Smack-dab between Los Angeles and San Francisco is the seaside town of San Simeon. Its central location makes the town a natural stop on Highway 1—but San Simeon’s main draw is its world-famous mansion. Hearst Castle, a shining example of Gilded Age extravagance, welcomes 1.5 million guests to its magical grounds each year. Alongside the castle (an absolute must-see), San Simeon shines with such natural splendor that you’ll see why William Randolph Hearst chose this area to build his otherworldly abode.
There are plenty of ways to explore the beachy beauty of San Simeon. At Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, elephant seals cover the shore. Head here in winter to see these extraordinary creatures (males weigh as much as 5,000 pounds) as they bring their little ones into the world. The Boucher Trail starts at the rookery parking lot and extends 1.9 miles north, providing the opportunity to check out other coastal wildlife or simply admire the bluffs. At the end of the trail, you can see the Piedras Blancas Light Station from a distance; schedule a tour for a closer look.
San Simeon’s handful of beaches offer varying delights. At the largest, W.R. Hearst Memorial State Beach, sits San Simeon Pier. Protected under the California Marine Life Protection Act, the pier is home to sea otters and elephant seals—and in the fall, it provides a perfect vantage point to watch migrating humpback whales feeding just off the Central Coast. Arroyo Laguna is a windsurfer’s dream, with gusts regularly reaching 40 miles per hour. The pebbly Little Pico Creek is the perfect place to search for shells and explore tide pools filled with starfish, sea anemone, and shrimp.
Spend the night in San Simeon at The Morgan, inspired by Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan, or Cavalier Oceanfront Resort, where guests enjoy nightly bonfires overlooking the beach. For a cozier experience, check into one of the cottage-style inns at neighboring Cambria to the south. Or head north to Big Sur to enjoy the extreme luxury of Post Ranch Inn. As you drive out of San Simeon, keep your eyes peeled for a herd of zebra grazing the hills. They’re a holdover from the Hearst Castle private zoo, once home to monkeys, lions, tigers, orangutans, and a single elephant.