California photography road trip

Hearst Castle San Simeon, five tours, which one to choose

Last week I drove 95 miles south on Highway 1 from my home in Monterey, California to Hearst Castle. Leaving at noon and making the drive in a little more than 2 hours meant no stops for scenic photographs and just a short 10-minute stop to see the elephant seals at Piedras Blancas three miles north of Hearst Castle.

Tourists planning this drive from Monterey/Carmel should allow at least four hours for roadside stops at places like Hurricane Point (at the top of the hill south of Bixby Bridge for scenic views of Bixby Bridge and coastline to the north), Nepenthe Restaurant and Bar (great views of coastline to south), Henry Miller Library (quintessential Big Sur gathering place in the redwood forest), Lucia Café (solitary building outpost with southern coastal views), Ragged Point (café and hotel with gas station, although you want to have a full tank of gas before you take the 135-mile Big Sur coast drive between Monterey and San Luis Obispo or plan on paying about $2.00 more per gallon).


Bixby Bridge

View of Bixby Bridge and California coastline from Hurricane Point.

Several of the photos in this piece are from my trip in December to Hearst Castle on a gorgeous day when gray whales were spouting all along the coast on their southern migration to the Baja California breeding grounds in Mexico. The northerly migration brings gray whale mothers and calves close to shore along Big Sur and Monterey Peninsula in about another month with peak sightings likely in May 2014.

A quick stop at the elephant seal beach of Piedras Blancas is a wildlife spectacle. In December the beach was loaded with sparring males and newborn pups. In late March there were mostly young pups lounging on the beach building up their strength and swimming skills to head out into the open ocean for life on their own.

Unlike the protective gray whale mothers who nurture their calves and defend them from predators like Orcas, elephant seal moms give birth to a pup, wean the pup and then abandon it on the beach for self-survival. The pups of Piedras Blancas will likely return to the same beach each year of their lives, yet there is little evidence that moms and offspring interact later in life.


Newborn elephant seal pup nursing on Piedras Blancas beach December 20, 2013.

Elephant seals

Piedras Blancas beach March 22, 2014 was mostly pups that have grown to about 300 pounds from their birth weight of around 60 to 80 pounds. There were very few adult males left on the beach and most of the mothers have gone back to sea. FAQ

Piedras Blancas viewing platform for the elephant seals is directly next to Highway 1 about three miles north of the Hearst Castle State Park entrance at San Simeon, just south of the Piedras Blancas lighthouse.

Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument

Access to the visitor center is free and there is a gift shop, café and small museum inside. The estate houses are located on a hilltop 1,600 feet above the Pacific Ocean. Hearst Castle, also known as “La Cuesta Encantada”, is visible from Highway 1 and there are telescopes at the State Park visitor center to view Hearst Castle.

Hearst San Simeon visitor center

There are five separate tours of Hearst Castle.

  • Grand Rooms Tour ($25 adults; child $12)
  • Upstairs Suites Tour ($25 adults; child $12)
  • Cottages & Kitchen Tour ($25 adults; child $12)
  • Designing the Dream ($30 adults; child $15)
  • Evening Tour ($36 adults; child $18)

I have done the Grand Rooms and Upstairs Suites. You will be reminded on your tour that Hearst Castle was donated to the state, however, no funds were appropriated for the maintenance of the estate and this is why tour tickets are high-priced and offer limited access to interior rooms. Any of these tours provide unlimited access to hang out on the estate grounds outside the buildings until you are ready to catch the bus back down the hills to the visitor center.

I enjoyed the Upstairs Suites Tour more than the Grand Rooms Tour. The Grand Rooms Tour is the most popular and this tour allows up to 50 people making a crowded tour if the bus is full. And it was last week. The tour goes into the main gathering room and the dining room and billiard room before finishing in the theater for a short film about William Randolph Hearst and famous guests in the 1930s.

In December I took the Upstairs Suites Tour with about seven other guests and there seemed to be more rooms and opportunity for walking around the interior of Casa Grande to view bedrooms and the library.

I would like to try the Cottages and Kitchen Tour next. Some of the best views from the grounds are outside the cottages closer to the edge of the hilltop. The last photo in this post is taken from the balcony of a cottage. The evening tour includes characters in costume dress to recreate the ambience of glory days at the Castle.

Neptune Pool Closure: Bad News for Visitors in 2014

Neptune Pool, perhaps the centerpiece of the Hearst Castle grounds, is fenced off for repairs that are expected to take one to two years to stop leaks that let thousands of gallons of water flow out daily.

Neptune Pool-2

Neptune Pool on December 20, 2013.

Neptune Pool

Neptune Pool on March 21, 2014 with fence barricade and low water level.

The pool area can still be accessed to walk around the perimeter, but not as appealing a trip as sitting on the patio chairs gazing over a pool filled with 350,000 gallons of water. The California drought conditions have forced the pool repairs as a water conservation effort.

Neptune Pool-2

Photographs may be taken while on the tours of the interior rooms, however, there is restricted commercial use of photos. I have a couple hundred photos of the interiors. I should put them up on Flickr or somewhere.

The grounds around the estate are still owned by Hearst Corporation and cattle ranching is still in effect. There are even zebra in the fields with cattle. I spotted a few zebra at dusk in the fields beside Highway 1 after I left Hearst Castle driving south to Cambria. The café and gift store sell beef from the estate’s cattle herd. Prices are high for eating at the Visitor Center, but a hamburger and beer is cheaper here than places like Nepenthe Restaurant in Big Sur.

Hearst Hamburger

Hearst hamburger with kettle chips. Those were the hardest kettle chips I have eaten and they tasted burnt. The burger was great.

There is no food allowed at the castle, so be sure to eat before heading up the hill.

The Hearst Visitor Center also sells wine and beer.

Hearst wines Hearst Castle beer

Hearst label wines and local craft beers are available at the Hearst San Simeon Visitor Center.

Be sure to see the 40 minute film at the Visitor Center theater before or after your tour of the estate. The film gives a good background of the Hearst family and the building of the estate houses on La Cuesta Encantada.

Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle gardens is a lovely place to spend time meandering around the houses among great European art pieces.

The price is high at $25 per adult, but if you like art and the idea of hanging out around a fabulous estate, the tour to the enchanted hill makes a good 3 to 4 hour excursion.

Hearst Angel

And if the weather is right, the views are spectacular perched on a hilltop high above the sea.

Hearst view

View from La Cuesta Encantada.

Related Loyalty Traveler post: Hearst Castle–La Cuesta Encantada (Dec 28, 2013) more photos and description of the tour experience.

Too Cute: Elephant Seal Pup (Dec 21, 2013) photos from my December trip to the Piedras Blancas with more detailed information about elephant seals.


Ric Garrido of Monterey, California is writer and owner of Loyalty Traveler.

Loyalty Traveler shares news and views on hotels, hotel loyalty programs and vacation destinations for frequent guests.

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  • ptahcha March 28, 2014

    We did the Cottages & Kitchen tour last time. Interestingly enough, because it’s not as popular as the other tours, the two of us were the only people who signed up, and we ended up with a private tour. IIRC, there was a visit of the indoor pool with this tour as well.

  • mhenner March 28, 2014

    the headline is ‘five tours, which one to choose’

    if you haven’t done all five, how can you really advise on the one to choose?

  • Ric Garrido March 31, 2014

    @mhenner – this post tells you the difference between the main tour and the upstairs suites and cottages is the size of the group. I felt the Upstairs Suites tour offered much more time to talk about the history and objects in a room without a crowd of 45 other people in the room with you.

    The three main tours in the day are short at 40 minutes. Walking around the grounds is the same experience regardless of which of these three day tours you take.

    The indoor pool is available on all tours as visitors pass through the pool area to catch the bus departing downhill back to visitor center.

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