Hearst Castle is one of the jewels of the California State Parks system. The 165-room house of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst was under construction for 28 years from 1919 to 1947. WR Hearst was in his 80s when he left his estate in 1947 for medical care. He died in 1951. The house and its extensive art treasures were donated to the state of California in 1957 by the Hearst Corporation.
Tours of Hearst Castle are $25 per adult ticket and $12 for children 5 to 12 years of age. Children under 5 are free.
Hearst Castle seen from State Park Visitor Center.
There are five different tours of Hearst Castle and there are three different tours just for the houses on the hill with the main structure of La Casa Grande being two separate tours of The Grand Rooms and The Upstairs Suites. Cottages and Kitchen are a tour of the guest house buildings surrounding La Casa Grande. Two specialty tours are the Evening Tour ($36 adult) and the Building the Dream tour focused on the design of Hearst Castle ($30 adult).
The story I heard is the estate donated by the Hearst Corporation did not include maintenance funding. California operates Hearst Castle as a State Park and relies on the park-generated funds and nonprofit organizations to maintain the art collection, houses and grounds including the swimming pools.
Hearst Castle can be an expensive day trip for a family. Children might find hanging out for the day at the castle to be a bit boring. The place gave minimal inspiration to me as a teenager on visits. My appreciation has grown as an older person.
Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument
Activity inside the rooms of Hearst Castle is restricted to staying on corridor carpets inside the house museum rooms featured in tours. There are millions of dollars in artifacts in some rooms. Hearst Castle tours are not the kind of place you want a hyperactive kid in tow, even if the guided tour is only about 40 minutes in length for the indoors portion. There were only nine people on my tour and some of the room spaces were crowded. These tours can take up to 40 persons at a time.
Photography is difficult in the crowd and limited space to move in the rooms. Photography is permitted for personal use inside Hearst Castle, however, written permission is required to publish photos on a commercial site. All my photos in this post are from outside the tour rooms.
You need at least 90 minutes from time of bus boarding to return at the visitor center to get around your tour and visit the pools and see exteriors of other houses around the Big House.
I spent four hours touring the Upstairs Suites (45 minutes), bus ride (30 minutes) and walking the grounds (90 minutes). I was working the estate scene before the 5pm closure and then I caught the last showing of the 40 minute film ‘Building the Dream’ at 5:15pm at the main theater in the visitor center. I arrived at 2pm and left at 6pm. Activity in that time was intense walking around the estate.
The weather was cloudless sunshine in the low 60s on Friday, December 20, 2013.
The basic piece of information to know is the Hearst Castle Visitor Center is several miles from the estate and visitors must have a ticket to one of the guided tours for access to the bus that drives the winding road at a slow speed up the hillside to Hearst Castle at 1,600 feet. The main tours are short at 40 minutes and only cover a selected part of the estate rooms. The bus ride is 15 minutes each way. I recommend about an hour outside in the garden grounds when the weather is nice.
Hearst Castle tour ticket includes admission to the Visitor Center theater showing of the 40 minute Building the Dream movie about the family history and significance of Rancho Piedra Blanca to George and Phoebe Apperson Hearst and their only son William Randolph.
The real joy of the Hearst Castle tour is having unlimited time to wander the grounds and pools outside until closing time with your tour ticket access. Closing time was 5pm on the date I was there on an uncrowded day Friday December 20. I watched the sunset on the Pacific on the bus ride down to the visitor center.
Neptune Pool in its present day design is from 1934-36. This was the third enlargement of the pool.
The final version of the pool as it stands at the Castle today is 104 feet long, 58 feet wide and 95 feet wide at alcove. It is 3.5 feet deep at the west end, 10 feet at drains and holds 345,000 gallons of water. Other unique aspects of the Neptune Pool include the oil burning heating system, the light-veined Vermont marble decorating the pools and colonnades, and four 17-century Italian bas-reliefs on the sides of the colonnades.
The Hearst Castle Pools – HearstCastle.org
On a clear sky day in December, the opportunity to walk around the estate gardens and pools was worth the $25 admission fee to me. WiFi was good on the hill. An easy day sitting by the Neptune Pool in a deck chair working away on my laptop in the warm California sun of December could have been.
Architect Julia Morgan, one of the premier female architects working in California in the early 20th century, collaborated with WR Hearst to create an architectural marvel on ‘the hill’ as his primary residence. La Cuesta Encantada was situated on a hill at 1,600 feet overlooking the Pacific Ocean above San Simeon Harbor from his 270,000 acre ranch.
Hearst Castle San Simeon ocean view. Julia Morgan took care to preserve the large California live oaks surrounding the property.
George Hearst, Expert Prospector
Stepping back in time, the Hearst family story begins with George Hearst, a young man from Missouri at the time of the California gold rush in 1850. George Hearst was 30 years old when he joined a party of emigrants heading to the California gold fields. George Hearst earned a living in the Sierra foothills area of Grass Valley, California for nearly a decade when he learned of silver ore coming out of Nevada in what was to become the Comstock load. Hearst became a major partner in a mining company that grew to be the largest private mining firm in the USA. George Hearst made a fortune in mining.
In 1860 Hearst returned to Missouri to care for his ailing mother. Phoebe Apperson, a young school teacher of 19, wed 40-year old George Hearst in June 1862 and they moved to San Francisco. Their only child William Randolph was born April 29, 1863. George Hearst represented San Francisco in the California State Assembly 1865-1866 and he purchased Piedra Blanca Ranch at San Simeon in 1865.
Hearst Castle Visitor Center display with photo of George Hearst and Piedra Blanca Rancho sign.
George Hearst acquired large tracts of land along Central Coast California in San Luis Obispo County and Monterey County.
Rancho Piedra Blanca included miles of coastline in northern San Luis Obispo County.
When William Randolph was ten years old, his parents made a Grand Tour of Europe. The story is WR was fascinated with the art and castles of Europe. The hill at San Simeon on the California coast was a place where the family would camp on the Piedra Blanca Ranch.
View north to Monterey County from Hearst Castle bus arrival point.
George Hearst died in 1891 and left his fortune to his wife. Phoebe Apperson Hearst was a philanthropist and funded many educational causes from kindergarten schools to university endowments. She was cofounder of the National Congress of Mothers in 1897, the organization which evolved into the National Parent Teacher Association of today.
After the death of his mother in 1919 during the flu pandemic, William Randolph Hearst began construction of his own American castle on the hill at San Simeon.
Architect Julia Morgan had worked with Phoebe Apperson Hearst on a number of projects in California including many of the buildings at Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove she designed in 1913 for a YWCA retreat facility at the beach. The bell tower El Campanil at Mills College in Oakland was designed by Julia Morgan in 1904 and is considered the first college bell tower. Her reinforced concrete tower design gained engineering recognition for standing without structural damage after the major earthquake that destroyed San Francisco and thousands of buildings around the San Francisco Bay area.
The depression era greatly reduced WR Hearst’s newspaper income. Despite revenue from mining, timber and cattle, the Hearst companies declared bankruptcy and much of his art and property was sold. In December 1940 W.R. Hearst sold 158,000 acres of his Monterey County property around Mission San Antonio to the U.S. Government for the establishment of Fort Hunter Liggett as a military training base about 30 miles from San Simeon.
Outside La Casa Grande there are some great views from the other houses and gardens.
I left Hearst Castle with a good buzz after all that time around beautiful art, grand architecture and amazing views. The $25 fee for a tour of Hearst Castle is well-worth a visit if these activities are appealing to you.
Birds around Hearst Castle bell towers at sunset.
Ric Garrido of Monterey, California is writer and owner of Loyalty Traveler.
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