At first, I thought I was I crazy.
I was cruising north on Highway 1. The windows were down, the wind was blowing through my hair, and I was admiring how the rolling hills made their way down to greet the deep, blue waters of the Pacific. Both are beautiful representations of the wide-open space California’s Central Coast is known for, along with its hip beach towns, wineries, and hillside farms. I was happy to be out of L.A. and in no rush to get to San Francisco. I could see birds flying in formation over the water, and a pack of zebras grazing the pastures. I drove around the next curve as a wave crashed ashore.
Then I pulled the car over onto the side of the road and sat there for a moment, wondering if someone had slipped something into the brownie I ate after lunch. My eyes had deceived me, right? I couldn’t have seen zebras—they must have been horses. I got out and walked around to the passenger side. I looked up at the green hills. Nope, they were zebras all right, more than a dozen on the hill, moms and dads grazing beside a young foal. What on earth were they doing there?
I drove away, puzzled. A few miles later, I spotted the sign for the Hearst Castle visitor center and pulled in, wondering if it held the answer. Turns out, it did. Even if you’ve never been to the Central Coast, you may have heard of the castle. It’s arguably the most popular attraction between L.A. and Monterey. The former home of publisher William Hearst—the man credited with bringing yellow journalism (the concept of sensationalizing and selling the news) to America—Hearst Castle is a massive estate with over 120 acres of gardens, pools, and terraces. At the peak of Hearst’s career, he opened his home to many Hollywood celebrities, hosting legendary weekend parties. He also built what was, at the time, the world’s largest private zoo, filling it with dozens of species, including lions, tigers, bears, jaguars, monkeys, and even an elephant.
When Hearst died and his estate was dissolved in the 1950s, most of the animals were sold off to zoos around the world. But a few, including the zebras, were set free. Fast-forward several decades and here we are—and there the zebras are, left to graze the 82,000 acres owned by Hearst Ranch. And they are thriving, as evidenced by the young foal I saw that day. Clearly, California’s sunny climate and absence of lions is treating them well.
The zebras are a great excuse to plan a classic California road trip. Highway 1 stretches from San Diego to San Francisco, leading past such iconic cities and beach towns as Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Big Sur, Carmel, Monterey, and Santa Cruz. A road trip up the coast, stopping in all of them, could easily take you a week. Once you hit San Simeon (located between Santa Barbara and Big Sur) keep your eyes open for the telltale black-and-white stripes. Bear in mind that spotting the zebras is all about luck. With miles of hillside to graze, they don’t always wander close to the road. Your best chance of seeing them is right when you drive into San Simeon, a few miles south of Hearst Castle. Look for cars pulled over to the right (valley) side of the road. The zebras, as you might imagine, tend to draw a crowd.
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