6 of the state's best strange, bizarro, or just plain oddball pit stops
Maybe it's something in the water or the air or the fault lines, but California is one of our favorite places to experience New Agey kookiness and general wackiness. It's also one of the best places in the union for a road trip (at least in this West Coaster's mind), so why not get behind the wheel to some far-out stopovers? From south to north, below are a few can't-miss places to get you started.
Eccentricness abounds in the area around Joshua Tree National Park, about two hours east of Los Angeles. Not only are the namesake trees downright Seuss-ian in their spiky strangeness, but the desert is a haven for unusual places. There's the Integratron, a white dome-shaped wooden structure whose blueprints were supposedly provided to creator George Van Tassell by extraterrestrials from Venus. Tassell died shortly after the Integratron was built, so he never realized his dreams of using the structure for extending human longevity and time travel. You can, however, book a "sound bath" in the acoustically perfect space, a 45-minute-long meditative session where quartz Tibetan singing bowls are played, supposedly resonating at the frequencies of our different chakras. Some visitors report visions or out-of-body experiences; at the very least you'll emerge extremely relaxed.
Three miles further into the desert lies Giant Rock, a boulder long considered sacred by the area's native people, and which became a Mecca for UFOlogists (including Van Tassell) in the middle of the 20th century. As indigenous Shamans had been predicting for decades, the rock split in February 2000, contesting its status as the world's largest freestanding boulder. About 20 minutes from there, you can stop into Pioneertown. The Old West-style hamlet was originally constructed as a set for Hollywood Westerns; today it's maintained by its handful of residents as an artists' colony and tourist attraction. Rather anachronistically, Pioneer Town has its own bowling alley, and bar/restaurant/music venue, Pappy + Harriet's, where bands like the Pixies have been known to play.
An hour east of Palm Springs lies the Salton Sea. This enormous, improbable body of water (technically, it's a giant lake) was developed as a resort destination in the middle of the 20th century—until it became clear that the water doesn't drain. Over the years, the sea has become increasingly polluted from agricultural runoff. The views are still magnificent, but the sulfurous smell can be overpowering as you pick your way across the fish skeletons dotting the mucky shoreline. By now, most of the snack bars and bait shops have been abandoned, a poignant example of the American Dream gone wrong. Keep driving east-ish and you'll reach Niland, a sad, partially vacant town, where you turn left at the first intersection to get to Salvation Mountain. There, Leonard Knight built this brightly painted monument to what he saw as the most important message of all: "God Is Love." Knight passed away last year, but his friends continue to keep up the monument for its many far-flung visitors. Drive a little farther to Slab City, a trailer park where proud misfits have carved out a desert community, some fashioning their homes or businesses into funky art installations.
The otherwise unassuming town of San Luis Obispo is home to the Madonna Inn, surely one of most delightfully garish landmarks anywhere. The place has a hot pink steakhouse where Dolly Parton would feel right at home, if that tells you anything! Opened by construction magnate Alex Madonna in 1958, the sprawling, over-the-top 110-room hotel is a must-stop in SLO. Reservations are a good idea for the Gold Rush Steakhouse. Barring that, you can grab a drink at the adjacent Silver Bar Cocktail Lounge or a bite at the more casual Copper Cafe. Be sure to pop your head into the men's room to see the one-of-a-kind "waterfall urinal."
Less kooky than truly spectacular is Hearst Castle, media tycoon William Randolph Hearst's museum to his incredible collection of European art, including ceilings, mantels, choir stalls, statues, and more borrowed grandeur dating as far back as the middle ages. The castle is, of course, most famous as Hearst's home (not to mention the inspiration for Xanadu in Citizen Kane), where he entertained the who's who of Hollywood, business, politics, and anyone else he saw fit to invite for a stay. This collaboration between Hearst and famed architect Julia Morgan took 28 years to build and ended up with 165 rooms spread between Hearst's "Casa Grande" and several surrounding "cottages." The estate is to this day a working cattle ranch with rolling green hills spilling down to the sea. Hearst's zoo, which once housed polar bears, giraffes, kangaroos, and other exotic creatures, is no more, but you can tour the truly splendid house, grounds, and cottages by reserving ahead on the website.
The Winchester Mystery House began life as an ordinary farmhouse in the Santa Clara valley. But after losing both her only child and her husband, a grief-stricken Sarah Winchester, the widow of the Winchester shotgun company head, consulted a spiritualist who told her to move west, buy property, and never stop building, or the spirits of all those killed by Winchester guns would continue to haunt her family. Winchester purchased the house in 1884 and construction went on 24/7 for almost 38 years, and the result is a maze of a house, with staircases that go nowhere, doors that open to walls (or 12-foot drops), unusable chimneys, 40 bedrooms, 13 bathrooms, and 6 kitchens. If you want to see whether any spirits do indeed linger, you'll have to book a tour.
In and around scenic Mendocino County, you start getting into redwood country. The official redwood drive is the "Avenue of the Giants," a 31-mile stretch that parallels highway 101 and affords spectacular glimpses of the enormous, ancient trees. On your way to or from there you might run across such irresistible pit stops as the Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree; the "World Famous Tree House," an adorable cottage built into the trunk of a monstrous redwood; and Grandfather Tree, an especially gigantic specimen where a gawk costs a few bucks. There's also Confusion Hill, a snack bar and souvenir shop with a "gravity house," where the floors looks tilted thanks to optical illusions. A handy California State Point of Historical Interest sign points out that Confusion Hill is a prime example from the era of roadside attractions, when the rise of family automobiles made road tripping an accessible middle class pastime.