Who can resist braking for the world's largest ball of string? A timeless American tradition, roadside attractions add kitschy fun to any road trip. In addition to its dazzling natural landscape, Santa Cruz is known for a vibrant, eclectic culture which includes more than a few offbeat destinations. Add some light-hearted amusement to your next outing by popping into these delightfully, unique destinations.
All Photos by Garrick Ramirez
There’s so much to love about this fun, new seafood restaurant on the Santa Cruz Wharf. Even before stepping inside, you’re greeted by a life-size, steampunk octopus sculpture that doubles as a fantastical drinking fountain. Inside the restaurant, clam-chowder-slurping diners can peer down at churning waves and lounging sea lions via portal-like windows that dot the dining room floor. Our favorite feature, however, is the circular, rotating bar whose slowly-spinning platform ensures that everyone enjoys killer, front-row views of the Monterey Bay.
Bigfoot Discovery Museum
Surrounded by the towering forests of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, this fun spot considers whether there’s more than just deer and squirrels living amidst the trees. Bigfoot buffs can watch videos, marvel at oversized plaster footprint casts, and note recent sightings on a wall-sized map of the region. Not convinced? You needn’t be to enjoy a spectacular collection of the big guy’s appearances throughout pop culture history, from Million Dollar Man episodes to Harry and the Hendersons to craft beer bottles.
The Last Supper Wax Sculpture
Before Madame Tussauds, there were wax likenesses produced by Katherine Stubergh and Katherine Marie Stubergh Keller. During the 1930s, the mother-daughter duo crafted a life-size wax replica of Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece, The Last Supper. After touring carnivals and county fairs for decades, it ended up at Santa Cruz Memorial cemetery where it can be viewed by appointment. The Stuberghs planted thousands of strands of human hair individually into each of the 13 heads, a process that lasted eight months! And they didn’t stop at one sculpture. The Stuberghs created five wax reproductions of the famous painting, including one currently displayed at a wax museum in Lourdes, France.
Built in 1890 in the forested San Lorenzo Valley, this hotel became famous for a rippling stream—stocked with trout!—that ran through the middle of its restaurant dining room. It was so iconic that it inspired a famous Los Angeles restaurateur to open Clifton’s Brookdale Cafeteria, an eatery decked in woodsy decor and an artificial indoor creek. The Brookdale Lodge has been undergoing a major renovation and is now open for reservations. This historic hotel has the stories of old, with the modern comforts of now.
Egg Vending Machine
You’ll never buy a carton of eggs from the grocery store again after getting a song-and-dance routine from the colorful chickens at Glaum Egg Ranch in Aptos. The mainstay of Santa Cruz’s once-booming dairy industry has a unique egg-vending machine that dispenses flats of fresh eggs as four animatronic chickens cluck and dance in an adjacent window. You’ll want to return often as the chicken’s snazzy ensembles and background change with the holidays.
Half the fun of visiting this famous Capitola institution is revelling in its enchanting atmosphere. What was once a 1940s vacation home along the scenic banks of Soquel Creek has been transformed into magical dining destination. The first hint that you’re in for an unique experience is the Hillevator the greets you at the restaurant’s hilltop welcoming area. The cozy cable-car-like tram delivers you through a lush, hillside garden with a rippling stream and mini waterfall to the entrance. The garden’s stream continues into the dining room as do many plants and a few trees that extend through the roof! In the Craftsman styled bar and lounge area, see if you can find a time capsule scheduled to be opened on the restaurant’s 100th anniversary in 2047.
Fair Avenue Temple
The fantastical property at 519 Fair Avenue in Westside Santa Cruz has caused more than one passing motorist to question “What exactly is that place?” What looks like the ruins of some secret society gathering spot—with an elaborate archway flanked by two obelisks—is actually a former residence built by brothers Kenneth and Raymond Kitchen in the early part of the 20th century. But since the unusual property has sat empty for decades, urban legends have swirled. Which are true? Nobody knows for sure, but they explain why most locals refer to the property as The Court of Mysteries.
SS Palo Alto (aka The Cement Ship)
Santa Cruz’s beloved cement ship, the SS Palo Alto, made news recently when it was tumbled and broken apart during a strong winter storm. The odd fixture at Seacliff State Beach was originally built as an oil tanker during World War I but spent most of its time in storage. In 1929, it was towed to its present location where it was converted into a floating amusement park with dance hall, casino, restaurant, and pool. After the Great Depression forced its bankruptcy two years later, the State of California purchased the ship, and it became an artificial reef for fish, an auspicious perch for seabirds, and a unique attraction for camera-wielding tourists.
The Mystery Spot
Offbeat is just the tip of the iceberg with this mysterious spot found in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The laws of physics seem to play by their own rules in this 150 foot diameter area tucked away in the redwoods. It's a "see for yourself" kind of place as gravity and hight leave a puzzling impression. And be sure to snag one of those black and yellow Mystery Spot stickers; they're some sort of right of passage to Santa Cruz visitors.
Curious to explore more, off-the-beaten path attractions? Check out the hidden gems listed in our guide to eight awesomely secret destinations in Santa Cruz.