San Diegans in Big Sur’s Court

by on October 5, 2010 · 12 comments

in Environment, Popular

Big Sur - Hearst camp 150-sm-best

Majestic view of waterfall, the beach, the rocks, the Pink Ladies - Julia Pffeifer Burns State Park. (Most photos by Patty Jones.)

It was a rainy and humid day when we packed up and headed for Big Sur last Thursday.  Patty had never driven the famous Highway 1 – Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), nor had she ever seen Big Sur, and had never been to Hearst Castle. And I aimed to change all that.  With camping tent, propane stove, food for 4 days and 2 plastic chairs, we packed up the PT Cruiser and headed out of town with a big sigh – ‘finally’- !

We had thought that this was a perfect time to travel the coast: it was off-season, post Labor Day, and the kids were back in school. The weather was beautiful most of the trip north as we had left the rain behind – to you who had stayed behind.

Big Sur - Hearst camp 064-sm-castleWe cruised through LA on the 405, took a left on the 10, and picked up PCH by late morning without a hitch or traffic problem. By time we reached Santa Barbara we were ready for lunch. As we munched on our sandwiches in the air-conditioned cafe in downtown SB, Patty read a local zine – and laughed. Santa Barbara was having the same issues with homelessness and the homeless that OB (and San Diego) was having. A local guy was feeding the homeless everyday and somebody was trying to stop him.

Moving on, we drove to Morro Bay to check out the big rock. But we couldn’t even see it – as there was so much fog it simply disappeared into the mist – and we stood right at its base.  Finally around six-ish, we pulled into the small town of San Simeon, checked into the Motel 6 (that’s as far as our lavish blog salaries could take us), ate a local pizza and called it a night.

On the way to Hearst Castle the next morning, we passed by zebras and llamas feeding near the road, and then turned into the park’s “visitor center”. I had wanted Patty to see and experience Hearst Castle – she had seen “Citizen Kane” not too long ago, so she generally knew the William Randolph Hearst story.  I wanted her to see how the real rulers of the country lived. Hearst Castle, despite now being a public monument, is proof that America has an aristocracy, that we have our own kings, queens, and princes.

“If anybody ever tries to tell you that we have a class-less society,” I told Patty, “you just tell them about this place.”

Big Sur - Hearst camp 069-sm casWe walked through the mostly empty parking lot and into the center for visitors and – WHOA! It wasn’t an ordinary visitors’ center, it was a damn mall! It had little shops of clothing, mementos, books up the wazoo, coffee and sweets store, it had a buffet complete with Hearst beef, a movie theater with a 45 minute spiel about the place and the man – which we ignored – and something of a museum.

We bought our tickets @ $24 a piece, waited the twenty minutes and boarded the bus for the Castle itself – which is  way up on the top of the nearby golden hills. It does look like a castle from afar and as the bus traversed the narrow windy road, we were greeted by deer and mountain sheep along the way.

It is an incredible place, Hearst Castle, and we had a great tour guide – an older woman who had worked there for 25 years. She – who must have been in her seventies – gave us all the details that we wanted as we walked the grounds. She also made us all throw away our gum (“the bane of all museums”) – and after the hour and half tour through one of the guest houses, the pools, and Casa Grande – the main part of the castle – we came away in awe and a few other emotions.

Big Sur - Hearst camp 072-sm-poolI cannot and will not go through the minutia of Hearst Castle, its grounds, art, and European ceilings, furniture, statues, carvings … it’s all too much. WRH himself had hired Julia Morgan to design the place, and construction started in 1919 I believe and continued into the thirties.  The building of the place, all the guest houses, the gardens, the inside pool, the pergola, the original zoo – all did provide jobs for hundreds of carpenters, masons, engineers, gardeners, and there were quarters built to house many of the male workers right there on the grounds.  In fact, the town of San Simeon was built by Hearst for the people who worked on the Castle.

And that, in the end, was the summation of the place. Hearst built a castle – and it had become a public works project – without the public (until later).  Many got jobs – hundreds -, celebrities got to play tennis, and movie moguls got to swim in the pools. It was a high point in high society. It was the rich playing with the super rich. It was the time of the Robber Barons, the Gilded Age, a time before the New Deal, and WWII.

Big Sur - Hearst camp 106-sm-frontAt one point, our tour group was standing on a patio above the outdoor pool with its shimmering blue bottom, and our guide asked if we could see the mountain peak off in the distance. It was over 6,000 feet, and even though it was a clear day, the peak seemed very far away. The guide explained that the original Hearst land included everything from the coast to that misty mountaintop. They also owned fifty miles of coastline. Fifty miles.

As we were about to leave the hilltop, I asked our learned guide how much the grounds of the Castle cost annually to maintain. She replied “12 to 15 million dollars.”  And no, the expensive tours did not cover all the costs. And yes, the Governor did consider closing the park last year, but obviously changed his mind.  Our guide also told us that if the state failed to properly maintain the castle and the grounds, the property would revert back to the Hearst family.

It was cooler at the coast as we continued our journey north to Big Sur country. The flat and straight road soon turned into a windy asphalt ribbon barely hanging onto the sides of spectacular cliffs with more spectacular views of the rocky coastline at every turn and twist.

Big Sur - Hearst camp 151-sm-viewIt’s impossible to describe Big Sur as words do not give its beauty justice. But all who have cruised its highway come away with love for the place. Henry Miller called it “the place where God meant the Earth to look like” or something very similar. Hippies and beatniks and bohemians all had found the place years ago.  Many recognize it for being one of the most beautiful spots on the globe.

By mid-day, we had found our campsite at the Kirk Creek Campground, and after fighting with our tent, it finally agreed to go up.  We had a great spot, sans trees or shade however, but with a view that erased all problems. Every campsite was filled – as this was a favorite spot to pitch a tent as it was one of the few campsites west of PCH.

After unpacking, we took a short walk down to the “beach”. It wasn’t really a beach as we know it, but was the rock filled seashore, with dark craggy boulders, blue-green waters, and white salty foam filling our eyes.

The sunset that evening was also spectacular and heralded the drop in temperatures at our campsite. As we finished our propane-cooked dinner, we settled in to watch the lingering lights, made a small fire, and sipped our beers and cognac .

Big Sur - Hearst camp 126-sm-carcampBefore it got too dark, we heard a rustle on our picnic table. We shined our light and – whoosh – a raccoon jumped off the table and scrambled for the nearby brush, carrying a plastic bag, leaving a trail of bread – jalapeno bread – behind it. Patty collected most of the slices – and we later named the raccoon “Jal” as in jalapeno. He showed up later that night again, and we found its tracks on the side of the car, leaving muddy paw prints on everything it touched.

That night it rained lightly but nothing got too wet. After breakfast, we were on our way to find a wonderful hiking trail.  We drove north with hardly any traffic, and after 16 miles, decided to check out Julia Pffeifer Burns State Park.

After looking at a park map, we headed inland, away from the shore, into the depths of the forests that dominated each valley that opened to the coast.

Big Sur - Hearst camp 158-sm-pathWe were immediately surrounded by redwoods, shamrocks, and ferns, and as we made our way up a small path next to a creek, we felt like we had stumbled into  heaven. It was dark but wondrous.  We followed the path as it glided up the canyon, and every few steps showed new waterfalls.

We settled down in a remote part of the forest, ate some power bars and fruit, and tasted the invigorating air.  After finally leaving the deeper part of the canyon, we took a busy coast path to view an amazing water fall where the water fell 30 feet to the beach below. Every view was awesome.

Back at camp, we threw our exhausted and dirty selves into dinner, another fire in the pit, and finished off the wine.  After eating, we sat and simply watched a huge wall of fog flow effortlessly towards us, and envelop everything.

Big Sur - Hearst camp 147-sm-fall beaThe next morning we packed up and departed from our beautiful campsite. We had hundreds of miles to cover to make it back by evening. One of our only stops along the way home was to observe a colony of sea lions and elephant seals resting and playing on a huge beach. Patty was amazed at the protection these seals received – strong fences, warning signs, comparing it to what the seals have in La Jolla at the Childrens Pool – where there has been such a fight just to get a rope to protect the animals.

It was a long day when we arrived home. Awash with different emotions from the splendor and excitement of the trip and its scenery, we were, as all weary travelers are, glad to get home to our own beds and hot showers.

Big Sur - Hearst camp 052-sm-sealsWell worth it, the trip had allowed us to experience the sights and sounds of an earthly paradise,  we had been at a man-made castle, and had then had entered nature’s castle – and of the two, Big Sur was much more of an awe-inspiring bounty of land and sea – where anyone could go as long as you have two wheels.  The trip – our vacation – was over but we were two very appreciative San Diegans who had returned from up north, from Big Sur’s majestic court.

Please check out the rest of these photos (click on the image for a larger pic):

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Ernie McCray October 5, 2010 at 5:28 pm

From my experiences camping and hiking in the area I think Henry Miller is right, Big Sur has to be “the place where God meant the Earth to look like.” Everyone should visit the area if they can.


oBak October 5, 2010 at 6:21 pm

I loved the Hearst Castle. Which tour did you take?
My wife and I stopped by there on a whim while on our anniversary in morro bay last year :


Frank Gormlie October 5, 2010 at 7:10 pm

Obak – we took what’s called the “Experience Tour” – it goes through one floor of one of the guest houses, the outdoor pool, a couple of patios, the “big house” entrance, it’s main big hall, the “coffee” room, the cigar room, the inside pool …


Frank Gormlie October 5, 2010 at 7:15 pm

I checked out your flickr photos – there were really some very excellent shots. Doesn’t look like our tour. What type/ kind of camera did you use? Or did your wife take them? We could all compare the photos we each take on the tours and figure out what everyone saw. I wish they’d take us upstairs in the big house.


oBak October 5, 2010 at 8:39 pm

We went on Tour 2 ( ) which focuses on the art and architecture. We got to see a lot of neat rooms, all themed different from the previous ones, as well as his crazy lampshades and library.

I used a Casio EX-FH20, mainly used for the 240/420 fps modes, but it takes pretty nice pictures too.


Debbie October 5, 2010 at 10:11 pm

Did you get to see the condors?


Frank Gormlie October 6, 2010 at 8:35 am

I kept asking Patty, “are those condors?” but she kept repeating, “no, they’re vultures.”


OBTinyHouse October 6, 2010 at 9:29 am

How far in advance did you reserve your campsite? I go to Big Sur every year but Kirk Creek is always full.


Frank Gormlie October 6, 2010 at 9:49 am

That’s the thing: we tried to make reservations on the state park website but were told it was a ‘first-come-first-serve’ basis. So we showed up only to find a sign that said: “Campground filled”. We went looking for the site’s ranger and he remembered he had a site open, and we grabbed it. We were very lucky, as the ranger said some people reserve months and months at Kirk Creek in advance. In fact, the ranger said some people don’t even tell their friends where the campsite is for fear of stirring up competition.


dave rice October 6, 2010 at 2:04 pm

Very cool Frank & Patty, looks like a great time! Coincidentally, that’s exactly where a couple friends who just married this last weekend are headed for their honeymoon…


Marilyn Reed October 8, 2010 at 11:30 am

I liked this article. Thanks for taking us on vacation with you. Your pictures are great. Some of us don’t get to take many vacations, but hey, how lucky are we! We get to vacation in OB every day of the week.


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