After two of the most challenging years in its century-long history, Hearst Castle has finally reopened for tours as of May 11, 2023.
Designed by pioneering California architect Julia Morgan, the world-famous Central Coast landmark had remained closed since 2020, the longest span without visitors since it opened to the public in 1958. COVID-19 restrictions initially shut down the castle. Then, major rainstorms in 2021 badly damaged the steep, twisting access road that climbs 1,650 feet in just five miles to this incomparable property—the dream estate of media titan William Randolph Hearst.
Now, with the lifting of COVID-related regulations and the completion of a $13.7 million project to repair and improve the road, Hearst Castle is again accepting advance tour reservations. Among the reopening’s highlights is the new Julia Morgan Tour, which leads into rarely visited sections of the castle as it focuses on the life and career of the woman who designed more than 700 buildings in California.
The resumption of tours at Hearst Castle is the big news, and will no doubt inspire many road trippers to venture along California’s Highway 1. Below is a quick guide to some of the top things to do near Hearst Castle on the north coast of San Luis Obispo County: gorgeous hiking trails, wildlife viewing, world-class wineries, and an outstanding culinary scene.
With its many hotels and restaurants, the tiny coastal town of San Simeon is the gateway to Hearst Castle. The community is synonymous with the castle and the pier at beautiful William Randolph Hearst Memorial State Beach is where Hearst’s collection of priceless antiques and treasures arrived before being installed at the estate.
The pier extends 850 feet into curving San Simeon Bay and is the perfect place to catch a sunset. From the beach, a 2.5-mile round-trip hike through a forest leads to dramatic coastal views at San Simeon Point. Paso Robles' wine country is less than 30 minutes from San Simeon, and Hearst Ranch Winery, which produces acclaimed wines from grapes grown in the nearby region, has a tasting room and an outdoor patio overlooking the waves.
A few miles north of San Simeon, you can witness one of California’s most remarkable wildlife displays at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery. A boardwalk overlooks a beach where, during peak times, thousands of gigantic elephant seals (males can reach 16 feet in length and weigh up to 5,000 pounds) gather and tussle on the sands. For more wildlife viewing and a glimpse into the history of this coast, docents lead two-hour tours at the Piedras Blancas Light Station, which dates to 1875.
Barely 15 minutes from Hearst Castle, Cambria is set within a pine forest along a stretch of craggy coastline that you can explore by following the extensive trail network at 437-acre Fiscalini Ranch Preserve. There’s also a mile-long boardwalk on the bluffs above Moonstone Beach, which is lined with hotels just steps from the ocean. Raise a toast to Cambria’s technicolor sunsets with a glass of Central Coast wine on the deck at Madeline’s on Moonstone in the Cambria Shores Inn.
While Cambria is justly celebrated for its natural beauty, Main Street, which connects the town’s historic East and West Villages, is lined with restaurants, boutiques, and galleries, including the exquisite crafts at Ephraim Pottery West. Enjoy a slice of homestyle olallieberry pie at Linn’s Restaurant or an elegant, intimate dinner at Black Cat Bistro.
A few miles south of Cambria, Harmony (population 18) makes Cambria (population 5,647 at last count) look like a bustling metropolis. Originally established as a dairy town, Harmony’s “downtown” extends for all of a block. Despite its miniscule size, Harmony is a perfect stop for lovers of arts and crafts, thanks to Harmony Pottery Studio & Gallery and the handblown contemporary glass art at Harmony Glassworks. For a sweet taste of Harmony’s dairy tradition, order a scoop of small-batch ice cream from Harmony Valley Creamery.
Cayucos and Morro Bay
Though only separated by a few miles, Morro Bay and Cayucos have very different atmospheres. With landmark Morro Rock rising over the shoreline and a fleet of weathered fishing boats, Morro Bay is a classic California harbor town. Along its waterfront, you can savor the fresh local catch at such longtime favorites as Tognazzini’s Dockside and enjoy pan-seared scallops and other delicacies from the sea while gazing out on the bay at The Galley Seafood Grill & Bar.
Just up the coast, Cayucos has more of a beach-town feel, with a bit of the Old West mixed in thanks to the prominence of cattle ranching in the area. Stroll out on the pier, take a long walk along the white-sand beach, and don’t miss a Cayucos classic: the shortbread-style sea salt cookies at the Brown Butter Cookie Company.