California Coast: Big Sur to San Simeon

We left Pacific Grove on a Sunday morning, got onto CA-1 south and settled in for the long and winding road down the coast to Pismo Beach. Only about 120 miles distance as the crow flies, in reality, this is an all day trip. Stunning and dramatic, especially on a clear and warm day like we had, the drive down the coast through Big Sur is also a bit of an endurance test for your shoulders and your patience. So many twists and turns, so many must-see viewpoints along the way. And in the busy season, this drive can be unbearable. But every time, absolutely worth it.

We had been plans to do some hiking and beach hopping along the route, but opted for a more relaxing day down the coast instead. Point Lobos, just south of Carmel, is definitely worth a stop (great views, lots of history, nice little hikes around the coves, and some of my favorite SCUBA diving anywhere), as is the Soberanes Canyon Trail in Garapata State Park. Given that we had spent a good amount of time at both of these stops, which each demand a couple of hours to fully enjoy, we pushed south.

I was excited to stop and grab a coffee at Nepenthe Restaurant, a popular Big Sur stop since the 1940s. My family used to come here when I was a kid and I had fond memories of lounging on one of those multicolored cushions, taking in the view and basking in the sunshine…well, actually I have no memory of doing any such thing because it was always cold and foggy when we’d go. Most of my memories are being bundled up and straining to catch a glimpse of the ocean through the fog rolling through. But on this particular, day, Nepenthe was hardly recognizable — an idyllic coffee stop all to ourselves. If only they hadn’t been closed for breakfast in February. Back to the car…

The next stop, farther down the 1, was really exciting for us. Both Lori and I had driven Big Sur, but hadn’t heard of McWay Falls until researching things to see along the way and came upon this popular stop in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Apparently, it’s one of the most famous and most photographed waterfalls in California, and it’s not hard to see why. Something about a waterfall on a beautiful beach is hard to resist!

The photography gods were not in our favor for capturing the majesty of this particular scene (the sun was almost directly behind the falls, rendering the beautiful golden sand cove in near total shadow). A photograph can rarely properly capture scenes like this anyway, even on a perfect day, so I highly recommend a stop if you’re ever in the neighborhood. It’s an easy trail to a couple of nice viewpoints, and there are also some interesting ruins of a home built by an early land baroness. While I’m sure many an adventurer has made their way down to McWay Beach, we didn’t see any clear way of getting down there, which was the only disappointing part of the stop as I was really looking forward to donning my frolicking in a waterfall on the beach in seasonal swimwear photoshoot. I’m sure you were too.

We’ve been getting a lot of rain in Portland. Yeah, yeah, it rains a lot in Portland. It does. But this winter we’ve gotten about twice the average amount (something like 31 inches?), which might not seem like a lot by monsoon standards, but trust me, it’s a lot for gloomy Portland — especially on the heels of one of the driest and hottest years on record. Apparently, El Niño has also been bestowing its gifts on the California Coast as well (which are largely welcome here, given the prevailing drought conditions). The Central Coast looked greener than I’d ever remember seeing it. But we all know what happens when you get a lot of rain after a lot of drought: A lot of landslides!

A mere week prior to our arrival, one such landslide completely obliterated a stretch of Highway 1 along the Big Sur coastline. Thankfully, by the time we arrived, they had shored up the road enough for one-lane traffic to pass through. Also lucky for us, it was Super Bowl Sunday, so delays were much shorter than they easily could have been.

And since I’m on the topic, Lori and I were totally clueless where the Super Bowl was taking place or who was playing all the way up until we were half way to Monterey and read about it on a traffic advisory website. Turns out our decision to bypass the Bay Area and go straight down to Monterey was a good thing. Why anybody would want to be sitting in front of a TV for 3+ hours on a day like this is beyond me, but maybe I’d feel differently if I lived here…or not.

After hours of watching the number of miles to Hearst Castle on the  brown road signs tick down at a snail’s pace, we finally arrived in San Simeon! If you have the time and you can stomach the ticket price, Hearst Castle is definitely worth a stop (particularly on a clear day like this). Who can’t resist being paraded around the flagship monument to wealth and excess in California?

While the exotic zoo animals and movie stars are long gone (along with the water in the outdoor pool), the herculean structures and priceless antiquities remain.

For decades, the centerpiece of the estate, the Greek Revival Neptune swimming pool, had been filled to the brim with clear blue water. Given that the pool had been leaking and evaporating 5,000 gallons of water per DAY, it was a bit hard to justify keeping it filled in the midst of one of the worst droughts in state history. A project is underway to repair the leaks, which will involve pulling up and replacing nearly every one of those tiny white and blue tiles.

I’m not going to get into the history of the property here other than saying that it was commissioned by the wildly wealthy newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst as a vacation home on his family’s land, but also as a museum for some of the world’s oldest and most valued antiquities, which Hearst obsessively collected throughout his life. It was neither his primary residence nor his family’s home (his wife and children lived 3,000 miles away), but more of a sanctuary, repository and monument to Hearst, himself. The buildings (but not the property) are now in the hands of the California State Park system, and are both a State and National Historical Landmark. The landmark is a huge tourist draw, and proceeds from ticket admissions largely help subsidize the 11 other parks in the district.

Take note of the condiments on the table. Surrounded by priceless artifacts and exceptional craftsmanship and Billy Hearst insists on having three things within easy reach while dining: ketchup, mustard, and paper napkins.

In addition to the huge and elaborate structures, the estate — perched at 1,600 feet above sea level — has an amazing view. The Hearst Corporation still owns the land between the “castle” and the sea. Heading south from the visitor’s center, you can still see descendants of Hearst’s zebra collection roaming the ranch lands.

We had no idea there was ANOTHER pool, so this took us a bit by surprise when we were routed through here to catch our bus after the tour, almost as an after thought.

Hearst Castle is one of those places that is totally worth a visit, but Lori and I don’t plan on returning for another one any time soon. Too much to see and do, but maybe with kids some day.

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