination of environmental conditions and the history of the place.
At the end of the most recent ice age, the Elfin Forest did not grow here. Instead, the area was occupied by a deep river valley. The climate was much cooler and damper than it is now, resembling that of Northern California and the Oregon coastline. As the town name of Los Osos implies, the valley likely saw grizzly bears, in addition to saber toothed tigers, mammoths, and even camels.
Over thousands of years, the ocean rose to its current level, with sand dunes taking over the river valley. The Elfin Forest grew in the middle of one such dune system. A lack of minerals, nutrients, and moisture keeps the Elfin oaks from growing to full size.
Among the pygmy oaks, the Elfin Forest is also home to coastal brackish marsh, maritime chaparral, coastal dune scrub, riparian woodland fringe, and manzanitas. In total, the area houses over 200 plant species, 110 bird species, 22 mammal species and 13 reptile and amphibian species. It also boasts a number of insect species, including a whopping 23 species of moths and butterflies.
Chumash & Back Bay
Locals call the area of the Elfin Forest the “back bay.” Here, a large Chumash archeological site stands just adjacent to the Elfin Forest. Throughout the area, Chumash middens can be found. These ancient refuse heaps show that people occupied the area of the forest dating back at least 9,000 years. The forest was likely a seasonal hunting and gathering point until 500 years ago, when lethal diseases traveled up the coast from the earliest European visitors.
Later, European explorers reached the area of Los Osos, bringing cattle and several plant species with them. The sedimentation of the back bay shows that these species quickly changed the landscape through cattle grazing, deforestation, and foreign plants competing with native species.
As far back as 1889, the land where the Elfin Forest stands had been subdivided into sites for vacation homes. Fortunately, only a few sites ever sold, and even fewer were developed. In 1987, with strong support from the community, California passed legislation to fund the purchase of 51 acres on the forest’s north side. The purchase was meant to be an annex to Morro Bay State Park. In 1994, the remaining 39 acres were purchased collaboratively by the Small Wilderness Area Preservation (SWAP), San Luis Obispo County, the State Coastal Conservancy and the California Department of Transportation. Today, a portion of the forest belongs to the State Lands Commission, while the rest belongs to the County of San Luis Obispo. SWAP works with SLO County Parks to manage, maintain and restore the natural area.
Elfin Forest Trail Stroll
A walk through the Elfin Forest offers views of its unusual pygmy oaks, views of seabirds from a comfortable platform, and coastal panoramas. Entrance to the trail is free, and dogs are welcome on leash. Benches, trail guides and interpretive displays are provided, but restrooms, drinking water, and other facilities are not. The park is open year-round, every day, from sunrise to sunset.
Trailhead Access Points
The Elfin Forest can be accessed at seven different points just north of Santa Ysabel Avenue. From Highway 1 South, just past Morro Bay, take exit 277 toward Los Osos/Baywood Park. Turn right on South Bay Boulevard and right again on Santa Ysabel Avenue. Access to the Elfin Forest and street parking can be found at 17th, 16th, 15th, 14th, 13th, 12th, and 11th Streets. Handicap access is only available at the 16th Street entrance. Mutt Mitt dispensers (for picking up after dogs) are available at every entrance.
At just under one mile, the Elfin Forest boardwalk loop was built in 1999 to provide access for all ages and abilities. The boardwalk is reachable via open sand trails leading from parking areas and access points. The one exception is the 16th Street access point, where the boardwalk starts and stops beside the parking area.
The boardwalk loops through the heart of the Elfin Forest, including two platforms for viewing the bay. Called Bush Lupine Point and Sienna’s View, these platforms provide the perfect perch for viewing seabirds and enjoying the breeze.
Handicap parking and direct access to the Elfin Forest boardwalk are available only at the 16th Street entrance, just north of Santa Ysabel Avenue.
Docent Lead Trail Walks
“Nature Walks in the Elfin Forest” are led by experienced and knowledgeable docents on different topics each month. Examples of trail walks include an exploration of the different insects in the forest, wildlife rehabilitation, and others. Walks are free and take place the third Saturday of the month at 9:30 A.M. There’s no need to RSVP: just show up at the 15th Street entrance off Santa Ysabel. Volunteers ask that you kindly leave pets at home for the walk, which lasts 90-120 minutes.
Other Nearby Activities
Los Osos Oaks Natural Reserve
Discover this other area with pygmy oaks, as well as a 1.5-mile series of trails on the southern edge of Los Osos. Enjoy the beauty of gnarled, gangly branches throughout this protected nature reserve.
Montaña de Oro State Park
This sprawling state park offers mountain biking, equestrian, and hiking trails throughout its 8,000 acres. Visit beaches for tidepooling and picnicking, or wander the historic Spooner Ranch House, historic home of the park’s early settlers. From any point in the park, enjoy views of its 7 undeveloped miles of coastline.
Los Osos is home to two popular golf courses with ocean views. Try the executive 9-hole course at Sea Pines Golf Resort, as well as foot golf and disc golf. Or head to Dairy Creek Golf Course for a links-style 9-hole course that’s easygoing enough for beginners, and challenging enough for seasoned golfers.
Kayaking enthusiasts love Los Osos for its wide range of conditions. For confident kayakers, a paddle from Spooner’s Cove to Morro Rock offers plenty of thrills. For those who like to take kayaking easy, the calm waters of Morro Bay and the Estuary make for a peaceful outing. Outfitters include the Kayak Shack in Los Osos, as well as Central Coast Outdoors, which leads half- and full-day kayaking tours across the region