Think of castles, and you probably imagine a turreted wonder in Europe. But California has its own surprising crop of palaces and estates fit for a monarch, created by people with imaginations as big as their castles. Take publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst, who commissioned renowned architect Julia Morgan to design Hearst Castle, a Mediterranean masterpiece along the Central Coast. And then there’s Walt Disney, who made the Sleeping Beauty Castle the soaring hub of Disneyland in Anaheim. Or Lora Josephine Knight, who created a Scandinavian-style castle along the shores of Lake Tahoe. California's state park system is also home to some of California’s most majestic castles, too—such as the spires at Castle Crags State Park in the Shasta Cascade region.
Then there’s Dario Sattui, a fourth-generation Californian who built medieval-style Castello di Amorosa to house one of his wineries in Napa Valley. Ask him why, and the answer comes as easily as his next big idea: The Golden State is a place, he says, “where anyone can do anything, if they really want to do it.”
Here’s where to find these and other California-style castles and learn about the creative dreamers behind them, as well as a couple of castle-like locations created by the ultimate dreamer, Mother Nature.
—by Matt Jaffe
You don’t need to travel all the way to Italy to see the inside of a Tuscan castle. Castello di Amorosa, one of V. Sattui’s open-to-the-public wineries in Napa Valley, is built to precisely replicate a spectacular medieval fortress. Complete with moat and drawbridge (and even a torture chamber), Castello di Amorosa is the dream of Dario Sattui, who acknowledges that he had to be a little crazy to build his labor of love in Calistoga. “I still don’t know for sure why I spent 15 years of my life building this castle,” the winery owner says with a laugh.
The castle boasts 107 rooms (not including the underground network of caves), and no two rooms are alike. On guided tours, look for spectacular flourishes like the hand-painted frescoes in the Great Hall. In the 12,000-square-foot Grand Barrel Room, look up to see a cross-vaulted ceiling crafted from ancient bricks while you sip award-winning Italian-style wines. Or enjoy food and wine pairings with the castle’s sommelier in the Royal Apartment, complete with a carved fireplace and hand-forged chandeliers.
Impressive? Yes. Inspiring? Ditto. “You do something you love, you put your heart and soul into it, you put everything you have into it…and people will see it, and it’ll come back to you,” explains Sattui. “First you have to have a dream.”
Since Hollywood is already known for grand mansions and lavish estates, it’s only fitting that a new soaring structure rises from the grounds of Universal Studios Hollywood. Hogwarts Castle, the spectacular centerpiece of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, is an eye-popping extravaganza that truly captures the spirit of our favorite boy wizard.
Walk the recreated streets of Hogsmeade to pick up your own wizard’s wand at Ollivanders, or snack on peppermint toads and chocolate frogs at Honeydukes sweet shop. Then pass through the castle gates to step into the world of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, complete with Dumbledore’s office and the soaring Gryffindor Common Room. Then it’s time to board the site’s signature attraction, “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey,” you’ll likely be as impressed as the stars of the Harry Potter movies who have also ridden it. “It’s so immersive,” reports actor James Phelps, who played Fred, one of the red-haired Weasley twins. “When you’re in it, you can’t see anyone else riding the ride as well. It’s just you.”
HARRY POTTER characters, names and related indicia are © & ™ Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Harry Potter Publishing Rights © JKR. (s16) ©2016 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Gaze up at the imposing granite ramparts at the heart of Castle Crags State Park, and it’s easy to understand why centuries of the region’s Native Americans revered these pinnacles as sacred places. Here, less than an hour’s drive north of Redding on Interstate 5, you’re looking at formations more than 170 million years old, a snaggle-toothed mass of rock sculpted by erosion and time. It’s a spectacular site, with the tallest spires soaring 6,500 feet high—yet surprisingly accessible on well-maintained trails. Stroll the short, easy trail to Vista Point, which offers an epic panorama of the crags and Mount Shasta, the 14,179-foot snow-capped volcano roughly 30 miles north. Or for more of an adventure, follow Crags Trail, which climbs to the base of 4,996-foot Castle Dome and more epic views.
Rising beyond Main Street, Sleeping Beauty Castle is the unmistakable beacon (along with the Matterhorn ride) at the heart of the theme park. With its turquoise-tiled towers, golden turrets, and working drawbridge, it looks every inch the grand castle.
And yet, when you’re up close to the castle, you might think it’s smaller than it seemed from far away. That’s because mastermind Walt Disney knew something about illusions. With the castle, he used a technique called forced perspective, in which design details like bricks are created progressively smaller the higher up they go. This trick of the eye makes the building—just shy of eight stories tall—appear more imposing when viewed from a distance.
Even if it isn’t as big as you thought, Sleeping Beauty Castle is loaded with cool details. The design is based on a real-life 19th-century Bavarian castle in Neuschwanstein, Germany. The drawbridge has only been raised and lowered twice: first when the park opened in 1955, and again for the 1983 rededication of Fantasyland, entered by passing through the castle archway. And look closely above the drawbridge at the Disney crest, embellished with roaring lions. There’s also a plaque commemorating the spot where a time capsule was buried in 1995—on the park’s 40th birthday.
Step inside to experience the “Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough,” where 3D dioramas display luminous images in the style of Eyvind Earle, the artist who created the look for the 1959 animated classic.
In a fjord-like setting at Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay State Park, the 38-room Vikingsholm castle is a rare masterpiece of Scandinavian architecture. This spectacular site was originally built to be the summer residence of Mrs. Lora Josephine Knight. Impressed by her architect nephew Lennart Palme’s Nordic-inspired home in New York, Mrs. Knight traveled to Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland to research ideas for her Lake Tahoe house. Together with Palme, Mrs. Knight visited old wood churches and ancient stone castles before construction on Vikingsholm began in 1929.
Explore the castle on tours offered several times daily from late May through the September and marvel at the meticulous stonework, hand-forged metalwork, and intricately carved wooden beams ending in dragon heads. Keep an eye out for rare Scandinavian antiques Mrs. Knight found on her travels, as well as exquisitely accurate reproductions she commissioned by skilled artisans. You’ll also learn about Mrs. Knight, an extraordinary woman who married into extreme wealth, then used her money to educate young women who couldn’t otherwise afford it.
Insider tip: Getting to Vikingsholm means parking in its small lot then taking a one-mile (and fairly steep) hike that goes down 400 feet in elevation. It’s a lovely walk, though, with plenty of places to stop and rest.
The most northerly of the desert region's three new (admission-free) national monuments designated in 2016, Castle Mountains National Monument is wrapped on three sides by Mojave National Preserve and the Nevada state line on the fourth. At just shy of 21,000 acres, it’s the smallest of them. But smaller doesn’t mean less noteworthy. The focal point is Castle Peaks, a cluster of epic spires that climb skyward like the ramparts of an ancient fortress.
The dramatic peaks, though, are just a part of what makes the Castle Mountains National Monument notable. At the mountains’ feet lie some of the Mojave Desert’s best grasslands, plus forests of twisted junipers and Joshua trees, a type of yucca that looks like it jumped right out of the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. Roaming (and soaring) amidst it all are desert bighorn sheep, golden eagles, mountain lions, coyotes, and bobcats. And if you are lucky enough to visit from March through April after a few substantial spring rains, the carpet of wildflowers can be spectacular. You can get wildflower forecasts at Desert Wildflower Reports or the Theodore Payne Wildflower Hotline.
The park is only accessible by dirt roads; you can drive in and wander about or set off on a hike as you like. High clearance, 4WD vehicles are recommended. Camping facilities are available within the park; Mid-Hills Campground and Hole-in-the-Wall Campground can accommodate a maximum of 8 persons and 2 vehicles (first come, first serve). If your group is larger, Black Canyon Equestrian and Group Campground is the one to make your (required) reservations for. The nearest visitor information is located at the Mojave National Preserve Headquarters in Barstow, which includes a bookstore, as well as the Kelso Depot within the preserve.
Spring or fall months are the best times to visit, as winter temperatures are often below freezing, and the winter months can bring occasional snow. Summers can see the mercury rise to close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
The area is a treasure trove of human history too. Native American archeological sites have been discovered here, and the historic (and historically short-lived) gold-mining town of Hart, founded in 1908 and the institutions of which were largely abandoned, abolished, or closed down by 1915, put the challenges of living in the desert’s harsh conditions in sharp focus. These and other finds offer a fascinating glimpse into this surprisingly diverse and beautiful preserve.
With its square towers and walls made of rectangular concrete blocks resembling ancient stonework, this architectural oddity about 15 miles southwest of San Francisco looks like something out of a Shakespeare play. But even though Macbeth or Hamlet would feel right at home at Sam’s Castle, this bluff-top castle overlooking the ocean actually has a uniquely California pedigree.
In the aftermath of the 1906 quake that rocked San Francisco, attorney Henry Harrison McCloskey decided to construct a home that could stand up to both fire and earthquake. The result was this fortress-like concrete compound in the Pacifica neighborhood of Sharp Park.
On once-a-month tours, Bridget Oates, author of Sam’s Castle, recounts the house’s unusual history. Dubbed the “intrepid castle woman” by a local newspaper editor, Oates explains her fascination with the site. “I lived down the hill from the castle in Sharp Park, and I became very curious as to why there was this beautiful, grand castle in the middle of a suburban neighborhood.” Her tours shed light on the castle’s days as a Prohibition-era speakeasy and its service as a Coast Guard station during World War II. Don’t miss the obligatory suit of armour, and the eccentric collection of furnishings and artwork assembled by Sam Mazza. The castle’s namesake Sam, who purchased the building in 1959, was a theater painter and decorator for 20th Century Fox.
Do you believe in magic? You will if you spend an evening at Hollywood’s Academy of Magical Arts, and its clubhouse, the Magic Castle. As its website says, “A miracle here, a miracle there, and pretty soon it starts to add up.”
The 1908 mansi, a "what's that up there?" eyecatcher when viewed from downtown Hollywood, houses a warren of rooms where magician members perform their craft in such spaces as The Parlour of Prestidigitation and the Palace of Mystery. See if you can spot the magician’s sleight of hand from just a few feet away in the tiny 22-seat Close-Up Gallery. There are bars and a Victorian-style restaurant, all worthy of a classy night out (jackets and ties required for the men, and dresses or skirts for the ladies). To add an air of exclusivity and mystery, entrance is only allowed to members (various options are detailed on the club’s website). You can also visit if invited by a current member.
Ivy Brown, an art director and designer who lives in downtown Los Angeles, has been to the Magic Castle several times with her fiancé. “There is an air of mystery, and it was all a little bit secretive. It feels like you’ve gone back to a different time,” says Brown, adding that during one visit, “One gentleman performed a sleight of hand with different size marbles that had me completely fooled. I was just blown away!”
Join the fantasy of the Middle Ages—a time of chivalrous knights, fair maidens, and dazzling swordplay—at Medieval Times, this high-spirited indoor attraction. It’s hard to know what kids like best: the jousting, the horses, the acrobatic moves, or the chance to dig into dinner medieval style—with your hands. This is a join-in-the-fun-and-clank-your-steins kind of place, with generous doses of singing, spirited competitions, and tomfoolery. Each show ends with a knight being crowned champion of the jousting festivities.
Insider tip: Arrive early; seating is first-come, first serve, and close-up seats can add to the fun.
Appearing like a mirage in the desert, this Spanish-style castle is one of Death Valley’s oddest and most fabled attractions. Built in the 1920s by Chicago insurance executive Albert Johnson, Scotty’s Castle served as a vacation getaway for Johnson and his wife Bessie, but its primary resident was Walter Scott, a gold prospector and cowboy who performed in Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West” show. Johnson had invested in Scott’s gold mining schemes and the two became friends. Scott told anyone who would listen that the $2 million castle was built with his gold mining profits.
Although its construction was never finished, the castle is filled with hand-wrought iron and tile, custom-made furniture, and extravagant antiques and tapestries. A highlight is the Chimes Tower, which contains a set of 25 carillon chimes that were set to play on the quarter-hour. The Scotts’ also had a 1,121-pipe theater organ installed in their music room. Its melodies entertained their A-list houseguests—Betty Grable, Will Rogers, and Norman Rockwell. Explore the castle in a one-hour ranger-led tour (underground tunnel tours offered from November through mid-April; less often in summer). Same-day tour tickets are sold at the Scotty's Castle Visitor Center. Reservations are available; be sure to call at least one day in advance.