Halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, a two-lane road winds through rolling hills and curving past vineyards. If you follow it far enough, it enters the Valley of the Oaks, a place on the Spanish-era El Camino Ral that is 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.
Things to Do in the Valley of the Oaks
If you're besotted with celebrity, you can stay in a hotel that was once newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst's ranch completed before the Castle was and designed by architect Julia Morgan.
History buffs will enjoy visiting Mission San Antonio, California's third Spanish mission.
In the spring, California poppies, lupines and dozens of other wildflowers carpet the valley floor.
Nearby, you can go to Lake San Antonio, which is described below.
The valley is also home to Fort Hunter Liggett, a small military base that you'd barely notice if it weren't for all the tanks, trucks and other vehicles running around.
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 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.
For reservations and other information, check The Hacienda website.
Mission San Antonio de Padua
It's less than a half mile drive from the Hacienda to Mission San Antonio. California's third Spanish 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 isolated mission is little-changed from the way it looked 200 years ago, 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. The few visitors who find their way here today are mostly history buffs or school children studying California history. They often 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.
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.
Lake San Antonio
It's a half-hour drive from the mission to Lake San Antonio. If you're feeling famished, 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,” 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.
The campground at Lake San Antonio gets packed for the Wildflower Triathlon, usually held the first weekend in May.
Getting to the Valley of the Oaks
Valley of the Oaks a name made up for this isolated gem of little-changed California. 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 CA Highway One.
Getting to Valley of the Oaks
The Valley of the Oaks is west of US Highway 101 between San Francisco and Los Angeles, near King City.
Exit US Highway 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
Leaving the valley, follow Nacimiento-Ferguson Road as it 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 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 Highway 1. Call CalTrans at 800-427-7623 or check the CalTrans website for current road conditions.