• By Cheryl Crabtree

In 1865 Senator George Hearst bought up 45,000 acres of ranchland at San Simeon, site of a tiny whaling town, in San Luis Obispo County in Central California. He eventually built a wharf for deep-water mooring and the town became a busy port. George’s son, William Randolph Hearst, helped spur the town’s development when he built Hearst Castle on a hilltop overlooking the pier. 

Today San Simeon is mostly a cluster of restaurants, hotels and shops along Highway 1, about 3 miles south of Hearst Castle. Stop at the Visitor Center in the Cavalier Plaza shopping center on the ocean side of the highway for information and maps. The Friends of the Elephant Seals office is in the same complex; they can tell you all about the gigantic mammal show at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery north of San Simeon.

San Simeon is also a giant outdoor playground and nature reserve. Hearst San Simeon State Park borders the coast and includes  William Randolph Hearst Memorial Beach, a great place for beachcombing and fishing, right across from the Hearst Castle entrance. Next to it is Old San Simeon, the remnants of what was once a busy whaling village, with an old one-room schoolhouse, Sebastian’s General Store, built in 1852 and now a state historical landmark, and the Hearst Ranch Winery tasting room.

Big Sur Restaurant, Castillo Drive, San Simeon, CA, USA

Cavalier Oceanfront Resort, Hearst Drive, San Simeon, CA, USA

Hearst Castle Visitor Center, Hearst Castle Road, San Simeon, CA, USA

Hearst Castle, Hearst Castle Road, San Simeon, CA, USA

Piedras Blancas Light Station, Cabrillo Highway, San Simeon, CA, USA

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, San Simeon Ave, San Simeon, CA, USA

Friends Of The Elephant Seal Visitor Center and Gift Shop, San Simeon Ave, San Simeon, CA, USA

San Simeon Visitor Center, San Simeon Ave, San Simeon, CA, USA

Hearst Ranch Winery, Slo San Simeon Road, San Simeon, CA, USA

San Simeon, CA, USA

William Randolph Hearst Memorial Beach, Hearst Castle Road, San Simeon, CA, USA

Hearst San Simeon State Park, San Simeon-Monterey Creek Road, Cambria, CA, USA

Ragged Point, CA, USA

Ragged Point Inn & Resort, California 1, Ragged Point, CA, USA

Best Places for Breakfast in the San Luis Obispo area

Cavalier Coastal Kitchen

Fuel up for the day at Cavalier Coastal Kitchen at the Cavalier Oceanfront Resort, on the bluffs on the ocean side of Highway 1, with classic dishes like a smoked salmon bagel, chilaquiles, omelets, scrambles, pancakes, waffles, and French toast.

Big Sur Restaurant

A casual, low-key roadside diner, Big Sur Restaurant’s breakfast menu includes hearty options like steak and eggs, huevos rancheros, and pancakes. Try the chilaquiles. If the weather’s nice, try to nab a table on the outdoor deck.

Best Things To Do in the Morning in the San Luis Obispo area

In the morning we suggest two must-do, must-see options, and each could easily fill your morning: Hearst Castle and a visit to the Elephant Seal Rookery (details below). You can also switch the options around depending on your schedule, and whether or not you are planning to drive up Highway 1 to Big Sur (or just did so).

If you can overnight in the area to leave enough time to see all the suggestions in this itinerary, please do so. If lodgings are full, consider staying in nearby Cambria. Also check out the California State parks’ seasonal elephant seal tours (three mornings a week, check schedule on website, $13 per person, pay at meeting point).

people in swimming pool during daytime from A Perfect Day in San Simeon on Slow Down, See More
Photo by Janne Simoes

Hearst Castle

Officially called Hearst San Simeon State Historic Monument, Hearst Castle is one of the most lavish vacation homes ever built. Publisher William Randolph Hearst hired famed architect Julia Morgan to design a dream estate on a hilltop at his 250,000-acre ranch. The Hearst Corporation gave the estate to the state of California in 1958. Hearst Castle offers several daily tours. Each lasts about two hours, including the 5-mile shuttle bus ride (10 minutes) up and down the hill (watch for herds of zebra and elk along the way). Even if you don’t have time for a tour, check out the sprawling visitor center. Watch the 40-minute film about William Randolph and the building of the castle (film ticket is included in the tours), check out the historical exhibits and art galleries, shop for souvenirs and grab a snack or lunch at one of a number of food service options (or picnic at tables in the parking area).

Piedras Blancas Light Station

It’s hard to imagine trying to steer a boat up this rugged coast before lighthouses were built. Must have been terrifying with miles of treacherous hazards waiting to rough up your boat in the pitch-black nights, like those big rocks right here. Captains must have cheered wildly when the beam from the Fresnel lens began to shine in 1875. The current 74-foot lighthouse tower originally stood about 110 feet, but the upper portion was removed in 1949. Reserve a spot on a morning tour (the only way to visit), which lasts about two hours.

Best Places for Lunch in the San Luis Obispo area

For lunch, you can find decent casual food at the Hearst Castle Visitor Center, or across the highway in Old San Simeon (see below). Or head up Highway 1 to Ragged Point Inn and Resort, where you can enjoy views of the Big Sur Coast if the weather’s nice. Ragged Point is a full-service resort with a restaurant, hotel, gas station, mini-mart and gift shop perched on a cliff amid 14 acres of gardens.

Hearst Ranch Winery Tasting Room

Stop by the Hearst Ranch Winery Tasting Room, with a lovely outdoor dining area overlooking San Simeon Cove, where you have several lunch options, depending on the day. The Cruiser Food Truck serves lunch on site Friday through Sunday. Seaside Food serves sandwiches daily, and the tasting room deli case is stocked with cheese & charcuterie items every day of the week.

from A Perfect Day in San Simeon on Slow Down, See More
Photo: Ragged Point Inn

Ragged Point Inn Restaurant

Feast on hearty California fare at the Ragged Point Restaurant, in the glass-walled dining room or on the patio. The restaurant serves a wide range of salads, sandwiches, and other items for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If you’re short on time, grab a burger or hot dog and fries from the snack shack.

Best Things To Do in the Afternoon in the San Luis Obispo area

This afternoon we recommend visits to the Elephant Seal Rookery Viewing Area and Old San Simeon (details below). You can also hang out at William Randolph Hearst Memorial Beach, across from the Hearst Castle entrance. After William Randolph Hearst died in 1951, his family donated a beachfront portion of their land to the state for a day-use park in his memory. Stop here to lounge on the beach, hike, or fish from the pier or a charter boat. You can also rent a kayak or boogie board in summer.

Ragged Point is a great place to stock up and stretch your legs by following the short bluff-top trail to some gorgeous views of the Big Sur Coast, and if you have time, take the trail down to beach — a 400-foot drop. If you’ve just driven Highway 1 south from Big Sur, this is a good place to stop and regain your land legs after the long series of curves.

From Ragged Point, you pretty much say adios to civilization as you begin the super-curvy journey northward on Highway 1, with few services and pullouts for the next hour-plus.

sea lion on water during daytime
Photo by Anchor Lee

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery

In November 1990, a group of 20-plus elephant seals were counted in a new rookery site — a small cove near the Piedras Blancas Light Station. Over the years the group grew to phenomenal proportions. About 17,000 elephant seals now crowd the beach at Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery every year, to give birth, mate, molt and rest. The rookery vista point is 4.4 miles north of Hearst Castle, just south of the Piedras Blancas Lightstation. Friends of the Elephant Seal docents in blue jackets are often around to provide info. You can also visit their visitor center at Cavalier Plaza in San Simeon.

from A Perfect Day in San Simeon on Slow Down, See More
Photo by Cheryl Crabtree

Old San Simeon

A booming whaling village at San Simeon Point once had 45 buildings, including a general store established in 1852. When the whaling industry declined, the building was moved a half mile to the east in 1878 and became the hub of a new village. Many buildings have disappeared, but the schoolhouse still stands, and Sebastian’s General Store is a state historic landmark (currently under renovation).

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Best Places to Stay in the San Luis Obispo area

from A Perfect Day in San Simeon on Slow Down, See More
Photo: Courtesy Ragged Point Inn

Ragged Point Inn and Resort

Ragged Point Inn is a full-service resort with a range of rooms, from relatively affordable garden view rooms to luxurious (and hence more expensive) rooms in a house perched on a 350-foot cliff. This is a great option for overnight lodging when driving up or down Highway 1.

from A Perfect Day in San Simeon, at the Stunning Pacific's Edge on Slow Down, See More
Photo: BW Cavalier

Cavalier Oceanfront Resort

The mid-range Cavalier Oceanfront Resort occupies a prime strip of bluff-top property on the ocean side of Highway 1. Room options vary; pay more for deluxe oceanfront rooms with king beds and private patios with soaking tubs, and less for family-style rooms by the pool. 

Bonus Pro Tips

Hearst Castle reservations are essential! You might be able to sign up on the spot on a weekday in the middle of winter, but otherwise, book as soon as you know you’re coming. They take reservations up to 60 days in advance.

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