Half way between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the Spanish-era El Camino Real's route is a two-lane road. Winding through rolling hills and curving past vineyards, it enters the Valley of the Oaks, a place little-changed since Spanish missionaries discovered it in 1771. Gnarled oak trees dot golden hillsides, draped in Spanish moss. Hawks soar overhead, black-and-white magpies squawk in olive trees, and the population is less than it was in 1800.
You might wonder what would draw visitors to this place, but in fact, it hides some of central California's most interesting sights.
There's just enough to do here for a relaxing weekend getaway. Once owned by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, designed by "Castle" architect Julia Morgan and completed before the Castle was, the Hacienda was Hearst's ranch house. Today, it's located inside Fort Hunter-Liggett and operated as a hotel.
Scenes from the Valley of the Oaks
Enjoy some of our best shots in this Valley of the Oaks Photo Tour
Will You Like It?
History buffs will like Mission San Antonio, California's third Spanish mission, and if you're besotted with celebrity, you'll enjoy the idea of William Randolph Hearst and his Hollywood friends sitting beside the fire swapping stories. Photographers will enjoy it all.
Best Time to Go
Weather can be very hot here in summer. Late spring in a wet year brings some excellent wildflower blooms. In winter, you can take an Eagle tour on Lake San Antonio, one of the largest eagle winter habitats in Central California.
The campground at Lake San Antonio gets packed for the Wildflower Triathlon, usually held the fire weekend in May.
Where to Stay
You could stay at one of the adequate-but-not-luxurious motels in King City, but the Hacienda offers a unique experience. The Hacienda, (831) 386-2446, has four tower rooms (suites with queen-size beds), 2 garden rooms, and 5 cowboy rooms with shared baths.
The Hacienda Restaurant is open seven days a week. When I stayed at the Hacienda, the restaurant did not serve breakfast. Ask about it you make your reservation. Hacienda rooms have coffee makers, microwaves and refrigerators.
Before he built his "castle" on the coast, William Randolph Hearst built a house here. Designed by Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan, it was a working ranch, drawing inspiration from the nearby Spanish mission for its white stucco walls and Spanish-tiled roof. Hearst used the Hacienda as a hunting lodge, and he enjoyed it so much that even after he built his big house at nearby San Simeon, he built a private road for easy travel between the two properties.
Hearst sold the ranch to the United States Army in the 1930s. The Hacienda is now inside Fort Hunter-Liggett, and operated as a hotel, open to the general public. Besides the opportunity to stay overnight at Mr. Hearst's house, the Hacienda's Bar offers a place to relax, and the Hacienda Restaurant, where Hearst once entertained his movie star friends, serves good, inexpensive meals.
Mission San Antonio
It's less than a half mile drive from the Hacienda to Mission San Antonio. California's third mission, it was founded five years before the American Revolution. Today's mission building was reconstructed from the crumbled ruins of the original adobe bricks, and includes the church and a museum.
The best thing about Mission San Antonio is the isolation. Ignoring a few utility poles and buildings at the nearby fort, it's easy to imagine what the mission was like in the eighteenth century when its nearest neighbors were three days' ride away.
Lake San Antonio
Besides offering year-round picnicking, camping, fishing, hiking, swimming, boating and water-skiing, Lake San Antonio is one of the largest eagle winter habitats in Central California, and they offer eagle-watching tours from mid-January through February.
The Valley of the Oaks is west of US Hwy 101 between San Francisco and Los Angeles, near King City. Exit US Hwy 101 at Jolon Road (G-14). In the winter, rain sometimes closes the Nacimiento-Ferguson Road and CA Hwy 1. Call CalTrans at 800-427-7623 or check their website for current road conditions. The Hacienda and mission are inside Fort Hunter-Liggett. You can get to the mission without going through a security check, but you'll need to show identification and automobile registration to get to the Hacienda.
Our map will help you find the place and get around.
Over the Mountains
Leaving the valley, Nacimiento-Ferguson Road meanders west over the Santa Lucia Mountains toward California Highway One and the Big Sur coast. Its winding route passes through live oak forests and meadows, and it takes more than an hour to navigate seventeen miles. As the road passes its 4,000-foot crest and descends toward the Pacific Ocean, the coast appears below. On a clear day, progress is best measured in "photographs per mile." The road reaches the coast about 30 minutes' drive south of Carmel, the mission's nearest neighbor in 1771.