Valley of the Oaks

  • 01 of 06

    How to Spend a Weekend in One of California's Least-Known Places

    Spring in the Valley of the Oaks
    ••• Spring in the Valley of the Oaks. ©Betsy Malloy Photography

    Halfway 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. You can stay in a hotel that once belongs to newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, designed by "Castle" architect Julia Morgan and completed before the Castle was. There's an old Spanish mission nearby, and gorgeous spring wildflowers.

    Why Should You Go? Will You Like It?

    History buffs will like Mission San Antonio,...MORE 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 in summer. Late spring in a wet year brings lots of wildflower blooms. In winter, you can see bald eagles at Lake San Antonio, one of their largest winter habitats in Central California.

    The campground at Lake San Antonio gets packed for the Wildflower Triathlon, usually held the first weekend in May.

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  • 02 of 06

    The Hacienda

    Hearst's Hacienda Was His Ranch House
    ••• Hearst's Hacienda Was His Ranch House. Adapted from Tom Hilton/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    William Randolph Hearst built his California Hacienda in 1922, asking future San Simeon Castle architect Julia Morgan to design it as a working ranch house. Morgan got her inspiration from the nearby Spanish mission, choosing white stucco walls and a Spanish-tiled roof. She built it in an elegant, uncluttered way, with mission-style arches, rooms for the ranch's cowboys and spacious accommodations for Hearst and his friends.

    Hearst used the Hacienda as a hunting lodge. He enjoyed the place so much that he kept it after he finished his "little something" at San Simeon, building a private road between the two houses.

    Like his famous Castle on the coast, Hearst's Hacienda is open to the public, but there's a difference.

    At the Hacienda, you can spend the night, in the same place where the famous millionaire and his glamorous friends partied and slept in the 1920s and 1930s. Now inside Fort Hunter-Liggett, it is operated as a hotel, open to the general public. 

    You could...MORE stay at one of the adequate-but-not-luxurious motels in King City instead, but the Hacienda offers a unique experience. It has four tower rooms (suites with queen-size beds), two garden rooms, and five cowboy rooms with shared baths. 

    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. Their hours vary, and you should check with the hotel when making your reservation to be sure they will be serving meals when you want them.

     Check The Hacienda website for reservations and other information.

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  • 03 of 06

    Mission San Antonio de Padua

    Mission San Antonio de Padua
    ••• Mission San Antonio de Padua. ©Betsy Malloy Photography

    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, but you'll travel more than two centuries away in time.

    Today's mission building was reconstructed from the crumbled ruins of the original adobe bricks and includes the church and a museum.

    When Father Junipero Serra founded it in 1771, Mission San Antonio was isolated, its two sister missions many days away in San Diego and Carmel.

    The isolation is little-changed, with Spanish moss hanging in the oak trees, hawks soaring overhead and black-and-white magpies squawking in nearby olive trees. More than 1,200 Indians once lived at the mission, but the few visitors who find their way here today, mostly history buffs or school children studying California history, find themselves almost alone, and the only sounds they hear are the ones they generate: footsteps on the pavement and the church door's opening squeak.

    Miss...MOREion San Antonio was abandoned in the mid-1800s, and it fell into ruins, its first-in-California red tile roof stolen and sold to a railroad station. In the 1940s, Franciscan Fathers returned. With the Hearst Foundation's support, they rebuilt the mission by hand, using antique construction tools and original clay to remake the adobe walls. The wine vat and cellar survive, with grape smells lingering and the steps to the vat worn from use.

    The best thing about Mission San Antonio is the isolation. If you ignore 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.

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  • 04 of 06

    Spring Wildflowers

    Spring Wildflowers in the Valley of the Oaks
    ••• Spring Wildflowers in the Valley of the Oaks. ©Betsy Malloy Photography

    The largely undisturbed fields around the Hacienda and the old mission abound with wildflowers in a good year. This picture was taken near old Mission San Antonio.

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  • 05 of 06

    Lake San Antonio

    Lake San Antonio
    ••• Lake San Antonio. Betsssssyf/Flickr/CC BY 2.

    It's a half-hour drive from the mission to Lake San Antonio. If you're feeling famished, you can stop for snacks at the Lockwood store (67997 Jolon Rd, Lockwood, CA). Founded in 1888 as a post office for a community called “Hunger Flats,” the town was named for Belva Lockwood, a lawyer, suffragette — and presidential candidate in 1888. The original post office survives, but the town, like its namesake, has disappeared into history.

    Lake San Antonio offers many summer activities, including boating, water skiing, and fishing. A shoreline picnic, bird watching, or mountain biking are always in season here.

    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, where they are seen from mid-January through February.

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  • 06 of 06

    Getting to the Valley of the Oaks

    Map to the Valley of the Oaks
    ••• Map to the Valley of the Oaks. ©Betsy Malloy Photography

    Valley of the Oaks is the name I've given to this isolated gem of little-changed California. I don't know if anyone else calls it by that name. It's not easy to find on some road maps, but this one will help you find your way there and out across the mountains to Highway One.

    Getting to Valley of the Oaks

    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). The Hacienda and mission are inside Fort Hunter-Liggett. In the past, you could get to the mission without going through a security check but needed to show identification and automobile registration to get to the Hacienda. Those requirements may change. Check the Fort Hunter-Liggett website to find out.

    Going Home Over the Mountains

    This little-known drive is a favorite of every friend I've taken on it. In fact, some of them keeping begging to go back.

    Leaving the valley, followNacimiento-Ferguson Road as it meanders west over the Santa...MORE 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 the 25-mile distance.

    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 an hour's drive south of Carmel, which was the mission's nearest neighbor in 1771.

    In the winter, rain sometimes closes the Nacimiento-Ferguson Road and CA Hwy 1. Call CalTrans at 800-427-7623 or check the CalTrans website for current road conditions.