Have you been there?
Somewhere between your house and your destination are some roadside attractions. Of course, you may have a difficult time finding them. Threatened by high-speed highways and our frantic lifestyles, these places are disappearing. Most were small family enterprises that promised something a little different, even weird. Perhaps that’s why they flourished in the weirdness of Santa Cruz.
Sandy Lydon, history professor emeritus, Cabrillo College, took a group of us on a tour of these endangered attractions. Some are flourishing; others are little more than a memory.
The Mystery Spot
High on the weirdness scale and perhaps the best known of the Santa Cruz roadside attractions, the Mystery Spot attracts more than a thousand people a week. Even the most cynical and disbelieving visitors stagger out of the “spot” with a loss of balance and confused perspective. What’s up? What’s down? How can someone perform an “impossible” backbend, lean sideways at 45 degrees without falling, or walk up a wall? It is all very confusing. Still, it appears to be safe and wholesome fun for the family, unless they lack balance or get seasick easily.
As with most roadside attractions, the “spot” isn’t the place for a week vacation or even a day trip, but it’s a nice place to stop on the way to Santa Cruz. The tour, led by young, entertaining college-student docents, takes about 45 minutes. Reservations are recommended. During the summer and holidays, you may have to wait for your tour.
For more information, call 831-423-8897, or visit www.mysteryspot.com.
To reach the Mystery Spot, take Highway 17 south to Ocean Street. At the third stoplight, turn left on Water Street. At the first stoplight, turn left onto Market Street. Market becomes Branciforte Road. Follow for 2.9 miles, and then turn left on Mystery Spot Road. An interesting alternative route back to the summit is to go south on Branciforte Road, and then turn right on Glen Canyon Road. This road takes you back to Highway 17 just north of Mt. Hermon Road.
Three that got away
Many roadside attractions have disappeared, but you can still see their remnants. You can see three in Scotts Valley.
Near the south end of Scotts Valley Drive, watch for Tree Circus Center. At the front of the building, you’ll see a bronze plaque describing the Tree Circus, once a forest of tree-trunk topiaries grafted and shaped by Axel Erlandson from 1947 to 1963. You’ll also see two trees that were once grafted together. A short walk to the back of the building reveals a second topiary created from three trees.
Further down Scotts Valley Drive to the City Center, you’ll find a small park. Two fighting bear sculptures have been recovered from the Lost World, an extension of the Tree Circus. Perhaps you remember the giant fiberglass dinosaurs that were visible from Highway 17.
This same park hosts the Hiram D. Scott house, built in 1853 by the founder of Scotts Valley. (You can arrange a house tour by calling the Scotts Valley Historical Society at 831-438-6506.)
Next to the fighting bears in the park are two giant masonry mushrooms. Eighty such mushrooms once graced another locally famous attraction—Santa’s Village. Closed in 1979, the site next to Highway 17 is only a vacant field, but if you ever visited this local wonderland, perhaps you can visualize the bumble-bee monorail, a whirling Christmas tree ride, the baby-animal petting zoo, and Santa Claus as played by Carl Hansen, who later became KNTV’s Hocus Pocus.
Three success stories
Nearby Felton appears more successful in its roadside attractions—a railroad, a forest, and a wonderfully weird museum.
Roaring Camp provides great train rides, a short narrow-gauge steamer through redwood forest, and a scheduled train from the Santa Cruz beach and boardwalk. It also offers special events, such as Thomas the Train, moonlight steam train rides, costume parties, eco hikes, picnics, barbecues, and re-enactments.
Next door, the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park features 15 miles of hiking and riding trails. Its predecessor, the privately owned Big Trees Park, was a “railside” attraction. When the owner demanded payment from local photographer Andrew P. Hill, he sparked a “Save the Redwoods” revolution that resulted in Henry Cowell Redwoods and Big Basin state parks.
One of Henry Cowell’s special attractions is the famous Fremont Tree, located on the Redwood Grove trail. Although John Fremont made the tree famous because he allegedly slept inside, he later only said that it made a good story. Nevertheless, the story helped to save the tree and the surrounding grove from logging. According to Henry Cowell docents, the tree has accommodated 75 people at the same time. Bring a flashlight and 75 friends, and you can break the record.
If you walk down the main-line railroad track to Santa Cruz a few hundred yards from the Roaring Camp station, you can find a rare albino redwood next to the right of the track. Sandy Lydon estimates about sixty of the parasitic albinos live in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
A drive down Highway 9 to southern Felton takes you to the Big Foot Discovery Museum. Michael Rugg has created a rather strange assemblage of Big Foot memorabilia, including videos, pictures, books, foot molds, and giant statues. If you don’t snicker too much, Michael will give you a tour. And if you want more, he may show you a feature-length documentary.
While the many beaches and parks of Santa Cruz County attract tourists, there are few family-owned roadside attractions. Let me know if you have discovered others. Or perhaps you may want to create one. After all, we need to keep Santa Cruz weird.