Given its reputation as home to more than its share of the unconventional, the eccentric, and the just plain peculiar, it’s no wonder there’s plenty in California that’s caught the attention of Dylan Thuras. The co-founder of Atlas Obscura, co-author of the Atlas Obscura book series, and the host of the AO YouTube series 100 Wonders has made it his mission to share his sense of wonder at oddities and strange phenomena around the world. Here are a few of his Golden State favorites.
(Listen to Thuras share more of his insights on the California Now Podcast.)
1. Victoria Beach’s Pirate Tower
This 1926 stone turret—known as the ‘Pirate Tower’—fits right into California’s fantastical landscape. It’s 60 feet tall with a private staircase that leads to the house above. It’s locked now, but the story goes that a retired naval captain who once lived in the house would dress up like a pirate and hide coins and candy in the tower’s nooks for local kids to hunt for buried treasure.
2. Patty Reed’s Doll
In 1846, 8-year-old Reed smuggled this doll to California with her family and the rest of the Donner party. She wasn’t supposed to bring toys in order to lighten the load. The harsh winter trapped them in the Sierras for months, some of them resorting to cannibalism, so it’s hard not to look at this doll—on display at Sutter’s Fort Historic State Park—and not feel like there’s some bad juju. Note: This historic doll rotates on and off display.
3. The Sunny Jim Cave Store
This little shop has a secret out back: a tunnel winding down 145 sea-soaked stairs. It feels like you’re descending back in time, and then, suddenly, you're in this beautiful, colorful sea cave. It springs from the mind of mining engineer Gustauf Schultz, who hired laborers to dig his private sea cave in 1902. Today you can watch the waves roll in and have a peaceful moment with the Pacific Ocean.
4. Elmer Long’s Bottle Tree Ranch
Some 200 trees made from thousands of glass bottles make up this quirky art gallery on Route 66. This is, to me, Americana at its best. It really speaks to a tradition of bottle collection and building with bottles, which is like a whole other world. It's all outsider artists like Long, who had inherited his father’s collection, working with what is a colorful, sustainable, long-lasting material.
This fake Old West town was originally used as a backdrop in several early Western TV series like The Cisco Kid. You can feel the magic of the films made here. It’s just outside Joshua Tree National Park and is now a mecca for music, art, and Hollywood history. You should definitely stop in at the local watering hole, Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace—Paul McCartney performed there not long ago. (more)
6. Castello Di Amorosa
Dario Sattui, owner of Napa’s V. Sattui winery, spared no expense building this medieval-style castle. Insisting on 13th-century authenticity, he used more than 1 million antique bricks from Hapsburg palaces; all the hardware was handcrafted in Italy; and a replica torture chamber is a sight to see. (more)
7. Bigfoot Discovery Museum
The Bigfoot Discovery Museum isn’t your typical museum. Its purpose is to explore the possibility of the most legendary cryptids in North America. You’ll find videos, footprint casts, a sightings map, plus a nine-foot-tall sculpture. I love the folklore that surrounds the actual stories and also the mythology that exists around the Bigfoot-hunting subculture.
8. Glass Beach
Glass Beach was a trash dump in the early 20th century, and over time that glass, appliances, and even cars has transformed into colorful, smooth pebbles. Signs say “Please don't take the trash” because you’re not supposed to take pebbles with you. There are parts of the beach where old metal has fused with the rocks. It’s hard to tell what’s organic and what is man-made but it’s really quite beautiful. (more)
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