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Comic Book and Science Fiction Tour: A Geek’s Guide to California

Comic Book and Science Fiction Tour: A Geek’s Guide to California

From the redwood groves of the North Coast to the new Comic-Con Museum in San Diego, the Golden State is a mecca for nerds

Science-fiction and comic-book culture may not have been invented in California, but you could argue that both were perfected in the Golden State. After all, the world’s most famous comic-book convention takes place in San Diego. And multiple California theme parks have created immersive lands that allow young (and not-so-young) fans to stroll through their favorite storylines. When you factor in the many Hollywood blockbusters created and filmed here—groundbreaking films showcasing alien creatures or comic-book heroes—it’s plain to see that California is an essential hub of geek culture and community.

Here’s a rundown of essential stops, listed north to south.

Northern California Highlights

The North Coast region of California qualifies as a geek mecca given that three iconic science-fiction films—The Return of the Jedi, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and The Lost World—all filmed pivotal scenes here.

Modesto native George Lucas utilized two separate redwood forests to create Endor, home planet of the Ewoks and site of the decisive battle in Jedi. The director filmed in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, located in Del Norte County, and reportedly hired 100 local residents to play stormtroopers; the adrenaline-rush speeder chase featuring Luke Skywalker in that film took place on Cheatham Grove Path in Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park in Humboldt County. Another California location fans of the franchise flock to is, of course, Disneyland’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge attraction (more on that later).

Steven Spielberg also capitalized on the region’s unique landscapes. You can’t visit the exact spot where E.T. made his final phone call home—it’s located on private property in Smith River—but you can retrace the steps of bloodthirsty dinosaurs at both Sue-meg State Park north of Trinidad and Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. The Humboldt-Del Norte Film Commission created a fabulous map that can point you to specific locations associated with these three blockbusters as well as the less-heralded Will Smith film, After Earth, and numerous non-nerd movies.

Some 250 miles south in Sonoma County you can relive the final scene of The Goonies on Goat Rock Beach or see where River Phoenix and Ethan Hawke hung out in Explorers. But a classic comic-strip guy is a bigger draw in these parts. Charles M. Schulz, creator of Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and the Peanuts gang, lived in Santa Rosa from 1969 until his death in 2000, and his presence can be felt throughout the area. Beyond the must-visit Charles M. Schulz Museum, the Sonoma County Airport is named after the cartoonist, you can see bronze sculptures of Peanuts characters in Santa Rosa’s historic Railroad Square, and perhaps even work on your twirls at Snoopy’s Home Ice.

Nerd Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area

San Francisco has always possessed a slightly quirky spirit, so it should come as no surprise that there are multiple nerd-friendly attractions here. The City by the Bay is the future home of Starfleet Command and as such has featured in multiple Star Trek movies and TV series. (Check out this great guide of California locations used for the recent Star Trek: Picard series.)

The Walt Disney Family Museum, located in the Presidio, is jam-packed with Disney memorabilia and minutiae, ranging from World War II propaganda posters to a scale model of the original Disneyland. Just a few miles away in Fisherman’s Wharf you can gawk at the 7,000-plus original pieces housed at the Cartoon Art Museum, a facility founded in 1984 that celebrates comic strips, comic books, anime, and even political cartoons.

If you’re in shopping mode, don’t miss the acclaimed and stylish Isotope Comics, located in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood. And it’s worth a trip across the Bay Bridge to check out Cape and Cowl Comics, a downtown Oakland store that has become a vital community hub. Don’t want to leave the Bay Area? Apply for a job at Industrial Light & Magic, headquartered at the Presidio, or apply for a Master of Fine Arts in Comics at the California College of the Arts.

Southern California Highlights

Next up is a major fork in the road: If you’re the ambitious sort, head southeast for eight-plus hours to Death Valley National Park, where you can find multiple locations used in the original Star Wars. The National Park Service offers a cool audio tour that pinpoints sites that portrayed Luke Skywalker’s home planet, Tatooine. Otherwise, continue south to Los Angeles County, which boasts an embarrassment of geeky goodness.

Start at Six Flags Magic Mountain, the roller coaster–filled theme park in Santa Clarita, which features a themed land based on the DC Universe. You can test your intestinal fortitude on rides like Superman: Escape from Krypton and The Riddler’s Revenge; shop at the DC Superhero Store; and even meet and greet Wonder Woman and other members of the Justice League at Main Gate Plaza.

Next, head south for a half-hour or so to Universal Studios Hollywood, home to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. After attending a Triwizard Spirit Rally and gulping down some Butterbeer, be sure to take a spin on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a fast-paced ride that will provide all the thrills you can handle.

In addition to some fantastic comic-book shops worthy of a detour—including House of Secrets and Golden Apple Comics—Los Angeles County is home to two new must-see attractions for geeks of all ages. The long-awaited Academy Museum of Motion Pictures boasts an impressive collection of items used in fantasy and science-fiction films. Head straight to the Encounters gallery to see an extraterrestrial headpiece worn in the original Alien; the amphibian man suit from The Shape of Water; the lunar landing shuttle from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and much more. Afterward, head to Hollywood & Highland to check out Icons of Darkness, the world’s largest privately owned collection of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror-movie memorabilia. There you’ll find screen-used items from Terminator, Game of Thrones, and classic films like Frankenstein and The Wizard of Oz.

Before continuing south to Orange County, stop by the Bradbury Building in downtown Los Angeles. The interior Victorian courtyard features ornate iron railings and open-cage elevators that featured prominently in Ridley Scott’s dystopian 1982 classic Blade Runner.

Disneyland Resort in Anaheim is next up on this itinerary, and thanks to two relatively new immersive lands it’s one of the highlights of this trip. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge encompasses 14 acres within Disneyland Park and gives guests the chance to wander around an impressively detailed village on the Outer Rim planet of Batuu. The two showcase rides—Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance and Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run—are true showstoppers, and the latter lets visitors fulfill a lifelong dream: piloting Han Solo’s famous vessel.

Avengers Campus, situated on six acres within Disney California Adventure Park, evokes the headquarters, labs, and training grounds featured in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Expect to encounter Black Panther, General Okoye, and members of the Wakanda elite guards performing elaborate drills. If you look up at the right moment, you’ll see Spider-Man engaged in acrobatics atop the Stark Motors Building. After fueling up at Pym Test Kitchen, head over to WEB Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure—it’s an interactive ride that allows you to cast your own virtual webs.

The final stop on this state-long nerd tour is San Diego’s Balboa Park, home of the brand-new Comic-Con Museum. (Yes, you may want to stop by the San Diego Comic Art Gallery in Liberty Station or visit the Dr. Seuss Collection at UC San Diego, but Comic-Con culture dominates in San Diego.)

Getting a badge to attend the annual summer convention is nearly impossible these days, but the Comic-Con Museum is an accessible alternative that will be attracting nerds to the area year-round. The museum opened—partially—over Thanksgiving weekend this year, and the full opening is scheduled for the summer of 2022. Community is a big focal point: In addition to a robust collection of comic book–related exhibitions, the founders say the “focus will be on community and not collection by bringing diverse audiences together for shared, vibrant experiences.” These include hands-on workshops for kids and adults, movie screenings and trivia contests, and multiple online experiences.

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