Central California: San Simeon

Elephant seal at Piedras Blancas

San Simeon itself, four 1/2 hours north of LA and just a bit north of Cambria along Highway 1, is famous for two things:

The wealthy excess of a powerful man — and the love of seals.

Approximately 8 miles north of Cambria is Hearst Castle, the way-over-the-top former estate of wealthy newspaper magnate and antiquities collector William Randolph Hearst.

Originally named La Cuesta Encantada (“The Enchanted Hill”), it was designed in 1919 by the then-most famous female architect in America, Julia Morgan, as a place for Hearst’s family and famous friends (like his mistress, the actress Marion Davies), to get away from L.A.

The scope of Hearst’s vision for the property then widened, shall we say: at the time of his death in the early 1950s, the house had 165 rooms full of priceless and often plundered European art, two swimming pools, endless gardens and a zoo’s worth of animals roaming its thousands of acres…and still wasn’t complete.

The name “Hearst Castle” was meant to be a derogatory stab at its excesses, but to Hearst’s private chagrin, it stuck. He and the Castle were famously caricatured by Orson Welles in the director’s 1941 masterpiece, Citizen Kane; the gaudy, cavernous “Xanadu” was meant to illustrate Kane/Hearst’s growing madness for collecting and self-isolation.

But boy, do people love a good mansion with a past. Absolutely reserve tickets before you come, to avoid either waiting endlessly or not getting in at all.

You park at the bottom of the hill, take a 5-mile narrated bus ride to the top, see a short documentary featuring no-longer-renegade granddaughter Patti Hearst, and are then led on any of several 75-minute tours of the property. I’d see Tour 1 (an overview) or Tour 5 (a fun, cheesy evening tour where people dress up as though attending a party at the Castle); both feature the swimming pools, which are, for our money, the most spectacularly romantic parts of this crusty wedding cake of a house.

And speaking of romance, ever seen a two-ton male elephant seal make a love charge at a female? Well, then you haven’t fully lived.

To right this wrong, take Highway 1 four miles north of the entrance to Hearst Castle, and on the beach side you’ll see signs for Piedras Blancas.  Here are the elephant seal breeding grounds, an almost all-year-round show of still-endangered elephant seals in the wild. Males start arriving in November, and violent fights with other males ensue for the rights to breed with choice females. Females trickle in soon after, having gorged themselves throughout the late summer-early fall, and fat, round, softly honking baby seals start making their appearances in January and February.  Males leave in April and May, off to stock up on food, and don’t return again until the fall…when the whole thing starts again.

Just a half-hour up the road you’ll find the wilds of Big Sur. If you have some more time in your day (or would like to spend the night atop an ocean cliff), it makes for the drive of a lifetime.

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See also
Central California: Big Sur
Central California: Cambria
A Dog-Friendly Stay by the Cambria Shore
Weird House of Cambria: Nitt Witt Ridge
The Best of Central California


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  2. […] can make a stop in San Simeon. I wouldn’t recommend visiting the famous Hearst Castle on a travel day (it requires a lot of […]

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