Hello from our latest (but not greatest) stop of Fresno, California – a city I mostly know from the Fresno chile, often used in Bon Appetit recipes but seemingly never available at the supermarket (I use serranos instead).
I spent the previous week, however, in a much better known and beloved place – California’s Central Coast and Big Sur.
As I mentioned last week, my process for finding a place was a bit scattershot, and I’m very lucky I ended up in such a charming and perfectly located town as Cambria. Perfectly located, of course, unless you’re driving uninterrupted from San Diego, another 400-mile haul for me and my furry, unwilling backseat passenger.
The first hour and a half was a breeze, as the first part of these drives tend to go. You feel like you’re making great progress and time, and then you look down and realize you still have four and a half hours to go. I hit this point exactly as I ran smack into Los Angeles traffic, which is no one’s idea of a good time. After crawling through miles for no apparent reason, we finally broke free near Santa Barbara, where we joined US Route 101 – El Camino Real, which traces the path of the founders of California’s early Spanish missions.
From here, the drive can be described as nothing other than sensational. I can’t take pictures when I’m driving, as you might expect. But you know that Windows XP default desktop background? This one.
Make that grass a bit yellower and you’ve got a good sense of the vibe from Santa Barbara to Pismo Beach, where the highway briefly meets the water again, then back into the hills until the jaw-dropping sight of Morro Bay (more on that to come). It’s pretty dreamy stuff.
Linus and I arrived at our home in Cambria in the late afternoon, and I spent a few hours getting us settled into our strangely nice, strangely ramshackle accommodations. On the one hand, it was pretty big – two bedrooms, a big eat-in kitchen, and even a sleeping loft that I never used. On the other, I would come to battle a variety of six- and eight-legged intruders over the days ahead, which those who know me know was not my favorite thing to do.
Then again, the house was built into the side of a hill; what else could I expect? A sign in the living room advised that the owners had even seen deer on the roof at times. I kept an eye out for this but unfortunately was limited to spotting some curious squirrels. In either case, it was a great location just off of the historic downtown, also known as the East Village, as opposed to the West Village, a second downtown shopping area about a mile down the road.
It really is a charming downtown, with a handful of restaurants, antique stores, and tourist shops. Just down the road is Moonstone Beach, an absolutely gorgeous spot that’s more for picture taking and beachcombing than sunning or swimming, mostly due to the nearly constant wind and almost comically large piles of seaweed and driftwood.
The beach is named because of the number of moonstones that apparently wash up there. I say apparently because, on both of my visits, I was unable to find any, and others on the beach couldn’t even tell me what they looked like because they didn’t know, either. I did find some pretty rocks, in any case.
Cambria is also home to a true Central Coast oddity, known as Nitt Witt Ridge. It was built by local artist Arthur Beal (aka Captain Nitt Witt) over the course of fifty years, starting in the late 1920s, almost entirely out of the garbage from town residents and found local materials from the environment. This means you’ll see beer cans, shells, scrap metal, car parts, and pretty much everything else you can think of. The home has been empty since Beal’s death in the 1990s, but has been saved by the state of California, which gave it preservation landmark status.
Remember last week when I mentioned the major problems California is facing, just underneath this veneer of paradise? As lovely as Cambria is, you can file this town under that category as well. Like a lot of the west, California is facing a water shortage, and it’s especially profound on this part of the Central Coast. The entirety of Cambria’s nearly 6,000-resident strong population relies on water from a single well (down from two several years ago) as well as two small creeks.
Land is actually fairly cheap out here, considering it’s just minutes from some of the most gorgeous coastline in America. The problem? You can’t generally build on it. There are only a certain number of water meters allowed in Cambria; the only way you can get one is by buying someone else’s. And if you sell your meter, it’s not like you can just drink bottled water or have it trucked in – you’re legally required to demolish your home, with the one exception being Nitt Witt Ridge, as a protected landmark. It’s a little scary to think about how perilously this place continues to remain habitable, and how many more places are just like it throughout the west.
Naturally, one of the major industries out here is the famously water-intensive raising of cattle and ranching. Ranching in the area has dated all the way back to California’s Spanish days. And while ranching is generally not considered a great thing for the land in most places, the unusual upshot out here is that the huge parcels owned by single landowners made it much easier than it would have been otherwise to preserve massive swaths of land. One of these is right in Cambria, known as the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, a free park that stretches all the way from downtown to the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
The area is crisscrossed by a dozen trails that let you explore the area in a choose-your-own-adventure style, and even carefully scamper down to the tidepools. Houses creep right up to each side, basically making it one of the most beautiful neighborhood parks I’ve ever seen.
Way off in the distance as I walked north back toward my car, I noticed just the faintest view of what looked like a castle up on the hill in the distance.
It is, in fact, a castle – Hearst Castle, one of the most extravagant complexes ever built. It was the home of publisher and producer William Randolph Hearst, built over nearly three decades starting in 1919. The Castle sits on land that was once a family cattle ranch owned by Hearst’s father, George Hearst, a tract that takes up a truly unfathomable portion of coast and mountains in the town of San Simeon.
Other than the natural beauty of Big Sur just up the road, it’s the unquestioned top attraction that draws people to this relatively remote portion of the west coast. But since 2020, it’s been closed due to heavy rains (in California? This was my reaction) that washed out parts of the road from the visitor center to the hilltop mansion. We’ve dealt with a lot of unusual closures on our trip – from the weather in Austin, from COVID (still) at Old Tucson and plenty of trails and other sites on Native American land in New Mexico.
But in an unusually fortuitous turn of events, Hearst Castle was reopening for the first time in two years during my visit. I snagged a ticket for the first day. I also spent some time ahead of my visit watching the excellent Citizen Hearst documentary, which I’d recommend to anyone interested in the media or American history. The name is a reference, of course, to Orson Welles’ famous Citizen Kane, a character transparently based on Hearst. Understandably, Hearst was not fond of the film.
These days, the property is run by the state of California, which has constructed basically the equivalent of a medium-sized city’s transit hub to organize the thousands who come each day for tours. When you arrive, you check in, and are directed to a gate, where you board one of the many buses heading on a half-dozen or more tours. There’s the upstairs tour, the designer tour, the night tour, and more, but I opted for the recommended first-timer tour, known as the Great Rooms tour.
In what I think will surely be one of the oddest moments of our trip, the bus ride was narrated by none other than the late Alex Trebek, who died in the time between the last tour pre-closure and today’s. A general murmur of unease confirmed I wasn’t the only one who noticed this beyond-the-grave narration, but the scenery was so incredible (including a wild herd of former Hearst aoudad) it soon became an afterthought.
At the top of the hill, we offloaded and were greeted by one of the strangest tour guides I’ve ever had. He seemed to barely be aware he was conducting a tour – it was more a stream-of-consciousness presentation of Hearst-related anecdotes tangentially related to where we were currently standing. That’s not to say it was a bad tour; just an odd one.
We all rushed to take pictures of this grand building in front of us when our guide informed us this was just the guest house. Oops. As far as guest houses go, I think you’d have a hard time making me leave. We headed toward the main house, passing through gardens and one of the most impressive pools I’ve ever seen, surrounded by an equally impressive number of guards to make sure no one took an unauthorized dip.
We finally came upon the Castle itself, or the Casa Grande as it was called. Just seeing a picture, you could have convinced me it was a 17th-century Spanish cathedral.
Inside, the term “castle” may actually be underselling it. Palace may be more accurate, especially since a decent number of items in the building were once used to decorate Versailles in France. All of it was stunningly beautiful, but left me wondering how these spaces would actually work as a home instead of a museum. Are you getting the Citizen Kane vibes yet?
The castle even has its own fairly large movie theater, where Hearst and his girlfriend watched new films almost every night, and his private tennis courts. Take a close look at that photo – see those squares of glass near the net?
Those are skylights for the castle’s indoor pool – because naturally, the gigantic outdoor pool we saw earlier wasn’t good enough. I’m sure there’s some more interesting stuff about this pool, but the acoustics were so bad that I truly have no idea what our guide was talking about for most of our time in here, before we were shuttled out and sent back down the hill.
Beyond Hearst Castle and the drive up Big Sur, the Central Coast is essentially just a collection of small tourist towns, each one unique in its own way. Here’s how they stack up, as far as I’m concerned.
Enough said above. It felt like home from the moment I got there, and I couldn’t ask for a better combination of nature, tourist town friendliness, and remote small-town weirdness.
2. Morro Bay
Morro Bay goes by the nickname “Three Stacks and a Rock.” No one who has ever even passed through town would wonder why. I mentioned earlier the jaw-dropping reveal of Morro Bay as you emerge from the hills inland. You crest a hill heading north, and suddenly in the distance, there they are. Three enormous smokestacks set in front of what looks like a massive boulder in the water. I had no idea that this was coming and therefore was totally unprepared for how cool it looked in the afternoon sun.
Morro Bay was my first visit outside Cambria, and I arrived just as the sun was starting to set on that absolutely breathtaking behemoth known as Morro Rock.
If you can believe it, Morro Rock was once twice the size before, in today’s edition of “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” locals blew it up to quarry the stone. The “rock” in the town’s nickname is situated directly across a narrow stretch of water from the “three stacks” – a former regional power plant, now long abandoned. In theory, the city voted to remove the smokestacks in the future, but anyone who’s ever followed local politics (especially involving zoning and “historic” properties) knows how this goes. In any case, I was glad to see them before their potential demise, because it’s a really incredible pairing.
If you, like me, were initially distracted by the stone and concrete sights, the other natural things to see here will demand your attention pretty quickly. Quite literally, with the deafening barking of the sea lions and less aggressive chattering of the sea otters (which you can actually see in the photo on the right above, if you look carefully.)
There’s plenty more to do in Morro Bay too – several state and local parks, kayaking on the bay, museums and more. But with only a week in the region, I had to settle for seeing the rock and grabbing a seafood dinner, another great move in a fishing town like Morro Bay.
Visually, Cayucos is pretty distinctive from other Central Coast towns. It’s got one of the largest stretches of beautiful, sandy beach for miles to the north or south, with most of the town wedged up against the hills.
This is what drew me here, for my new habit of napping on beaches following exhausting days of exploring (it’s a nice habit, you should try it.) There’s not a terrible lot else going on in Cayucos, but there doesn’t need to be.
There is, however, an exceptionally good all-gluten-free restaurant The Hidden Kitchen that serves sweet or savory blue corn waffles. Enough said.
4. Paso Robles
Paso Robles comes in a solid fourth place here, but I can’t blame it all on the town. The drive up there is beautiful.
Surely, this would be a more fun place with Morgan or with friends, especially with a designated driver so I could have sampled more of the region’s many local wines. The area is able to produce a pretty dizzying amount of different types of grapes due to the numerous “microclimates” within such a small area. On an average day, the temperature can be as much as 20 degrees different on opposite sides of town, from the cooler hills that receive the last of the ocean airflow, to the scorching inland valley area. It’s pretty bizarre, and something locals I talked to admitted makes it difficult to know how to dress pretty much any time of year.
I arrived in the late afternoon, heinously overdressed for the high 80s that greeted me downtown (it was in the low 60s in Cambria, in my defense, and I wasn’t yet aware of this climate oddity.) Downtown is lined with more winery tasting rooms than I could count, and unable to decide on one, I picked a wine bar that offered flights to try some tastes of a few. They were decent, and I grabbed a bottle as I always feel compelled to do after wine tastings.
Afterward, I grabbed some dinner at a place billing itself as “wine country BBQ” because, wouldn’t you? It was alright, though perhaps my barbecue palate has become more discerning after six months in the south and southwest.
DQ – San Luis Obispo
I am sure San Luis Obispo is a lovely town. I enjoyed the time I spent there – until I got glutened. A valuable lesson for travelers with dietary issues is that, no matter how many times you ask to make sure (three, in this case), sometimes the kitchen will still serve you normal pasta. Management seemed not to understand the real problem, which I blame on trendy non-gluten eaters, as opposed to those with actual health issues.
This forced me to head pretty much straight home, skipping a few hours of exploring I had planned, to spend an unpleasant afternoon and evening of stomach trouble, body aches, and general malaise. All things considered, I’m lucky I was OK to do stuff the next day and back to normal by the day after, considering the days of issues I had the last time got glutened (read as: glutened myself, knowingly. The fried banana peppers were not worth it.)
I did get to see a bit of SLO, as it’s called, before my ill-fated lunch. The town only exists where it does today because of the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, one of about two dozen original Spanish Catholic missions built by the controversial Junípero Serra, whose reputation has taken a bit of a tumble in recent years, at least somewhat deservingly. It’s set right off downtown, making for charming views but also an unsettlingly large number of homeless hanging out on the Mission grounds.
DNF – Harmony
When I passed Harmony on my drive into Cambria, I saw what looked like lines of cars parked just off the highway, and resolved to go back. When I drove past again the next day, it was deserted, and I started wondering if it was just a driving-induced hallucination following five hours of mournful Linus meows. Thankfully, I’m not crazy, at least in this specific instance. Harmony is a town that’s only open on weekends. A town is probably too strong, as supposedly only 18 people live there, a number I even thought might be a bit on the high end. What was once a prosperous town that sprung up around local dairy farms is now basically two art galleries, a food truck, and a wedding venue. I thought a DNF was only appropriate.
I did spend a bit more time in Harmony, though not in town. Harmony Headlands State Park preserves almost 800 acres of former cattle grazing land between the highway and the ocean. I took the four-mile hike to the coast, which starts in between more of those amazing hills, hills that looked so soft and fluffy you’d think you could jump on them like a giant moonbounce.
I was trying to take pictures of these hills that captured any sense of how they actually looked to the naked eye when I noticed the amazing halo around the sun, apparently caused by ice crystals high in the atmosphere. I can’t recall ever seeing one quite like this before, which made the total solitude of the hike even stranger.
Eventually, the trail winds out through a gap in the hills onto bluffs stretching down the coast. As tends to happen on these lesser-trafficked routes, the trail seemed to split into a half-dozen others around here, so I figured I’d just walk one direction until something stopped me, which turned out to be a fence a half-mile down the coast. I stopped for lunch here, with an audience of very eager seagulls greedily eyeing my sandwich, before turning back to the trailhead.
I saved the main attraction of the Central Coast for my second to last day – Big Sur. It’s 90 miles of some of the most unique undeveloped coastline in America, only accessible by the two-lane California State Route 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway. From Carmel in the north to San Simeon in the south, there’s basically nothing but a few hotels, gas stations, state parks, and miles and miles of bridges and winding roads. In some ways, it’s so beautiful that it’s amazing the area has been managed to avoid development. On the other, once you get a look at it, you’ll understand why people couldn’t live here in large numbers even if they wanted to.
I had to make a brief stop almost immediately upon heading out of Cambria. Luckily, I spotted some of the area’s most bizarre residents – zebras! Honest to goodness zebras, not the kind I encountered in Tijuana the previous week. Their ancestors were part of the Hearst Castle zoo at one point, set free during Hearst’s financial troubles later in life. As it turns out, the Central Coast is just as hospitable to zebras as it is to cows, and dozens of them still roam the area today.
This is not the only, and not even the most prominent, animal-watching that most people do in the San Simeon area. That honor goes to the nearby beach that serves as an elephant seal rookery. On this glorious late spring morning, hundreds of them were stretched out on the beach, basking in the sun, flipping sand over themselves to keep away the flies. I could have stayed for hours watching these guys – that is, if it were not for the smell of hundreds of seals wafting over the area. I like to think I’m a decent writer, but that’s a sensory experience that you’ll just have to find out about for yourself.
I try to maintain a generally earnest but not too earnest tone on this blog (and in life, which was my ultimate problem in DC; too detached for the earnest types, too earnest for the detached types), but I do feel compelled to gush sincerely about the Central Coast and Big Sur. The entire region is unspeakably beautiful, despite or maybe because of how forbidding it is.
It’s a bizarre sensation to have these enormous mountains rising right beside you, nearly completely impenetrable for almost 100 miles, as far as you can see into the coastal fog up the road. Between that and the endless Pacific to the other side, it doesn’t quite feel real – like the end of a map in a video game or the part in The Truman Show where he reaches the edge of his world. Around every turn are views just as spectacular or more than the ones you just left behind.
I unfortunately didn’t make the entirety of the drive. After three hours, I found myself only arriving in the tiny village of Big Sur, still 30 or so miles from Carmel. It was here I turned around and headed back toward Cambria, mindful of the long drive on narrow roads ahead of me. All in all, it couldn’t have gone better, other than a harrowing situation I came upon in the aftermath of an RV that had hit a biker going around a bend. Stuff like this is just more fodder for the growing feeling that we were completely insane to think about driving one of those behemoths around the country, though anyone with two functioning brain cells would know taking it on these roads is basically a suicide mission.
In the days since I’ve left, I’ve found myself occasionally just sitting there and thinking about these wild spots, what they look like at midnight, at dawn, during a rainstorm. I haven’t felt this magnetically drawn to a place since my first visit to Big Bend or Santa Fe years ago. But unlike those places, I can’t even entertain the fantasy of a vacation home or something here in the distant future. It’s too remote, too difficult to find or build a home, not to mention absurdly and prohibitively expensive. Big Sur will just always be sitting there, mysterious and inaccessible, hopefully looking in years down the line much lot like it does now, so I can share it with my future kids someday. But if they’re anything like me, they won’t really appreciate the views until they’re in their 20s, anyway.
Readers who know us (and really, are there any other kind?) will have noticed a decided absence of Morgan for the past few weeks. This is about to change, as she’s set to fly back west to meet her adoring boyfriend and semi-adoring cat later this week. I don’t know how glad Morgan is to be back on the road, but I know I’ll be glad to have her back with me as we start the Great Swing to the East. Yes, we’ve reached the apogee of our orbit from the southeast, and we’ll begin tracing our way back toward Florida in the coming weeks. It won’t be a straight shot, but it’ll be a speedier return than trip out here. More to come on that soon.
Nick and (still from afar) Morgan