Secret roadside attractions you wouldn't know were there unless you were looking for them. Museums and dive bars that turn out to be something else altogether. Near-untouched stretches of forest and crystal clear water. For this post, you will notice we decided to leave off SF gems (Check out our Cool and Unusual Things to Do in San Francisco post for that) in order to spotlight other well-deserved oddities in vibrant Northern California. There's so much to see out there if you know where to look!
If you should find yourself passing through this stretch of redwood forest just outside of Santa Cruz, this mind-bending spot is worth a stop, and hundreds of thousands of visitors around the world agree. Around 150 feet in diameter, this area will puzzle your perceptions of gravity, physics, and perspective. Is it a buried spaceship, a hole in the ozone layer, or a magma vortex? Many have speculated, and this experience will be sure to get the whole family scratching their heads!
Missing floorboards, broken tiles, jewel-like wallpaper, secret balconies, locked doors that only open with skeleton keys closely guarded by only one tour guide? These are just a few details within the Winchester House. With 160 rooms and built off and on by Sarah Winchester, the eccentric widow of rifle magnate William Winchester, the estate’s mystery continues to enchant locals and visitors every day.
Not your typical bookstore, library, or even memorial. This art hub and half-way bookstore is cozily nestled in a redwood grove just off the mountain side of California’s scenic Highway 1. Dedicated to memorializing the artistic works of fiction writer Henry Miller, who also wrote travel books, the location is a real cultural experience for visitors interested in California literary history.
Ever wonder where you might find one of the largest gathering of monarch butterflies in America? Come to the Monarch Sanctuary in Pacific Grove between November and February to enjoy a public viewing of overwintering monarchs. The docents at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History enhance the experience with viewing scopes and their wide knowledge.
At first glance it looks like you’ve encountered some kind of robot museum--already cool--but stay a little longer and you’ll soon discover the most whimsical museum you’ve ever step foot in: robotic and ceramic creations that mimic a Bigfoot skeleton, alien fetuses, robots with big personalities. This roadside attraction has made fans out of Bill Gates and other famous art collectors.
This Shakespearean-looking castle sits just 15 miles outside of San Francisco, hidden away on the bluffs of Pacifica. Built in 1907 by its original owner, lawyer Henry Harrison McCloskey, as a near-indestructible mega-home safe from earthquakes, its ornate architecture was a way to help his wife deal with homesickness for a Scottish castle she grew up in. Ownership of the castle has since passed through many hands (most notably Hollywood mogul Sam Mazza) and has contributed to its rich inner history.
Only a few people at a time are allowed here at any given time to preserve its raw beauty. The only fully intact turn-of-the-century light station in California still open to the public, Point Sur stands on the majestic Big Sur Coast. It’s a historic landmark calling to mind a past time when families lived and worked in the surrounding buildings, it's now considered a ghost town. Fully automated today, the lighthouse still guides passing ships.
If you’ve come to California or this stretch of the state to learn more about its rich history, you would do well to come have lunch here: Famed Californian author John Steinbeck’s birthplace and boyhood home. A restored Queen Anne-style Victorian home built in 1897, it is now a restaurant just a couple blocks from the National Steinbeck Center.
Being almost entirely separated from the mainland through a sunken rift in the San Andreas fault, Point Reyes is truly a hidden gem we’re always re-discovering. Just an hour north of San Francisco, it’s also packed with trails, forests, coastal lines, ranches dotted with cows, and so much more.
Come to Arcata, the central town in California’s lush Humboldt County, and you’ll find long stretches of towering redwoods, beautiful jagged coastlines, and quiet small town vibes with a musically inclined community. Here you get the purest experience of northern California’s offerings wrapped in classic Pacific Northwest fog.
Travel back in time when you make your way up to this preserved historic town just 40 minutes outside of Sacramento. Here you’ll find a unique combination of wines and mines only found in California’s Gold Country. Go from wine-tasting in rolling vineyards to touring mines in the home of the Gold Rush. Encounter gems like the Placerville Historical Museum, located in a former soda factory from 1852 and swing through Cozmic Cafe.
This Moorish-Gothic columbarium, with its striking combination of fountains, trees, natural light honoring Oakland’s famous dead, is a popular historic site for the living, who come here to appreciate the peaceful atmosphere created by architect Julia Morgan, California’s first licensed female architect and famous designer of the Hearst Castle.
If you had the chance to hang out in a dive bar built from the remains of a whaling ship, would you? Now you can, in what locals call “the diviest of dive bars”. Striking features of this dive bar include uneven floors (due to the effects of the 1906 earthquake), original gas lighting, and old dollars tacked on the wall signed by sailors who thought they’d return--but never did.
If you’re on your way up to the Santa Cruz mountains, this attraction makes a perfect add-on for the kids (or just you). The fact that it’s not the most well-advertised spot makes it even more special to find. The featured memorabilia takes only about 15 minutes to get through, but speak to the owner Mike for insider info on famous California Sasquatch sightings!
What looks like a supernatural portal to another dimension has been confirmed to be a really big drain called a spillway, but that doesn’t stop those in the know from coming. Originally built by engineers to prevent dams from flooding, it’s become an important local fixture that not many locals are aware of.
Whether you're from out of state or are a California native, we'd like to know which of these gems you've encountered, and which of your favorite roadside attractions we missed. Let us know in the comments!
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