San Simeon State Park — An Ideal Base for Exploring the California Coast

This fall, my family and I went camping to San Simeon State Park for the 3-day Veteran’s Day weekend.  About a 4-hour drive north of Los Angeles, it was a great location for exploring the coastal areas south of Monterey–Big Sur to Morro Bay.

San Simeon Creek Campground

Hearst San Simeon State Park, about 5 miles south of Hearst Castle and 1 mile north of the town of Cambria, is composed of 2 campgrounds–San Simeon Creek Campground (which has 3 loop areas and 115 campsites), and a mile inland–Washburn Primitive Campground (67 campsites).  Both campgrounds have space for RVS, though no hook-ups are available.  In San Simeon Campground there is a RV dump station; a number of the campsites have long spots that will position your rig nicely.  There are even restrooms with flush toilets and showers–a real plus for state parks.  Our family stayed in the Washburn Campground, as the more spaced out campsites in San Simeon Creek were unavailable.  Though Washburn only has pit toilets (and no showers), the campsites felt larger and are generally more spread out.  In our family—we like space!  My kids enjoyed the private trail that left from our campsite; we even observed a condor in a nearby tree.  Some of the sites on the outer rim at Washburn offer a view of the water (sites 231-236); water spigots are generously located throughout the campground and firewood is sold at San Simeon Campground at a reasonable price of $10 per wheel barrel, enough for about 2 nights.

If—your family are not campers, consider staying in a hotel at the close by Moonstone Beach or at the nearby Cambria Pines Lodge.  Moonstone Beach has many smaller hotels that are family friendly.  These hotels are directly across from the beach and, a beautiful boardwalk path along the bluffs.  Also located by these hotels is—The Sea Chest

The Sea Chest Restaurant

the best seafood restaurant in California (in my opinion!).  It opens at 5:30 everyday except Tuesday, when it is closed.  On weekend nights, get in line early, even at 3 to 4PM.  They do not take reservations and they only take cash.  They are old school for sure, but the nautical ambiance is charming, and the food is to die for!

Day 1:

We drove north to Limekiln State Park and campground.

Limekiln Redwoods – Hare Creek Trail

This area is one of the most beautiful campgrounds in California!  Hiking and walking in the campground, visitors are surrounded by a stream and luscious coastal redwoods.  Visitors can take a one and a half mile walk along the stream that is easy and kids will enjoy the many felled trees they can climb.  The campground is small.  It has 24 campsites AND has flush toilets and showers.  Campers can choose to camp in the redwoods, or closer to the beach (but right under the bridge and Highway 1).  Another sweet campground I liked just 5 minutes south of Limekiln is Kirk Creek Campground.  This campground offers camping on the coastal bluffs–with epic views and beautiful coastal scrub growth.  One word of caution about the area–on my Map app, the stated drive time from San Simeon was 57 minutes.  The actual drive took almost an hour and a half.  It’s near impossible to take Highway 1 too fast; the more north one goes, the windier the road.  Also, travelers will be compelled to stop at the many vista points to take photos.  The coastline is stunning!

Kirk Creek Campground


Julia Pfeiffer Burns

If you have the stamina, I would suggest continuing north about another hour and picking off Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Beach.  This treasure is of the most photogenic beaches in the state of California; complete with a waterfall that empties onto a secluded beach.  Don’t miss this area if you do not think you will come back up to this area for a while.  If visitors choose to park in the state beach lot, there is a fee of $10 per car.  If you park on the highway for free (read:  DANGEROUS!), there is no fee–but keep your eyes open so you do not get hit!  There is also a campground at Julia Pfeiffer if you are looking to camp, but I prefer Limekiln.  Pfeiffer gets swamped with visitors.  One last word of caution:  Check highway conditions in the months and weeks leading up to your trip up the Big Sur.  Highway 1 routinely gets damaged in storms.  There are inland routes to the coast off the 101, but they will add considerable time onto your drive.

Biking up Highway 1

Day 2:

Hearst Memorial Beach

On our second full day in the San Simeon area, we biked 5 miles up Highway 1 from San Simeon Campground to William Randolph Hearst Memorial Beach.  On our ride, we saw cows, zebras, hawks, sea otters, sea lions, and whales.  Hearst Memorial Beach is a lovely beach complete with a fishing pier, restrooms, kayak and canoe rentals, nature center, and a peninsula visitors can walk on that leads to an almost private beach.  Almost across the street from the beach is the parking lot entrance to Hearst Castle

Iconic Hearst Castle

a must if you haven’t seen it yet.  Tours are offered frequently; reserve in advance for weekends and holidays.  This hillside monument is spectacular; on the way up visitors can see more wildlife such as zebras and goats.


Day 3:

Before our drive our drive home, we hit the elephant seal viewing area just south of Piedras Blancas and about 5 miles north of Hearst Castle; seal vista point signs are visible from Highway 1.

Elephant Seals

Docents available at the viewing area provide useful information on these amazing sea creatures.  In my family, we visited them annually at Ano Nuevo Elephant Seal Reserve.  Only on this visit did I learn that they must learn how to swim.  Funny to find out that marine animals must learn to swim!  One word of caution:  If you should see an elephant seal on the beach, do not approach!  They are powerful and ARE wild animals and MAY attack if they feel threatened.

Other Points of Interest

One mile south of San Simeon Campground, one can find the charming town of Cambria—with several grocery stores, antique shops, wine tasting, the unique Nitt Witt Ridge, and many interesting restaurants such as Linn’s.  With entrances from town, visitors can also tour the newer Fiscalini Ranch Reserve.

Fiscalini Ranch Preserve

In this park, you may go for a lovely walk (or mountain bike trek) in a pine tree forest and then head all the way down to the coastal bluffs.  No bikes are allowed on the bluff trail though!  (They can be parked at the gates of the coastal bluff trail.)  It’s a nice new area that has opened up the last 15 years.

Morro Rock








About 20 minutes south of Cambria, another fun town to visit—Morro Bay.  Morro Bay features of course the iconic Morro Rock, an extinct volcano.  Families will enjoy the wharf area with shops and restaurants, the Shell Shop,

Morro Bay Shell Shop

viewing sea otters and seals in the harbor, bike rentals and bike paths.  Nearby in Morro Bay State Park, enjoy the Morro Bay Natural History Museum.  Visitors will find exhibits on the local history and wildlife and calming views of the mudflats and estuary.  If the tide is high enough (and do check this—we’ve been stranded!), visitors can rent from a Morro Bay State Park Marina a canoe or kayak and paddle out to see the area from the water.

Kayaking in Morro Bay


Montana de Oro – Spooner’s Ranch Home & Store

For another super campground 20 minutes south of Morro Bay, check out the beautiful, spacious, quiet–Montana de Oro, Islay Creek Campground and nearby Spooner’s Cove.







If your family enjoys biking, camping, wildlife, coastal towns–San Simeon is a fabulous base for exploring these beautiful California places!

I have only touched on many attractions in these neighboring areas.  In the future, I hope to do a more focused article delving more deeply into some of these awesome places.

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