San Simeon — I've NEVER SEEN A BETTER DAY FOR TRESPASSING. THE hills gleam green, the empty coast highway unwinds before us under cloudless sky, and two of us roll north, somewhere north of Cambria and south of Big Sur.
How many travelers, I wonder, have covered these drop-dead miles over the decades, glancing back toward that castle in the hills, whistling at the meadows, flinching as breakers pound the jagged coast, and thinking: Well, at least we haven't ruined this place. Some government agency controls it and Hey! Is that an elephant seal?
But here's the thing. There's no national park in sight, and the next patches of national forest and state parkland don't start until we climb into Big Sur. However deeply embedded these sea-sprayed, grass-stubbled, cow-punctuated miles may be in your idea of what California should look like, sound like, even smell like, this land isn't your land and it isn't my land. At least not yet.
Just about all of this turf is held by the heirs of Hearst, the same folks who donated Hearst Castle and 127 surrounding acres to the state in 1958. They've held on to 80,000 acres of ranchland on the inland side of this road, and another 1,800 highly visible acres on the west side -- that is, just about every speck of dirt between the road and the ocean for 18 miles.
So it's a happy, illicit moment when we pull over and hop out. Roger Lyon, the driver, steps up to the fence and pulls apart the barbed wire, and I wriggle through. Salt air. Gulls. Pummeled driftwood.
If you never realized how much the Hearsts hold, you're excused. Once northbound travelers pass the castle and the pier at William Randolph Hearst Memorial State Beach (four acres, donated in 1953), there aren't many clues, even at the Piedras Blancas elephant seal viewing area, owned by Hearst and staffed by the Friends of the Elephant Seal.
My accomplice follows me through the fence. And here I have to confess that an arrest is unlikely. Lyon is one of the Hearst family's attorneys, and he's agreed to ease my passage into this promised land because he and the family have an idea to sell.
Thwarted for years in their efforts to develop housing or a resort on parts of the ranch, the Hearsts now want to sell most of these 18 coastal miles -- some 1,121 ocean-adjacent acres -- to a conservancy that would then pass the land to the state. Authorities agree that this is the largest stretch of privately owned coastline anywhere in the state, and buying it could be a big step toward the state's long-term (but modestly funded) campaign to assemble a public trail running the 1,200-mile length of the California coast. The proposed sale price is $80 million plus $15 million in tax credits, which the Hearsts expect a pending appraisal to show is far below the land's value on the open market. The state can afford it, the Hearsts maintain, because of the funds set aside for conservation and recreation by voter approval of 2002's Proposition 40. As for the fair-market value of the property -- inevitably a debatable figure -- Lyon says an appraisal is pending.
In addition, the family would place its inland acreage under a conservation easement that would block development but allow the family's cattle ranch to stay in business. In exchange, the Hearst Corp., whose owners are the family's more than 50 heirs, would reap big tax benefits. In theory, the family's offer, extended last year, expires Thursday. In practice, the talks are likely to continue beyond that.
But there are complications. Critics say the Hearsts are trying to have it both ways -- to make a sale, save on taxes yet keep their dynastic options open down the road -- and want to hear more about exactly how much public access will be possible where. This proposal would allow the family to put up 27 houses (east of the highway) and a hotel with as many as 100 rooms (west of the highway). And the Hearsts also want to hold on to San Simeon Point, a cove at Pico Creek and a beach at Ragged Point (together, about 680 acres west of the highway). The family would donate an easement to prevent building on those sites and grant some limited public access to them.
The Hearsts go back to 1865 on this land, says Lyon, and the attachment is emotional. I understand. I've been on their side of the fence for only a few hours, and I've got my own attachment going.
In fact, the next day at dawn, I creep back through the fence without Lyon (but with permission) to nose around some more. I crouch in the wet grass, watch the moon fade, follow the sky's deepening pink blush, time the twinkling light atop the Piedra Blancas lighthouse. Every 10 seconds. As the day brightens, I spot the tarp of a makeshift tent, pitched by a covert camper who's risking ejection by the cowboys who tend these fences.