SAN SIMEON — Hearst Castle – arguably both the grandest and gaudiest component of the California State Park System – is nothing compared to what nature has created below it along San Simeon Bay.
Between Hearst San Simeon State Park and the Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument they harbor more than 20 miles of relatively pristine and certainly dramatic California coastline. You’ll find tide pools teeming with aquatic life, black tail deer grazing, bobcats darting through the brush and a repertoire of birds soaring above from golden eagles to the egrets, white tail kites and more that make themselves at home around the beaches.
Top billing, of course, goes to the northern elephant seals that populate the beach just up the road from San Simeon Bay from December to March. Toss in gray whales migrating by from December to April, monarch butterflies populating the Monterey pines from November to February, and other wildlife from A (ants) to Z (zebras).
There are more than 100 wild zebras roaming the 80,000-acre Hearst Ranch among Angus beef cattle. The working cattle ranch is one of the largest working cattle ranches on the coast as well as one of the largest conservation easements in the nation. Both owe their existent experience to one man: William Randolph Hearst.
Hearst was one of this nation’s newspaper magnates who is given credit – right or wrong – for inflaming public opinion that led to the Spanish American War after the U.S. battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor.
Hearst is also the main reason people navigate the twisting and stunningly scenic Highway 1 for 77 miles from Monterey to San Simeon so they can plunk down $30 to $750 for a tour of what is the ultimate monument to early 21st century excessiveness on the part of the very wealthy American upper-class that F. Scott Fitzgerald aptly noted, “They are different than you and me.”
And after spending $30 on just one of the multiple tour options of the castle Hearst built on the California coast, you might start thinking the super-rich respect no boundaries and go to great lengths to validate their worthiness even if it means sacrificing all pretense of taste and standards when it comes to the appropriation of historic artifacts.
Hearst, the self-imagined king of American newspapers, wanted a castle and he got it.
He enlisted architect Julia Morgan to create his castle and palace grounds. And he used his great wealth for everything such as unique wood carved ceilings from ancient houses of worship and a 5th century BC Greek Hydria to a 17th century baroque bible whose passes he had torn from their bindings for use and preservation as a lamp shade.
What Hearst created was a gathering place for celebrities and the super-rich of the day. His castle was more than Hearst’s home. It was a party place for the in-crowd of stars and celebrities of the day and the rich that could buy their way into the exclusive circle.
Yes, Hearst was everything socialists would despise.
But if you can get past the excessiveness and can part ways with a couple of bucks, a trip up the hill (in a shuttle bus of course) that will take you past some of those zebras if you’re lucky, it is well worth the experience.
Hearst’s story in itself is interesting but the eclectic museum of sorts he created from centuries old artifacts and priceless artwork his minions scoured the world to acquire is one of a kind.
Given it is neither stuffy, rigid, or designed specifically for the purpose of being a museum but rather as Hearst’s way of being the flashy Trump of his era and a great venue for him to impress his peers in wealth as well as the famous, it makes a great museum tour for the neophyte or those who want their art and culture inquisitiveness fed by something that won’t bore you to death.
It was designed with a mixture of old as well as modern art of the day to amuse guests.
It stands as the only museum operated by the California State Parks System and is worthy enough to be credited by the American Alliance of Museums.
Given my brother Richard was an architect-engineer who was schooled at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo some 31 miles to the south and worked on a project at Hearst Castle for college credit, my first introduction to The Enchanted Hill was heavy on all of the architectural nuances.
There is nothing subtle about what was built and how it was stuffed with treasures of the world. From the 345,000 gallon outdoor Neptune pool that grabs your full attention as you step into the courtyard surrounded four separate houses — three for guests and the Casa Grande with 68,500 square feet — to the rich woods, stone work and more to the 1,665-square-foot indoor Roman pool you will not get bored in any tour options you pick.
There are a dozen tours. They start at $30 for an adult and $15 for children ages 5 to 12 (children under 5 are free) for a 60-minute Grand Rooms Tour.
And if you really want the ultimate tour of houses, art, and gardens atop Hearst’s Enchanted Hill there are private four-hour tours that will set you back $1,000 a person regardless of age.
Tickets can be reserved online for up to 60 days. While you can try to buy tickets at the visitors Center off Highway 1 below on the same day, the odds are great you might not get what you want plus at certain times of the year tours sell out weeks in advance.
Keep in mind there is a lot of house; Casa Grande alone is 68,500 square feet with 38 bedrooms, 42 bathrooms, 30 fireplaces, and 14 sitting rooms.
There are several additional rooms in Casa Grande including the Refectory, the Billiard Room, the Theater, Library, Gothic Study, Beauty Salon, Butler’s Pantry, Kitchen, Staff Dining Room for a total of 115 rooms in Casa Grande
There are a total of 46 rooms in the three Guest Houses including lobbies.
Opting to take a tour at Hearst Castle is a great excuse to travel down the rugged and primitive central coast between Big Sur and Cambria.
Even if the ocean and soaring coastal mountains aren’t your thing you will likely agree the 77 mile drive on the scenic Richter scale is off the charts.
As an overnight trip or a weekend endeavor, where you stay is dictated to a degree by what else you are in to. If you want to spend a lot of time exploring the coast and nearby trails but want little hustle and bustle then try to book one of the handful of San Simeon lodging options. If you are into quaintness with restaurants and shops to match while still near the ocean then Cambria is for you.
San Luis Obispo is more middle of the road – to a degree. A place that has the Madonna Inn with its 28 outlandish room suites along with 100 slightly more mundane rooms, non-subtle dining room decor plus a men’s bathroom off the lobby where tourists pass through to take pictures of the one of a kind urinal isn’t exactly a cookie cutter place.
My favorite part of the trip as a Lincoln High (Lincoln, Placer County) alumnus are the zebras that were allowed to roam free after Hearst’s private zoo was disbanded in 1937 and the rest of the exotic animals were sent to normal zoos of the day. It could have something to do with the zebra being the Lincoln High mascot.
If you think that is strange for a school mascot, the next secondary campus opening in Lincoln — Twelve Bridges High — has selected a rhinoceros as its mascot.
I guess we are all eclectic in our own way.
For more information on Hearst Castle tours go to hearstcastle.org. Details about Hearst San Simeon State Park can be found at parks.ca.gov.