Hearst Castle Road Trip

Jie and I recently decided to take a pre-wedding weekend road trip so that she could visit Hearst Castle for the first time. Not only would we get the chance to see a national landmark (famed home of early 20th century newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst) but it would also give us the chance to do another scenic drive along Highway 1.

I purchased tickets for a Hearst Castle tour late Saturday morning, which I thought would give us the chance to drive down Friday night and sleep in the next morning.

In retrospect, I should have looked at accommodation first because when I searched for hotels and B&Bs in the area, I was floored. Hotels/motels in nearby San Simeon and Cambria started at nearly $200/night for place with poor reviews on TripAdvisor. Anything decent was either snatched up or $350+/night. Even expanding my search to a broader area along the coast and inland towards Paso Robles yielded nothing of promise.

All B&Bs along the coast require a minimum of two nights stay during the summer weekends. Of the dozen or so that I called, hoping for a break on the minimum stay, all were fully booked for the weekend.

Airbnb in Templeton

So the day before our trip, I decided to scope out the options on Airbnb. I set the parameters of an acceptable location (within 45 minutes or so of Hearst Castle), price ($150 or less per night) and positive reviews from previous guests.

That whittled my options down to three, all of which would require us to share space with our host. After reaching out to all three potential hosts, I decided to stay with Cara and Brad in Templeton for $80 for the night, largely on the strength of their user reviews, photos of their house/our room and the fact they have a hot tub/pool that guests can use.

We drove down Friday night after work, stopping only for a quick dinner in King City (with a name like that, how could we not stop?), before arriving in Templeton close to 10pm.

We were warmly greeted at the door by Brad and his wife Cara, both teachers in Paso Robles. With two of their three kids grown and out of the house, and summers off from teaching, they recently started using Airbnb to rent out the spare bedrooms in their spacious ranch house. Since joining a month ago, they have already had 20+ guests stay with them!

Right after showing us to our room, they brought us to the kitchen where we chatted over a glass of wine. They gave us great tips for the area, which is in the heart of Central California’s wine country, and I talked baseball with Brad, who is the local high school baseball coach.

We finished our wine while sitting in their hot tub, joined by their other guests for the evening, a German couple doing a month long road trip from Seattle down to LA. Chatting with them about travel and English literature, I couldn’t help but think we would have never had this type of experience had we stayed at a Motel 6.

The following morning, Brad and Cara had laid out pastries and fruit for us. We chatted some more with Brad over coffee before heading out to Hearst Castle.

With Airbnb, you are certainly taking more of a risk than at a typical hotel but you also have the potential for a very cool experience at a bargain price.

Hearst Castle

We arrived at the visitor center at Hearst Castle about 10 minutes before our scheduled tour to find a very chaotic line for tickets with a throng of people and little direction on where to go. Even though I had purchased our tickets online earlier in the week, there was a single line for both ticket purchases and ticket pickup. As a result, we missed our scheduled tour time but luckily were able to catch the next tour ten minutes later.

After you get your tickets, you board a bus for the 15 minute ride up a hill to the castle, complete with an audio overview of the property narrated by Alex Trebek! As the bus makes its way up the hill, you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the surrounding beauty. On one side you have the ocean and on the other, mountains. When you finally arrive at the top of the hill, you are immediately drawn to the main house, or “Casa Grande”, which appears more like a church than a house. The entire estate is designed in a Spanish style that attracts your attention even as you pass it while driving on Highway 1.

The bus was met by our tour guide, an effervescent older gentleman who did his best to spice things up, especially with the 20+ person Polish group that was part of our tour. I had signed us up for the Grand Rooms Tour, which takes you through the social rooms on the first floor of the house where guests would congregate and mingle. So our guide did his best to set the stage for what it must have been like as a guest in the 1920’s and 1930’s with access to the property’s beautiful swimming pools, tennis courts, horses for riding, private zoo and movie theater, where all guests were required to attend an evening movie screening.

Hearst Castle

Jie outside the main house


Hearst Castle

nice view of the main house


Truthfully, Jie and I both found the 45 minute tour to be lacking. Maybe it was the fact that interior of the home, designed in a Medieval style that is incongruous with the external architecture, seemed overly ornate and not well decorated. But I think it could also be that just looking at the social spaces does not give you an intimate view into any home.

Thankfully, when the tour was over, Jie and I freely roamed the property’s grounds, taking in its lovely gardens, Neptune Pool and three guest houses, which we felt were done in a more tasteful style than the main house. I think that the totality of the estate and its setting  is amazing. If I could go back (and given that this was my third trip it may be awhile), I would prefer to do a tour of the bedrooms or an evening tour as I imagine the property must be gorgeous at night, especially the gardens and Neptune Pool.

Hearst Castle Neptune Pool

in front of the Neptune Pool…sans water due to the drought in California


On the opposite side of Highway 1 from the entrance to Hearst Castle is a small pier that was the center of San Simeon’s industry in the 1800’s. Today, it is a state park where people can play on the beach or fish off the pier. The old general store is still in operation as a small restaurant, post office and as the tasting room for the Hearst Ranch Winery. We followed our tour of the castle with a tasty lunch and wine tasting finished off with a nice walk along the pier.

San Simeon Pier

view from the pier in San Simeon


Drive through Big Sur

Mere miles from the pier in San Simeon is the elephant seal rookery. It is home to a colony of enormous elephant seals, which use the local beach to mate, give birth and molt (shedding their fur). Male seals are known to be very territorial and can engage in vicious combat. In our brief time on the beach, we saw a few minor skirmishes but mainly it was seals lazing about with the occasional seal squirming from the water to a resting spot on the beach. Did I mention how enormous these seals are? They are huge.

elephant seals fighting near San Simeon

elephant seals fighting near San Simeon


Continuing north, we quickly found ourselves driving through Big Sur, which is a gorgeous coastal stretch nestled right against the mountains. The entire 90 mile stretch is picturesque and there is no way I can cover it in entirety here. With only a few hours of daylight left, Jie and I made two brief but worthwhile stops in Big Sur. The first was Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which is right off the highway. Crossing over the road, we took a short path that opened up to a crescent shaped view of the water below. As you continue walking, you start to see a waterfall flowing from the rocks directly on to the beach. The combination of the beach, clear water and rocks are great but to look at them from up above made me feel like I was in the Tropics, not in Central California.

Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur


About 25 miles north, we came to Bixby Bridge, an arched bridge constructed in the 1930’s and one of the iconic features of Big Sur. What makes the bridge so visually appealing are the two columns that support it, which are shown in the picture below. It also offers great views of both the ocean and the mountains in the distance.

While most visitors will take pictures from the Pacific Ocean side of the highway, Jie and I parked inland, which allows for a fuller view of the entire bridge. We then crossed over to the Pacific side giving us a complete vantage point. Next time we visit, I would love to take in the sunset there.

Our final stop on the road trip was for dinner in Carmel, which is arguably my favorite place in California. On a Saturday night in the summer, and with the Bach Festival going on, the town was buzzing but Jie and I enjoyed a quiet dinner and stroll before heading back home.


Bixby Bridge



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