As the morning fog lifts across Highway 1, the splendor of one of the last untamed stretches of California's coast comes into view.
There are no sprawling golf resorts in sight, only a few elephant seals frolicking on rocky beaches. No jumble of surf shops or seaside condos, only green pastures, rare wildlife and the sound of ocean waves roaring to the shore.
The two-lane scenic highway winds for miles through the heart of the Hearst Ranch site, a natural wonder of the West Coast. Unlike so much else of California's ever more crowded coastline, it has not been overtaken by development.
And now, it probably never will be.
After decades of debate, California and the Hearst family, which has owned the land since the 1860s, have reached agreement on preserving nearly all of it. The conservation deal is one of the most significant in the state's history.
It is also a sign of the extraordinary steps that the state and environmental groups are taking to try to save what little is left unspoiled along the coast.
As part of the plan, California intends to give the Hearst Corp. $80 million in cash and $15 million in tax breaks for title to 13 miles of beachfront, and for guarantees that 80,000 acres of ocean bluffs and rolling grasslands in the shadow of the famed hilltop castle that the late media mogul William Randolph Hearst built in the 1920s will never be developed.
In exchange for giving up rights to build as many as 400 homes on the ranch, Hearst could erect a 100-room hotel in San Simeon Village. It already has a few commercial structures, as well as 27 homes on five-acre lots and 600 acres of vineyards and orchards in valleys east of Highway 1, which runs along the coast.
That's a far cry from what the fate of the ranch once appeared likely to be. In the 1960s, there were plans to build a city for 65,000 people. Seven years ago, Hearst proposed creating a 650-room resort, convention center and golf course alongside the ocean.
"What we're paying for that magnificent landscape is a heck of a deal for the state," said California Resources Secretary Michael Chrisman. "That's the crown jewel of the coast, and we finally know it's going to stay that way."
But the long struggle over the Hearst Ranch may not be over. Some environmental groups in California, including the Sierra Club, are objecting to details of the deal and could derail it.
The state's complicated agreement with Hearst over the prized coastal property, detailed in more than 500 pages of documents made public this summer, is dividing conservationists in ways that few issues do.
Some are calling the deal a dream come true, or at least a better bargain than they ever believed could be struck to spare the ranch from the kind of development that is pervasive along California's coast. But others contend that the fine print of the pact could harm sensitive wildlife habitats and limit public access to the beachfront that will remain in Hearst's hands.
Carl Zichella, a regional director of the Sierra Club, said that important elements of the deal are vague, secret or appear to be difficult to enforce.
"They're overselling this," he said. "It doesn't do what they say it will do. It's not a balanced deal."
Zichella and other activists are urging the state to renegotiate an assortment of arcane provisions in the deal before it gets finalized this fall. Others want to start from scratch and say they would prefer that California buy all the land or bar development on it.
The Hearst Ranch, which is about 250 miles north of Los Angeles and considered a gateway to the rugged majesty of the state's isolated Big Sur coast, has stirred passions in California for decades.
It also has become a destination for travelers from around the world, many of whom come to gawk at the Hearst Castle. Since the castle's construction, almost nothing about the surrounding land and its spectacular vistas has changed. It is home to about 1,000 plant and wildlife species, some of which exist nowhere else.
The Hearst family donated the extravagant estate to the state in the 1950s after William Randolph Hearst's death and uses the property only for limited cattle grazing. State officials have rebuffed every attempt that the family-controlled Hearst Corp. has made to develop the site.
An overflow crowd of more than 400 people attended a raucous public hearing near here last month on the proposed conservation deal. Many of them, including former foes of Hearst, voiced strong support. One speaker even called the environmentalists opposing it "brain dead." But some pleaded for revisions.
Stephen T. Hearst, great-grandson of William Randolph Hearst and a vice president of the family company, sounds weary of the squabbling.
"We think this is a marvelous transaction. It's an incredible win for all the parties involved," he said in an interview. "I can't tell you what it means to stand on this property and finally have a solution that has so much support."
Hearst scoffed at complaints that important elements of the agreement are not being disclosed. And he said that he has no interest in making substantial revisions to the deal, which has been negotiated over the past three years.
"We have enough momentum to complete this," he said. "I won't start over."
He might have to. Earlier this month, California's nonpartisan legislative analyst, a fiscal watchdog on state issues, issued a report that lent credibility to the complaints some environmental groups are making.
The report criticized several provisions in the agreement, concluding that there may not be enough protections in place for wildlife on the ranch and that the land appraisal on which the price tag of the deal is partly based may be inflated. The report urged state officials to examine the deal more closely before approving it. California's Coastal Commission also is expressing reservations about how the agreement will affect public access to five miles of beach.
"These are reasonable concerns," Zichella said. "We want this to happen. Let's just get it right."
The emerging campaign to block or revamp the deal is angering its supporters. They say that conserving most, if not all, of the ranch is an imperfect but compelling opportunity to save it from development -- and perhaps their last chance. If the deal collapses, and future appointees to state boards and coastal agencies support more growth on the coast, Hearst could revive its resort plans.
Chrisman said he is confident the deal will survive scrutiny and win the backing it needs in the next few months. It cleared an important hurdle this month when the state's Wildlife Conservation Board tentatively approved the agreement and said it probably would authorize spending $34 million to help pay for it.
There are two more obstacles before the deal is sealed: The Coastal Conservancy, a state preservation agency, and public works officials have to approve it, too.
"We still have some issues that we're working through," Chrisman said, "but we're bound and determined to make this happen."