Last week, I shared updates on the wild coast, elephant seals, sea otters and visitor services on the Big Sur coast. I did not have room to mention several iconic places just south of Big Sur, so here are notes to take you south to Hearst Castle and Morro Bay.
On the south end of Big Sur (and just four miles north of San Simeon) you will find several beaches home to thousands of massive elephant seals. You’ve found the six-mile long Piedras Blancas rookery, home to these lumbering giants that can reach 5,000 pounds! Adult females and juveniles begin to depart to the sea towards the end of May; in the summer months, sub-adult males – those who have reached puberty but not yet of the size to command respect for breeding – begin to arrive for their molt. They are followed in August and September by adult males.
Visitors will find Friends of the Elephant Seals docents at the beach 10 AM to 4 PM, and, no reservations required and no fees!
Just south is Hearst Castle, rising regally in the hills overlooking the ocean and Santa Lucia Mountains. This huge estate owes its origin to the staggering profits of the Hearst newspaper and publishing business in the 1800s and early 1900s.
George Hearst initially acquired 40,000 acres in 1865, and son William Randolph Hearst enlarged the estate to 250,000 acres and constructed a huge and palatial home of 165 rooms, spectacular grounds and world-class art. With the help of architect Julia Morgan, Hearst created what he called La Cuesta Encantada, Spanish for “Enchanted Hill”.
The main house, Casa Grande, offers over 60,000 square feet of grandeur. Featuring 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, a theatre, indoor and outdoor pools and a 127 acre estate with tennis courts, airfield and private zoo complete with zebras, it was one of the largest and most grandiose private homes in the United States.
William Randolph Hearst would use his ranch to entertain political glitterati and Hollywood stars on a regular basis. Among the more notable were Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, Bob Hope, Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo and James Stewart. He maintained three sumptuous guest houses on the estate for just such purposes.
Hearst’s art collection rivals many of the world’s top museums; it, and the surrounding gardens make the visit well worth the trip to see it. Fees do apply and reservations are a must, so see the Hearst Castle web site before planning a venturesome trip to this lovely destination.
Just south of the Hearst Castle, you’ll pass through the lovely coastal towns of San Simeon, Cambria, Cayucos and on to Morro Bay. Here, Morro Rock stands as a huge sentinel (many describing it as the Gibraltar of the Pacific coast), marking the central California coast to ancient and today’s mariners.
Morrow Bay is a pretty town with just over 10,000 population and is named after Morro Rock, the huge granite volcanic plug just off shore. Morro Bay offers an active harbor and fishing industry, and oysters, halibut and salmon remain mainstays on local plates. Harbor-view restaurants and surrounding vineyards make this small town memorable.
The area was settled by the Chumash people in prehistoric times near Morro Creek; the Spanish Portola expedition visited in 1769. A Franciscan missionary noted “we saw a great rock in the form of a round morro”, a Spanish word that is part of many place names where a huge rock formation is prominent. Today, the 576 foot tall volcanic remainder is visible for miles in all directions.
Today, the town boasts pretty beaches, an active commercial fishing fleet that searches for rockfish, soul, halibut and albacore and is also tourist-friendly. You’ll find a number of restaurants with harbor views, delicious seafood and close-up vistas of the huge rock (two favorite eateries are Galley Seafood Grill and Bar, and Windows on the Water, both on Embarcadero)!.
Morro Rock was once surrounded by water; during World War II, a US Navy base was constructed on its north side so that sailors could practice landing craft skills. The breakwater was built to protect the harbor and is today maintained by the Corps of Engineers. While Morro Rock can be reached on foot, it is off-limits to visitors, as a home to protected peregrine falcons.
The town is ringed by some of California’s nicest state parks including Montana de Oro State Park and Morro Bay State Park to the south, Morro Strand Park to the north – offering camping and nearby beach access. When we visited recently, a portion of the beach and dunes were cordoned off to protect nesting Western Snowy Plovers. All these seaside parks get crowded in the summer, so if you are planning to camp, reserve a campsite well in advance.
You’ll find delightful places to stay, eat and camp in and near several of these towns. Hence, extend your visit to our stunning California coast by visiting these wonderful places just south of Big Sur.
How to get there: The most direct route to Hearst Castle, 260 miles from Stockton, is to take I-5 south, go southwest on Hwy. 41, to Hwy. 46, then turn north on Hwy. 1. It’s a little over four hours.
What’s nearby: to the north are Big Sur, Carmel and Monterey; San Luis Obispo and Pismo Beach are just south.
For info: Elephant Seals, Friends of the Elephant Seal, www.elephantseal.org, PO Box 490, Cambria, CA 93428; Hearst Castle, www.hearstcastle.org; Morro Bay, www.morrobay.org; for campsite reservations, www.reserveamerica.org.
For additional travel destination inspiration, see my blog: http://blogs.eSanJoaquin.com/Valley travel; to contact me, email@example.com.
Happy travels in the West!