Despite not being exceptionally well traveled (I've been here and there, but not everywhere), there is nothing I enjoy more than the thrill of discovery. Without sounding like a character in some b-grade maudlin fairy tale, the feeling of unearthing and experiencing a sight in my own backyard (that is, in or near the city where I live) is magical (much like finding that shiny prince charming or, you know, going outside in the morning to move your car before street sweeping and finding a unicorn instead. A unicorn with a Starbucks gift card and an iPod hookup. Magical like that). I still remember how wide-eyed with wonderment I was the first time I went to Olvera Street in L.A. - The lights! The grapevines overhead! The gypsy-like booths! The music! The colors! THE CHURROS! To be honest, it was overwhelming, this notion that there was literally an entire thriving colony of untapped resources teeming just under my limited scope.
Having not explored much of the downtown area at that time in my life (this had to have been a handful of years ago...I want to say 2003), the idea that such a place existed in a city I'd written off as dirty and congested very nearly ripped my preconceived notions apart and left them exposed - awaiting how my paradigms might be shifted with other discoveries in the coming years. It was around that time that I started to feel a sterling affection for the City of Angels - and what I might find there. In the intervening years I've found quite a few under-the-radar gems in and around Los Angeles County: Fisherman's Market for the catch of the day, ABC dim sum for the pork doughnuts, Topanga Canyon for its shaded, sleepy villages.
However, what's so great about Los Angeles is its proximity to other cities, other places, other sights and sounds. Within a four hour (or less) drive, the possibility exists to encounter any number of diverse experiences, from the prehistoric graveyard of the desert to the lushly arthritic landscape of the Central Coast. It's in these often alien-like locales that I've discovered some of the most unusual sights Southern California has to offer. So without further ado, fill up your gas tanks, aficionados of the outré, and let's see what weird or otherwise whacky sights the Golden State has to offer, shall we?
The Salton Sea
The Salton Sea is somewhat of a geographical anomaly; birthed from an agricultural accident, developers wasted no time in dressing Miss Salton up all purty and parading her to the wealthy denizens Hollywood as the new vacation destination. However, intervening events have left the Sea in a mighty desperate state (dare I say, with her knickers showing?). I’ll let you research the cause-effect stories on your own, but until you’ve walked on a beach made entirely of ground fish bones, well, you haven’t lived. The residents who stubbornly remain in Bombay Beach's torpid humidity are nevertheless friendly and will gladly answer any questions you might have about life in the desert. Unless, of course, you question Salton's status as a lake or a sea. ("Lake? I don't see any lakes around here," was one local's indignant response.)
From the 10 East, take hwy 86 until it intersects with hwy 111. Wind along the north shore of the sea on hwy 111, or stay on hwy 86 to explore the southern shores (undiscovered territory, at least not discovered by yours truly). From hwy 111, swing by the Salton Sea State Recreation Area and chat with the local guides for a quick brush up on the Sea’s history, as well as pointers on where to stay, what to see, and what to avoid. The trip will unfold from that point, but you’d be remiss not to spend a large amount of time exploring Bombay Beach (and puh-leaze, if you do nothing else while you're there, go to the Ski Inn and shoot some pool while knocking back a cold one).
A towering slab of baked clay smeared in technicolor paint and glittering beneath a constellation of broken glass and clay baubles, Leonard Knight's roughly hewn tribute to ideals of Biblical proportion is a sight to behold. Climb the mountain not unlike Moses' Mt. Zion and survey the wasteland receding from Knight's fantastical radiant playground, tour the hallowed cave-like inner spaces, and be sure to bring Leonard a gift - new paints, some grub, or even a pair of helping hands.
From the Salton Sea, continue along hwy 111 until it curves inland. At Slab City, be on the lookout for Main St (If you hit 3rd, you’ve gone too far). Taking a left on Main, follow the road through Slab City (a sight in and of itself) until it curves into Beal Road. Put the pedal to the metal and fly over the desert floor, winding along Beal Road until you reach your promised land.
The salt flats near Calico, CA
Salt Flats / Calico Ghost Town
The "Ghost Town" of Calico (east of Barstow) is mainly a tourist trap, charging admission or at the very least parking (though my memory is faulty as to the amount), but the mine cave is fun to explore. However, the salt flats just up the road are a far better attraction inasmuch as they offer absolutely nothing at all. Open space, cracked earth, and endless sky. Drive out into the center and feel the space expand exponentially upon exiting your vehicle. You'll feel as though you're in a car commercial, or at the very least, a music video.
For anyone touring the Western U.S., Calico is easy to reach. Located midway between Los Angeles, CA and Las Vegas, NV. Calico is located 10 miles north of Barstow, Exit I-15 at Ghost Town Rd. The salt flats are beyond that, but to be honest, we just found them through trial and error. Good luck!
Note: All photos in this post are mine, except for these, which I found at http://www.uer.ca/
The Sunken City
San Pedro's Sunken City is the result of highway planning gone awry as the roadways literally sank into the sea a few years ago. What exists now serves as an ephemeral graveyard, its jagged tombstones emblazoned with florid bursts of graffiti and an expansive, stunning view of the Pacific. Go in the summertime to experience Shakespeare by the Sea, free weekly performances of some of the Bard's classic plays. Picnic on the lawn, then hop the stone wall to explore the sunken city.
Park in San Pedro's Point Fermin Park, 807 Paseo del Mar, 90731. From there, head toward the ocean and hop over the low stone wall and edge out to the cliff's end. You'll see the remains from there. Climb on, adventurer!
The Old Zoo at Griffith Park
The former home of lions, tigers, and bears - oh my! lies empty since the Los Angeles Zoo abandoned its cages for greener, er, pastures in the 60's. Far bigger prey have since capsized the location - graffiti and entropy - but parts have been turned into picnic areas, thus preserving the eerie caves from destruction. Be sure to explore up the hill behind the caves. There are plenty of structures still bearing the trademark bars that serve as a harbinger for exotic animals lurking just around every manmade rock.
The Old Zoo is within Griffith Park, off Griffith Park Drive, past the carousel. Follow signs for the Old Zoo Picnic Area.
The Harmony Post Office
With a population of 18 residents, most of them sculptors and artists, Harmony is expectedly a quaint haven for those seeking a picturesque hamlet to spend a couple of hours exploring. Comprised of one main street and a handful of windblown buildings, be sure to check out the wedding chapel and the glass blowers. Further up the road sits Harmony Cellars, an excellent winery with stunning views of San Luis Obispo County.
Harmony is located a few miles south of the intersection if Hwy 46 and Hwy 1, near Cambria. Harmony Cellars is just up the road at 3255 Harmony Valley Road, 93435.
Atop a hill on the south-eastern side of Morro Bay lies the Elfin Forest, a tangled chaparral of dwarf trees, white and blue wild lilac, manzanita, elderberry and mountain mahogany, among others. The dwarf oak trees here only grow to about 20 feet and are draped in moss, creating a lush, mystical miniature forest begging to be explored. The view of Morro Bay from the tree clearing is beautiful. Take the plank pathway to its end, then veer to the left and climb through the brush to view the forest's stunted natural beauty.
The Elfin Forest is west of South Bay Blvd. Take Santa Ysabel Ave. west and make a right on 12th St. or follow the signs for the Elfin Forest. Park at the end of the road and continue along the path till you reach the wooded hill.
I'm always searching for new places to discover, so if you know of a sight that I should see, let me know. Until then...let's go adventuring!