Your Gateway to Big Sur
Set between the Pacific Ocean and Santa Lucia Range, Big Sur is known for its unparalleled beauty, peaceful nature and diverse landscape. This narrow 90-mile stretch of Highway 1 winds along the rocky cliffs, sitting high above the water, for a seemingly endless drive with breathtaking views. Whether it be exploring the trails, waterfalls and rivers, enjoying the beaches or simply taking in the scenery, this dreamlike destination attracts millions of visitors each year.
Located at the southern tip of the state park, The Gateway to Big Sur is comprised of the small coastal towns San Simeon and Ragged Point. Here you will find the continuation of picturesque landscapes and native flora and fauna that compliments Bug Sur’s charm. Hike the coast’s edge, spend a day at the beach and camp under the stars. Pair it with boutique restaurants, family-owned wineries and hotels, and you have the best of both worlds at your fingertips. Read on to see what our ideal weekend at The Gateway to Big Sur looks like.
Exploring San Simeon and Ragged Point
Live Like Royalty
Whether you are traveling from the north or south, take a break to tour a castle fit for royalty. This lavish establishment began construction in 1919 when William Randolph Hearst, newspaper tycoon of the time, was sick of camping on his property and desired an estate worthy of entertaining all of his esteemed guests. Taking over 28 years, architect Julia Morgan aided W. R. Hearst in designing his dream estate. Sitting upon La Cuesta Encantada, or The Enchanted Hill, San Simeon’s Hearst Castle features 165 rooms, 127 acres of gardens, terraces, pools and walkways, a private zoo and airport.
Now one of the most visited showplaces and museums in the world, you can dive into the life of W. R. Hearst as you explore different aspects of the National Historic Landmark. Experience the jaw-dropping views of rolling hills met by crystal blue waters from atop the castle. Walk through extravagantly decorated rooms, search for historic art pieces and discover flourishing, serene gardens. A trip to Hearst Castle isn’t complete without a visit to the stunning and luxurious pools that are sure to take your breath away.
The castle holds occasional events throughout the year for those who become members of the castle’s non-profit organization, The Foundation at Hearst Castle. The Foundation’s primary initiative is to support the conservation and restoration of the castle.
Say Hello to the Elephant Seals
While the occasional wildlife sighting isn’t uncommon in Big Sur, this is one you will want to see. Elephant seals, affectionately named for their trunk-like noses, take residency in the coastal town of San Simeon. Coming ashore in order to birth, mate and molt, you can find colonies of Northern Elephant Seal at the Piedras Blancas Rookery in San Simeon throughout the year. Visit these fascinating creatures and you will find large, blubbery males fighting for dominance, the smaller females basking in the sun, and during the right times of the year, you can find the small seal pups napping in the sand.
Free and easily accessible, San Simeon’s Piedras Blancas Rookery is a compelling attraction for all (really, we could watch them for hours). Speak with docents, otherwise known as the area’s elephant seal experts, who are stationed at the rookery daily to answer any questions you may have.
Piedras Blancas Light Station
Get into the Big Sur mood with a hike to Piedras Blancas Light Station. This trek offers beautiful coastal views paired with a piece of San Simeon’s rich history. Beginning construction in 1874, the lighthouse was built on Point Piedras Blancas to serve as a beacon for incoming ships that risked getting caught amongst the water’s rocky edge. Over the years, earthquakes caused damage to the lighthouse, putting it out of commission for a number of years. Being declared structurally unsound, the light station is now preserved as a symbol of San Simeon’s history.
Taking care of the light station throughout its time was no easy task. Often isolating, treacherous and labor intensive, the job of a lighthouse keeper was far from glamorous. Leisure time was simple, however, and the men often spent their days fishing, enjoying the scenery and watching wildlife. Now a federally designated wildlife sanctuary due to the high ecological diversity, Point Piedras Blancas is one of the only places on the Central Coast that you will be able to see migrating whales’ breech.
Tour the historical landmark on Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday during your stay in San Simeon to experience the life of a lighthouse keeper. Learn more about the fascinating stories Point Piedras Blancas holds from the light station’s tour guides while you walk the property.
Spend a Day at the Beach
Take a break from the rocky cliffs found in Big Sur to spend a day on one of San Simeon’s leisurely beaches. With relaxing, sandy beaches, diverse terrain to explore and the perfect geographical location, there are plenty of activities for you to enjoy throughout your visit.
Pack a lunch and hit the beach at W. R. Hearst Memorial State Beach. With 24 picnic sites, barbeque grill stands, restrooms and water faucets, this beach is the perfect spot to kick back and relax for a day. Picnic with family, fish off of San Simeon’s recreational pier, go for a hike or walk along the beach and play in the water. There are many activities to choose from, all within walking distance. Visit the Coastal Discovery Center for an immersive learning experience on the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and California State Parks.
Escape to Pico Creek Beach and find a secluded haven where you can walk along the shore looking for pebbles and driftwood or explore the tide pools along the way. If you’re seeking thrills, hit Pico Creek Beach or Arroyo Laguna Beach for your kitesurfing and windsurfing hotspots. Adventurers may opt for Ragged Point Beach, which features a steep half-mile hike down to a private black sand beach.
Cycle Along the Central Coast
Wrap around the cliff edges, race down mountains and take in the views as you ride your way through The Gateway to Big Sur. With places to stay, restaurants and scenic rides, this bike-friendly location is a hub for those that choose to cycle along Highway 1.
Use the Piedras Blancas Route and you will discover a unique course featuring San Simeon’s most-famous attractions. After a quick tour through Cambria, San Simeon’s neighboring community, glide along the coastline with views of Hearst Castle upon the mountains to the east. Watch out for the zebras, cows and sheep that take residency on Hearst Castle’s ranch. Find elephant seals sunbathing on the beach before you make your way to the Piedras Blancas Light Station. On your way back around, discover the town center of Old San Simeon with a stop at Sebastian’s General Store and Café. Relax on their patio and refuel at this quaint and unique deli. Stroll the pier or walk along the water’s edge in Sebastian’s front yard – the W.R. Hearst Memorial State Beach – before climbing back on two-wheels.
Hike Along the Coast
Continue your Gateway to Big Sur adventures with a hike along the varied and scenic coastline. Whether you are a novice or experienced hiker, these coastal communities offer something for everyone, along with breathtaking views.
Opt for Boucher Trail and you will find two of San Simeon’s most visited attractions along this 4-mile roundtrip hike. Located off of Highway 1, the trail starts next to the elephant seal Piedras Blancas Rookery. Beat the crowds as you take off on Boucher Trail for an extended view of the Northern Elephant Seals as you wrap around the cliffs. Continue along the trail for vistas of coastal bluffs, crystal blue waters and the famous Piedras Blancas Light Station in the distance.
Take off on San Simeon Point Trail, located down the hill from Hearst Castle, for a 2.5-mile hike to San Simeon Cove. Start along the sunny W. R. Hearst Memorial State Beach and wind upward into the shaded eucalyptus grove. Make sure to stop along the way for stunning views of coastline, green forest and the surrounding mountains. Be on the lookout for elephant seals sunbathing in the coves and hidden beaches on your route. If you spot one of these magnificent mammals, make sure to give them the space that wildlife requires.
If you’re looking for a more challenging route, head to Black Swift Falls located in Ragged Point. Descend down the steep terrain and you will find rewarding views of the Big Sur coastline, warm black sand below and a waterfall pouring over the cliffside.
Sleep Beneath the Stars
A nature-lovers paradise, San Simeon offers an array of activities and sight-seeing. Whether you’re starting your Big Sur adventures or continuing the fun, San Simeon delivers with campgrounds ranging from serene coastal settings to stately pine forest.
Visit one of the oldest sites in California’s State Parks at the San Simeon Creek Campground. Set between rolling hills dotted with trees and featuring amazing sunsets, this campsite is the most peaceful place you could stay. Choose from 115 camp sites which include fire pits, picnic tables and water spigots. Trash facilities and restrooms with showers are also a plus at the San Simeon Creek Campground.
Located one mile from San Simeon’s coastline is the Washburn Primitive Campground, set atop a plateau overlooking the Santa Lucia Mountains and Pacific Ocean. Choose from any of the 68 campsites at Washburn for hilltop views of the coast peeking through the rugged landscape. Each campsite features a fire pit, picnic table and water spigot.
Ditch the Tent
Live a life of luxury after your nights of camping by staying beach front in one of San Simeon’s hotels. Perched on the seaside bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, The Gateway to Big Sur offers the perfect getaway.
Enjoy pillow-top mattresses, oceanfront fire pits, heated pools and gourmet breakfasts at any one of San Simeon’s hotels. With eleven hotels to choose from, there is no wrong choice when it comes to quality and amenities. All centrally located and in close proximity to the beach, you can be sure that you will be relaxing beachside and loving it.
Immerse yourself in the magic of Ragged Point Inn. Set cliffside, each room overlooks the Pacific Ocean with beautiful, unobstructed vistas. Enjoy the picturesque backdrop from your personal deck as you kickback and recharge. Enjoy a cup of coffee, gourmet dining and seasonal cocktails all without leaving during your stay.
Find more places to stay on your trip to The Gateway to Big Sur here.
Indulge in Local Cuisine
Eating while camping can be a bit bland, which is why The Gateway to Big Sur is the perfect spot to stop for a bite. Offering a quaint location with minimal traffic, these coastal communities offer delicious food, scenic views and local wine for your nights out. With everything from fine-dining to casual eats, local deli’s and Mexican fare, and numerous breakfast options, mix it up and explore the best of San Simeon and Ragged Point.