Discovering Hearst Castle at your own pace

March 14, 2010


Last Friday afternoon, I was part of the first group to participate in Hearst Castle’s new self-guided Gardens and Vistas Tour, arguably the most dramatic change in visitor policy since the castle first opened to the public in 1958.

On this brand new tour, which officially begins on Friday, March 19, you can actually meander the roughly eight acres of castle grounds at your own pace, going where you want, lingering as long as you want. No more strict adherence to that strict 75-minute schedule that defines all the other tours. No more tour guides politely, but firmly, ushering you along. I’ve been visiting Hearst Castle since 1988, but Friday gave me the first opportunity to really slow down and truly appreciate the vision of Hearst and his architect, Julia Morgan. Without a doubt, this was my most memorable visit.

Credit goes to parks superintendent Nick Franco, who probably hasn’t had an easy time convincing staff that change would be a good idea, especially when so many state employees are already threatened by possible job losses. There probably was some anxiety about how these initial groups would behave, wandering around on their own.

Not to worry. I was the first one off the bus at 4:01 p.m. and the last one to board at 5:45. For nearly two hours, we were given the chance to enjoy the grounds, much as Hearst’s guests did back in the heyday. There was some drizzle and fog that afternoon, reminding me of walking the moors in England, but the weather did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the group. We were all stoked by the freedom we were given–a friendly guide welcomed us upon arrival. After that, we were on our own.

Like many, I chose to linger at the outdoor Neptune Pool, making my first ever complete walk around, giving me different angles for appreciation. About a half hour later, I came back and essentially had the pool to myself.  To myself.

The Gardens and Vistas tour is strictly outdoors and some might be disappointed that no one is allowed inside any of the buildings. The tradeoff is that you have complete access around the grounds. See a staircase outside and follow it up to a private balcony. Stand there and imagine William Randolph Hearst enjoying the same view.

For the first time, I was able to walk around the outside of the Casa Grande, the main house, and I was surprised to see the back side, in particular. Large portions of the house were never finished. Of special interest is the small wooden shack attached to the rear of the house. Only when you look inside and see the drafting table do you realize the historical significance–this was Julia Morgan’s workspace. Cool.

And I’m certainly no gardening, nor art, expert, but the gardens host thousands of flowers and trees, highlighted by outdoor pieces of art that only add to the scenery. Friendly tour guides are scattered around to answer specific questions. I didn’t care. I just loved the fact that if I saw a path, or a stairway, that looked interesting, I could follow it without being arrested, or fined.

“There is only one problem with your new tour,” I told Nick Franco when we were done. “You’ve spoiled me. I don’t think I could go back to a traditional tour after this experience.”

See for yourself.  The Gardens and Vistas Tour will be offered most Fridays and Saturdays through September, at 3:50 p.m. Plans call for the tour to be offered daily from July 4 to Labor Day, as well as during the weeks right before, and after, Easter.

Franco says that during the summer months, visitors on the new tour could actually stay as long as four, or more, hours on the hill. He also hopes the new tour prompts a few wedding proposals.

Ticket prices are $24 for adults and includes the William Randolph Hearst bio flick at the Visitors’ Center. Reservations can be made by calling 1-800-444-4445, or by visiting

Even if you’ve been to Hearst Castle before, come check out the new tour. It will be like seeing the place for the first time all over again. And on this tour, you feel less like a tourist, and more like an actual guest. I think Mr. Hearst would approve.