On my recent visit to California I went with some friends to Hearst Castle. I've seen video and photos of the estate, but I've never ventured up the coast to check it out in person. The estate belonged to the late William Randolph Hearst. Hearst made his fortune in the newspaper business as founder of the company that still bears his name The Hearst Corporation. The company donated the property to the state of California and the state now operates it as a state park.
The property is more than estate, it's a working ranch. In fact, the bus ride to the top of the hill winds through acres of grazing land for cattle that still call the property home. More on that in a minute.
When you arrive, you're greeted by a large visitors center. While nice, it screams tourist destination. About one half of the visitors center is a gift shop. There's also a cafeteria, ticket windows and an IMAX theater where you can watch a film about the estate. Tickets are required to enter the property. There are several tours offered. Pay close attention to which tour you sign up for because each only covers a small portion of the mansion. You are free to roam the gardens as much as you want after your house tour. Just to give you an idea of cost, most tours started around $25 per person.
You depart the visitor center on buses. They run it almost like a tram at Disneyland. You show up at a "gate" at a time stamped on your ticket and board your bus for the top. The ride takes about fifteen minutes and follows the same winding two lane road originally constructed to access the mansion. The ride is harrowing at times as the bus clings to the side of the hillside as it climbs more than 1500 feet to the mansion. The house sits at the peak of the hill and has amazing panoramic views of the ocean and surrounding hills.
Our tour guide met our bus and we were quickly led up the stairs to the front of the main house. I took the grand rooms tour, which included five rooms on the first floor of the mansion. One interesting fact that I did not know ahead of my visit is that much of the mansion was never finished. Hearst worked on the home for decades until he died
The estate, which Hearst named La Cuesta Encantada (The Enchanted Hill), is definitely a castle. Both the exterior and interior of the mansion are opulent. Many of the features in the home were imported from castles in Europe, including artwork, woodwork, even some of the ceilings. The home's decor is extravagant and a bit over the top, but apparently the height of luxury at the time. Many of the grand rooms are just that, grand. While the tour was interesting, it was disappointing how little of the house you get to see. We were informed many visitors buy tickets for multiple tours and will take multiple tours consecutively.
After your tour you are allowed to roam the gardens and exterior of the home. This is where you can view the massive Neptune swimming pool. They have done a good job maintainig the mansion and the guides pointed out, on more than one occassion, that the property is still a working ranch.
Bottom line, Hearst Castle is definitely worth a trip. The history, architecture and unique furnishings make this a piece of American history. The views alone are worth the trip to the top of the hill. I've included a handful of pictures from my visit. You can click on the thumbnails for full size photos.
How to Get There
Hearst Castle is located about 250 miles north of Los Angeles in San Simeon, California. If you're coming from the north, it's about 250 miles south of San Francisco. The main entrance is right off of Highway 1.
You can learn more about the property and book tickets at Hearst Castle's website.