Brian’s Travel Spot: The Grand Adventure, Hearst Castle

A view through the "Portal on the Big Sur" at Ragged Point Inn, looking north along the coastline.Welcome to another instalment of The Grand Adventure,  the week-long drive which I took from Phoenix to San Francisco, part of a larger trip to America in January/February 2017. The journey began with a drive from Phoenix to Joshua Tree National Park, followed a day spent hiking in the park. That evening, I drove to Los Angeles in the rain, then spent a day in the city before setting off on the last leg, following the Pacific Coast Highway all the way to San Francisco.

The first part of the drive took me as far as San Simeon, where I’d planned to spend the day visiting Hearst Castle, before carrying on through the Big Sur to Santa Cruz, my last stop before San Francisco. However, California had other plans for me…

Rainstorms had been battering the coast that winter, resulting in a large landslip in the Big Sur which had taken out the Pacific Coast Highway. Unfortunately, I only discovered this when I arrived at San Simeon at the end of my day-long drive from Los Angeles, leading to some hasty rescheduling that evening. The following morning, I’d worked out my new plan and was all set to go.

Since this is fairly long post, I’ve split it into five parts:

You can find out what my new plan was after the gallery.

  • My progress into the Big Sur was abruptly halted.
  • I think they mean it you know.
  • I left the car in the layby and decided to explore. This is the view over the edge.
  • I'm not great with heights, so this was as close I was prepared to get.
  • The view out to sea. Next stop, the eastern coast of China, on the other side of the Pacific.
  • I decided to go on a little further, but on foot.
  • I think this would be an awesome road to drive (and I generally don't enjoy driving).
  • I think I'll go as far as that corner and see what I can see.
  • Oh wow! Look at that coast! The road clings to the side of the mountain as it heads north.
  • The view straight down, where there's another little bay.
  • Okay, time to head back.
  • You can just about see the road signs in the far distance.
  • The relevant portion, zoomed in. My car is behind the bush on the right.
  • While the views out to sea are great, the views inland are none too shabby either!
  • Back at the car and my next stop, just a short drive away, is this headland...
  • ... home to the Ragged Point Inn.
  • This would be an awesome place to stay. Maybe next time.
  • Perhaps more importantly, if you go through the woods behind the inn...
  • ... you'll reach this vantage point, looking north along the coast, where I just was.
  • Here's a less obstructed view.
  • I think the road closure is just before the bridge-like structure on the right...
  • The road is an amazing piece of engineering. Moving along to the left...
  • ... if I'm correct in my reasoning, that road sign in the centre is as far as I got...
  • ... while a little further along is this house...
  • ... which you can see at the right-hand side of this photo. What a magnificent coastline.
  • A slightly less obscured view. Check out the pretty flowers...
  • ... which grow along the edge of the cliffs here.
  • Since this is a tourist attraction, someone decided to put up this portal...
  • ... which actually frames the view quite nicely.
  • The view straight down. That's the Black Swift Waterfalls, where Young Creek...
  • ... plunges into the bay
  • I love watching the waves coming in. Here comes one now...
  • ... one its way to the shore...
  • ... where it arrives with a crash!
  • One last view out to sea, then it's on my way again, back to Hearst Castle.
  • It wasn't long, the next bay, in fact, before I had to pull over to admire the views.
  • This is the bay, looking south from (I think) Ragged Point itself.
  • This, meanwhile, is a 180° panorama of the whole bay from south (left) to north (right).
  • This, meanwhile, is the equivalent panorama looking inland.
  • Time to hit the road again. The Santa Lucia mountains really are beautiful.
  • I've left the Big Sur behind now and the road is flat and straight, so I made good time...
  • ... or I would have if I hadn't kept stopping at every bay to admire the views!
  • This is looking towards Point Piedras Blancas and the lighthouse...
  • ... which you can see more clearly here.
  • This is the view north, back towards the Big Sur.
  • I think that rock is called La Cruz.
  • Another panorama from south (left) to north (right).
  • A last look at the waves crashing in on the shore...
  • ... and then I'm off again. I had a schedule to keep to you know!
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My original plan had been to drive up to Hearst Castle in the morning, spending the whole day there before returning to my hotel at three o’clock for my weekly conference call. Then, the following morning, I would carry on north, through the Big Sur, admiring the views as I went. However, with the Pacific Coast Highway closed, I was going to have double back on myself, cut over the Santa Lucia Mountains via SR 46, and pick up my old friend US 101 for the drive north.

I could have stuck to my original plans for my day in San Simeon, but since I still wanted to see the southern end of the Big Sur, I decided that I would drive up there that morning, take a look around, then come back to Hearst Castle for lunch and a shortened visit in the afternoon.

The alternative would have been to stick with my original plan to spend the day at Hearst Castle, then drive up to the Big Sur the following morning before doubling back on myself. However, I was already faced with a long enough drive the following day, and I didn’t fancy adding the extra driving (an hour’s round trip, plus however long I would inevitably spend sightseeing) before I even set off for Santa Cruz.

Having made up my mind, I set off after breakfast, driving north along the Pacific Coast Highway (which, confusingly, goes by the name “Cabrillo Highway” from San Luis Obispo all the way through the Big Sur). I went past the turn off for Hearst Castle and carried on, the hills to the east (part of the Santa Lucia range) quickly gaining in height and coming closer to the coast.

The road, which had been straight and flat, now started to twist and climb. I passed Ragged Point and crossed over San Carpoforo Creek, generally regarded as the southern boundary of the Big Sur. By now, the mountains were coming down straight into the sea, the road cutting its way along the mountainside high above the water. It was just getting really exciting, so naturally, when I turned a corner just past the Ragged Point Inn, I ran into a big “Road Closed” sign.


I suspect I could have continued beyond that point (there must have been local access, for example) but in the unlikely event something went wrong, I really didn’t want to be that guy, explaining to the car hire company how I managed to get into an accident on a road I shouldn’t even have been on. Instead, I parked up on the layby by the sign and walked on a short way to admire the views and dream of what might have been.

Returning to the car, I drove the short way back to the Ragged Point Inn and took in more of the breath-taking landscape from the viewpoint there. Then it was back in the car for the return drive to Hearst Castle, only I couldn’t help stopping a couple of times on the way to admire the views.

I had one more stop in me before I reached Hearst Castle, which you can read about after the gallery.

  • My final stop, just south of Piedras Blancas Lighthouse...
  • ... which you can see in this photo.
  • My eye was also drawn to the rocks just off the coast...
  • ... loving the way that the waves broke over them.
  • One day I will have to come back to visit the lighthouse, but this time...
  • ... I had come to see the Elephant Seals.
  • These amazing creatures had come to the beach to give birth and then mate.
  • And there they are.
  • There are so many of them on this stretch of the beach. It was amazing!
  • More seals.
  • A raised viewing plaform runs along the back of the beach affording some excellent views.
  • Most of the seals seemed to be mothers with their recently born pups...
  • ... and the main activity seems to be lying around!
  • This pup is feeding.
  • What you can't tell from the photos is just how noisy it was. The seals make a racket!
  • The view from the other end of the beach...
  • ... where I'll leave you with a last view of the sea...
  • ... before I hit the road again (for all of ten minutes) on my way to Hearst Castle.
  • And there it is! My first sight of the castle (I wasn't looking for it on the way up).
  • It's on top of that wooded hill...
  • ... looking splendid in the midday sun, which is where I'll leave you.
My final stop, just south of Piedras Blancas Lighthouse...1 ... which you can see in this photo.2 My eye was also drawn to the rocks just off the coast...3 ... loving the way that the waves broke over them.4 One day I will have to come back to visit the lighthouse, but this time...5 ... I had come to see the Elephant Seals.6 These amazing creatures had come to the beach to give birth and then mate.7 And there they are.8 There are so many of them on this stretch of the beach. It was amazing!9 More seals.10 A raised viewing plaform runs along the back of the beach affording some excellent views.11 Most of the seals seemed to be mothers with their recently born pups...12 ... and the main activity seems to be lying around!13 This pup is feeding.14 What you can't tell from the photos is just how noisy it was. The seals make a racket!15 The view from the other end of the beach...16 ... where I'll leave you with a last view of the sea...17 ... before I hit the road again (for all of ten minutes) on my way to Hearst Castle.18 And there it is! My first sight of the castle (I wasn't looking for it on the way up).19 It's on top of that wooded hill...20 ... looking splendid in the midday sun, which is where I'll leave you.21
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Just south of Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, I pulled over at Elephant Seal Vista Point. Elephant Seals come ashore on this stretch of beach twice a year, once to molt and once (between December and March) to give birth and mate (in that order; the pups born in December were conceived in the previous March). It’s a very popular spot, with a car park and an elevated viewing platform so that you can watch the seals in safety.

I’ve seen grey seals before, but Elephant Seals are a completely different proposition. The clue is in the name: females can weigh up to 725 kg, while males are even bigger, weighing in at anything up to 2,250 kg! In short, they are huge!

I was there at the end of January, when the females had given birth and were nursing their pups. The beach was full of them, 100s of seals, all lying on the sand. What you don’t get from the photos is the noise, with pups crying for attention and their mothers call for them all the time. It was definitely worth the stop, but sadly, I couldn’t stay for long and was soon on my way.

From there, it was another five miles to the turn off for Hearst Castle, which I reached without further incident (that is, I resisted the temptation to pull over for more views). Hearst Castle is built on a hill, about five kilometres from the coast, but visitors park at the visitor centre, which is just off the main road. From there, you can buy tickets for guided tours (which are the only way to visit the castle), watch information films and get something to eat from the cafeteria.

Although known as Hearst Castle, it’s more a palace complex than a castle, built by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst between 1919 and 1947 on part of a cattle ranch he inherited from his father. Modelled after grand renaissance palaces from the Mediterranean, the main building, the Casa Grande, resembles a cathedral, with multiple other buildings, including indoor and outdoor swimming pools and a tennis court. Hearst lived there until ill health forced him to move to Los Angeles in 1947 and while the castle in now in the hands of the State of California, the Hearst family still owns the surrounding ranch.

My original plan, when I was going to spend all day there, was to take two or three guided tours (each tour only covers a small part of the complex), but with limited time, I decided to just do one tour. Having bought my ticket, I got lunch at the cafetiere, then boarded the bus, which takes each tour group up to the castle itself.

You can see how I got on after the gallery.

The drive up from the parking lot to the castle is pretty spectacular. It takes just over 15 minutes on the way up (and is a little quicker on the way down), the bus climbing via a series of switchbacks to the top of the hill. The views are amazing, taking in the whole of the coastline, which is laid out before you. Thanks to the switchbacks it really doesn’t matter which side of the bus you sit on and, even better, the middle part of the road (the really windy bit) is one way, so you get different views on the way down.

From the bus stop, which is just under the castle, your tour guide forms you up and then takes you on your chosen tour. You do need to stay together, but it’s a pretty relaxed business, with plenty of time to take photographs and some time to explore as you move between locations. Then, at the end, you are free to spend as long as you want exploring the castle grounds before catching a bus, which run every 15 minutes, back down to the visitor centre.

I was on the Cottages & Kitchens tour, which lasted just over an hour. This avoided the main house (the Casa Grande) and instead took in two of the cottages (Casa del Monte and Casa del Mar). Mind you, to call Casa del Monte and Casa del Mar “cottages” is a bit of a misnomer. Sumptuously appointed, they served as guest quarters for the castle’s famous visitors and are luxurious multi-room villas in their own right. Set in front of and slightly below the Casa Grande, they also enjoy some wonderful views over the coast (Casa del Mar) and the mountains (Casa del Monte).

After the cottages, the tour headed for the kitchens. You can see what I made of them, and the rest of Hearst Castle, after the gallery.

  • After the cottages, the tour moved on to the kitchens. We went around the side of the...
  • ... the Casa Grande  and headed for the tower in the corner, where a staircase led down...
  • ... to the kitchens in the basement.
  • These were a pretty grand affair, capable of feeding numerous residents and guests.
  • A view from the opposite end, giving you a feel for the full size of the kitchens.
  • But that's not all. Behind where I was standing are even more kitchens!
  • These kitchens house the ovens...
  • ... including the bread ovens (sadly that's replica dough).
  • The washing up area is back here too.
  • The kitchen staff had their own quarters where they could eat.
  • The kitchens are very functional, but some of the detail, like this tiling, is lovely.
  • I also loved the old cupboards.
  • How's that for a cake mixer?
  • Neat telephone!
  • The final stop is the wine cellar...
  • ... which is temperature controlled.
  • Normally I'm dismissive of port that doesn't come from Porto, but I'd like to try that!
  • That marked the end of the formal tour. Outside, I took a look at this amazing structure...
  • ... which is actually an outdoor swimming pool (undergoing restoration back then).
  • From there, I made my way back to the bus departure point via the tennis courts...
  • ... and my final stop, the indoor swimming pool. Much smaller than the outdoor one...
  • ... it is no less lavish. Check out the tiling on the floor. It reminded me...
  • ... of the various Roman baths I've seen: I wonder if they looked like this in their pomp?
  • Such amazing decoration...
  • ... which extends to the floor of the pool.
  • The water is so still: check out those relfections.
  • There's even a diving board at this end of the pool.
  • The view from this end of the pool, looking back along its length.
  • One last look, then it was time to go. I didn't want to leave, but I had a bus to catch.
  • Soon I was on my way and it was time to say goodbye to Hearst Castle.
  • At least I could enjoy the magnficent views on the way down. This is looking west...
  • ... and here's the view southest to San Simeon Point...
  • ... and finally, the view south along the coast. My hotel is down there somewhere.
  • At this point, the road splits: we're going right for the journey down.
  • The winding road below.
  • A last (close up) view of the castle on the hill.
  • The road rapidly loses height, providing more views as it goes.
  • A reminder that Hearst Castle is surrounded by ranch land.
  • And dramatic hills.
  • The two parts of the road recombine for the final stretch down to the visitor centre.
  • A final (distant) view of Hearst Castle.
  • As the bus approaches the visitor centre, it goes past the farm buildings for the ranch.
  • I'll leave you with a final view down the coast, which is where I'm going next.
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The kitchens are in the basement of the Casa Grande, and, if I remember correctly (I’m writing this four years after the tour) they provided food for the whole Hearst Castle complex, including the guests in the cottages. Unsurprisingly, the kitchens are pretty extensive and, in contrast to the opulent décor in the cottages, this was very functional, with stainless steel work surfaces, bare stone floors and whitewashed walls. The kitchens are almost 100 years old now, but at the time, they were state of the art, with multiple ovens, including bread ovens (all the bread was baked on site).

The final stop on the tour was the wine cellar, also in the basement of the Casa Grande, where I came across some interesting 100-year-old vintage port. This was from California and, I have to confess, I am normally very dismissive of port that doesn’t come from Porto, but I would have loved to have tried a glass (or even a bottle) of that!

After the wine cellar, I was free to explore. Honestly, I could have spent hours looking around the grounds, but I had to get back for my conference call, so limited myself to a couple of stops before heading off to catch my bus. Firstly, I took at look at Neptune Pool, the castle’s outdoor swimming pool (although it also includes fountains, ornamental pools, sculptures, marble pavilions, alabaster lanterns, dressing rooms, and a reconstructed temple façade). Sadly it was undergoing restoration during my visit (which has since been completed) and there was no water in the pool, while the buildings were off limits.

I had better luck with the smaller, indoor swimming pool, which is under the tennis courts on the north side of the Casa Grande. Known as the Roman pool, it reminded me of the various ancient Roman baths I have visited and, if anything, is even more opulent than Neptune’s pool. I was also fortunate to have the place to myself. However, I couldn’t linger for long and soon I was on my way to catch the bus down to the parking lot before making the short drive back to my hotel.

You can see what I got up to during the rest of the day after the gallery.

  • My hotel in San Simeon. Or to be precise, the accomodation block behind the car park.
  • I had a ground floor room, second from the end. The blue car is mine, by the way.
  • I had a little patio and everything. Plus, importantly, a back door.
  • The view from the back door. The car park is just over that wall. More importantly...
  • ... there's my car, so I could unload stuff and lift it over the wall. Saved me so much time!
  • My (very spacious room) as seen from just inside the front door.
  • This is the view from the other end.
  • I think two beds for just me is overkill, but that's American hotels for you.
  • The view the other way. The door on the left is to the patio, the front door is to the right.
  • As you can see, I unpacked the important things!
  • The desk in the corner, where I spent my evenings doing Coffee Spot things. Note the...
  • ... use of the box as a laptop stand. This was before I'd bought a bluetooth keyboard!
  • Sadly, as nice as the set-up was, the hotel Wifi didn't work, whereby hangs a tale...
  • However, for that, you will need to read the post following this gallery, since the tale is not very photogenic. Instead, here's something that is very, very photogenic: sunset at San Simeon beach.
  • The view towards the north end of the beach, where...
  • ... Pico Creek flows into the Pacific, the coastal highway crossing high above.
  • This, meanwhile, is the view to the south, the bluff behind the beach clearly visible.
  • And this is how I got down there...
  • Just in time to catch the sun descending into the Pacific Ocean for the third night running.
  • It was casting a lovely, orange glow...
  • ... and then it disappeared behind a bank of cloud low on the horizon.
  • There it goes!
  • No sooner than it disappeared than it reappeared beneath the clouds.
  • Such beautiful colours.
  • This is the zoomed out view.
  • I love the play of the sunlight on the water.
  • I really couldn't get enough of this sunset.
  • As well as the sunset, I was also enjoying watching the waves comes in.
  • Two of my favourite things: a good sunset and waves breaking on the shore.
  • Clearly I wasn't the only one interested in the waves!
  • By now the sun really was dipping below the horizon.
  • ... lighting the cloud bank up from beneath.
  • I think it was the most spectacular of my three Pacific sunsets.
  • It's starting to get dark on the beach now.
  • Let's have one last look at the sweep of the headland to the north before we go.
  • Safely back on top, which is where...
  • ... I'll leave you this warning about hazardous bluffs!
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My original plan had been to do my conference call, which started at three o’clock that afternoon, from my hotel room. However, since this was a day for rearranged plans, my hotel, a Days Inn, had other ideas. When I’d arrived the night before, I’d unpacked and moved in before logging onto the hotel Wifi. At first, all seemed well, but then I realised that it was very, very slow.

Being British, I struggled on for a while (trying to write the second instalment of this Travel Spot, in fact, all about my return to Phoenix) before eventually going down to the manager’s office (which was in a separate building at the front of the hotel) to see if there was anything that could be done about it. Disappointingly, the duty manager said that the Wifi in residential block wasn’t working (not something that she’d thought to mention when I checked it) and that it wasn’t going to be fixed until the end of the week. It worked fine in the manager’s office (which doubled as the breakfast room), so she let me stay there and use my laptop, but she had to lock it up when she went off duty at ten o’clock that evening, at which point I’d have to leave.

By this point, it was already gone nine o’clock, and there was no way I was going to get my Travel Spot finished before ten, so it wasn’t that much use to me. At ten, I went back to my room to carry on writing and, when I’d finally finished, I took my laptop back to the manager’s office, figuring that I could stand outside to use the Wifi and upload my files.

However, the hotel also had a restaurant, Big Sur, where, for convenience, I’d eaten earlier that evening. It had its own Wifi and while it too was shut at that time of night, there was a small outdoor seating terrace at the front, complete with picnic tables, so I sat down there instead. The only problem with this strategy was that, being January, it was actually bitterly cold at night, the temperature only a few degrees above freezing, so I couldn’t stay very long before going back to my room. However, it was long enough to get my Travel Spot posted.

Fast forward to the following afternoon and there was no way the Wifi would be good enough in my hotel room for my two-hour conference call so I needed another venue. I really didn’t want to spent two hours in the manager’s office/breakfast room with people coming and going, while the Big Sur restaurant didn’t open until six o’clock, when it started serving dinner.

Instead, I went a block down the road to the San Simeon lodge, where it had a restaurant that was open all day. The coffee wasn’t up to much, but I had the place to myself, the waiter didn’t care that I wanted to sit there for a couple of hours (I also ordered a slice of pie and left a decent tip) and, best of all, the Wifi was awesome.

Had I not been leaving the following morning, I would have checked out of the Days Inn, demanded a refund, and moved into the lodge. As it was, once my call was over, I wandered down to the beach, which was just across the road, and watched my third Pacific sunset in a row. It was, in my opinion, the best yet.

Then it was back to my hotel room to write another Coffee Spot (this time, Go Get Em Tiger, which I’d visited in Los Angeles just two days before), followed by another freezing evening out by the Big Sur uploading files late into the night.

The following morning, I took my leave of San Simeon and got ready to drive to Santa Cruz, which you can read about in Part IV of The Grand Adventure.

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6 thoughts on “Brian’s Travel Spot: The Grand Adventure, Hearst Castle

  1. You’re writing took me back over twenty years and our similar trip. Ah happily days, except for the lack of veggie food

    • Hi Suey,

      I had no idea it had been so long since you visited! Clearly, you need to go again! It was, by the way, your enthusing about Hearst Castle that made me decide to visit in the first pace.

      The good news is that veggie food options have improved since then (I still remember my first trips to America in the late 1990s and being astounded by the lack of vegetarian choices, even in the big cities).


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