If your staying in Cambria or San Simeon, visiting the Hearst Castle, or just driving through on Highway 1, be sure to stop at the elephant seal rookery. Although the seals are most numerous during the winter, we stopped in late August and found plenty of the animals sunning on the beach. The elephant seals are huge! We arrived in late afternoon and found the seals moving up on the beach and throwing sand upon themselves. There is a large walkway above the beach from which the seals can be seen. If you can, bring binoculars to get a better look.
Visiting the rookery is free. There is plenty of parking in a large lot on the west side of the highway. There are two viewing areas -- a large beach on the south side of the parking lot and a smaller one on the north side.
We had a great day kayaking at San Simeon Cove. We took a guided kayaking tour with "Sea for Yourself" and our guide was great. He led us over the kelp beds, taught us interesting facts about the eco system, we saw otters stick their heads out and warm themselves in the sun. Then we went over to the caves and it was exciting to kayak in and out of them. We highly recommend Sea for Yourself Kayak Tours.
If you are in San Simeon, most likely it is to see Hearst Castle. It is the major draw in this part of the California coast. While in the area you may want to make a quick stop at the nearby beach, located just across the highway from the entrance road to the castle. This beach is not unlike many along the coast. It has a fairly wide beach, a pier going out to the sea, and a place to enjoy a picnic or a walk. It is free to visit.
A short drive south on highway 1 there is a great place to watch elephant seals. It is well marked and with a good parking lot. Surely worth a stop also.
If you are visiting San Simeon most likely it is to tour the Hearst Castle. Which is indeed a huge house on some of the prettiest countryside with beautiful ocean and mountain views it is easy to see why the home was built here. The Experience tour is a good overall tour of the property. You will take a bus up the long winding road to the Hearst Castle, and view the gardens, the guesthouse, the beautiful Neptune pool, the Castle and the indoor pool. The gardens are beautiful and the Neptune pool has a great view. House is kind of dark and eclectic
There are only two places in California where you can view the elephant seals: Año Nuevo State Reserve (north of Santa Cruz) and Piedras Blancas (just outside of San Simeon). We chose Piedras Blancas to see the seals because Año Nuevo is so busy you must reserve a spot weeks in advance and they charge a fee for a guided tour, with no self-guided tour option.
At Piedras Blancas the seals are visible from two main parking areas between the lighthouse and the entrance to Hearst Castle. There are also a few small pull-offs and trails north of the lighthouse that allow you to avoid the tourists and fences to view a smaller number of seals (from a safe and respectable distance of course).
Our first stop was at one of these small pull-off areas with a walking trail to the water. Here, we were the only visitors in sight, and we were , unrushed and uninterrupted as we enjoyed a view of some 20 seals, mostly females and pups. After about 30 minutes we drove south to the first of the two paved parking lots which also was the less busy of the two. From here you can see dozens of seals up close, with the bulk of the seals off in the distance maybe a half mile away and surrounded by throngs of tourists.
Elephant seals were thought to be extinct in the 1950s, but have since recovered to approximately 100,000 individuals with all of the breeding colonies in Mexico and California. The group at Piedras Blancas first arrived in the 1990s, and now numbers about 7,500 and is growing at a faster rate than the older, 5,000-member colony at Año Nuevo. These elephant seals are massive creatures, with average meals tipping the scales at 4,000 pounds.
Hearst Castle was constructed from 1919 to 1947 by newspaper baron and former congressman William Randolph Hearst. The main structure, called Casa Grande, has over 60,000 square feet and features a huge medieval dining room, a pool designed after Roman baths, and a main sitting room full of European artwork. Guests were welcome at all times, and they could stay at one of the three guest houses, or they could take advantage of the Casa Grande's 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, and 19 sitting rooms, but there was no room service... all guests were expected to take dinner with Mr Hearst and the other guests in the main dining room. While staying at the house, visitors were welcome to use the Neptune Pool, a huge swimming pool overlooking the Pacific Ocean and framed with actual Greek ruins that Hearst imported from Europe, or they could enjoy the huge collection of animals at the world's largest private zoo. The buildings at Hearst Castle were designed by architect Julia Morgan.
Five tours of Hearst Castle are available: the experience tour for an overview, tour two for the upper floors, tour three for the north wing and Casa Del Monte, tour four for the gardens, and the evening tour. Guided tours are $20 to $30 per adult depending on the tour you choose and the season. Though some people recommend skipping the experience tour and moving on to tours two or three for a more in-depth look at the castle, we decided to try this basic tour to get a good background and overview of the facilities. We started at the Neptune Pool, went through Casa Del Mar, then entered Casa Grande to visit the main sitting room, the dining room, some guest rooms, the theater, and the Roman Pool. After the one hour and 45 minute tour, you may watch the National Geographic film on the building of the castle back at the visitors center. I thought this was a great tour for our first visit, especially as we weren't overly familiar with the background of the castle.
Piedras Blancas (translates into "white rocks") lighthouse was completed in 1875. The architect for Piedras Blancas also built Point Arena Light north of San Francisco, which has a much different look. The original tower, built to a height of 115 feet, still stands, but the top section formerly housing the first-order Fresnel lens was removed in 1949 , due to the instability of the structure after a 1948 earthquake. The tower now has a stubby, unfinished look.
In 2001 the Coast Guard transfered the light house to the Bureau of Land Management, which has plans to restore the tower. Tours are given the third Saturday of each month at 10 am and 1 pm--tour buses depart from the Hearst Castle Visitors Center 6 miles to the south. Cost is $15 per person.
San Simeon was originally established as a whaling station in 1852 after the nearby Mission San Miguel was secularized and its lands sold. In the 1770s the general store was moved to its present location and the first wharf was constructed. The nearby Piedras Blancas lighthouse was constructed in 1875, and in the early 1900s the Hearst Family moved into town and started their nearby ranch and then the famous castle that overlooks the town.
Today the town is virtually deserted except for the old general store, a historic one room schoolhouse, and some old warehouses along the water. Hearst State Beach is located at the pier on the edge of the old town.
Hearst Castle is now a Historic State Monument. To access the mansion and grounds, one must purchase a tour ticket for $20. Several different tours, guided by park staff, are offered of Hearst Castle, each with a different theme. The tours are just under two hours in length. For more information, take the following link to my Hearst Castle page:
Take me to Hearst Castle
At Piedras Blancas, the Elephant Seals are everywhere! We visited here last May and were truly astounded at this interesting sight on the Central California Coast. Piedras Blancas is located about 7 miles north of San Simeon.
This is a beautiful stretch of the California Coast with some spectacular scenery. The elephant seals are a sight not to miss while in this gorgeous area.
The inside tour of Hearst's Castle is as full of amazing sights as the outside. Wonderful and rare paintings line the walls and even on the ceilings. The antique furniture is the best and rarest pieces available during that time period. Everything is preserved magnificantly. Please be aware, to protect the artwork, you must turn off your flash if you want to shoot some pics indoors. I found tour 2 to be the best to get a strong and intimate look at the inside stuff. But, as I stated before, if this is your first time, take Tour 1, which is a general overview.
There are some wonderful statues and exquisite architecture surrounding the outside of the estate. Tour 1 takes you on a extensive look at the outside design. For the love of everything holy, bring your camera. The artwork is amazing.
To me, this is the most scenic part of Hearst Castle. The pool is so blue, and so inviting, and so extragent. The statues and columns around the pool are stunning. This is decadence big time and I love it. The statues look like they come straight out of the Roman Empire. Enjoy the pics, they will make you want to jump right into the pool.
Hearst Castle is the folly of William Randolph Hearst, an eccentric, wealthy media magnate of days gone by. He built the castle high up on an enormous piece of land where he housed his own private zoo animal collection! Hearst had many stars stay with him at "the ranch" including Marion Davies, an actress, who he was presumably having an affair with while his wife and children remained in New York.
The castle can only be viewed by joining a very kitch tour. I was surprised at the amazing volume of tourists that went through the place the day that I was there. I took "tour 1 - The Experience Tour" which consists of 1 and 3/4 hours and is recommended for people who have never visited the castle before (although in all honesty I am not sure that I would ever go there again!).... On the tour we had a really annoying American tour guide who told us all sorts of gossipy stories about the past. I would have much preferred wandering the grounds on my own but that is a big no no!
The tour took us to see th two pools (really lovely) - the Neptune pool and the Roman baths (complete with imported blue tiles and gold leaf!), the Casa del Sol which is the guest house, the gardens and statues and finally the main rooms of the Casa Grande (main house).
Tickets for this tour cost $20 (off-peak season) for adults. I called ahead and booked my tour time as this was highly recommended. If you are really desperate to go and see the castle (and I suppose that for the effort it takes to get there one would hope you want to see it when you get there!) it is probably best to call and book.
Is it worth it.....???? Well... I guess it is kind of interesting to see how wealthy people lived in the early part of the 20th century but I probably wouldn't make a second trip to do one of the other tours.
One of the more interesting things to do in San Simeon was to go to see the Seal Colony. There are seals lying on the beach just a little north of San Simeon. The day I went to see them it was very overcast and foggy so not really sure what the views of this coastline are supposed to look like but at least at this point I had the seals to entertain me. The beach is certainly not one that you would go swimming in!