California Road Trip: Nit Wit Ridge, The Mystery Spot, Santa Cruz

This Labor Day weekend I had a list of unfinished business to attend to, with four days, one car, and one backpack at my disposal. I refuse to live over a year in California without having seen the mighty Redwoods. Driving from Los Angeles to Humboldt Redwoods State Park directly, without any detours, is something like ten hours and doesn’t sound particularly appealing for a marathon out-and-back drive in one weekend, but taking two days to get there and two days to get back? Stopping along the way to knock other things off the bucket list? Leaving space in between to wander off course and make new discoveries? A race against time, but it just might work. 

I started “planning” about two days before I left, meaning I confirmed that every typical Reserve California campsite was already taken and I’d have to get creative. Challenge accepted. I also narrowed down which locations it would be possible to route to in my timeframe and made reservations (who am I?) at a couple sites where I anticipated availability quickly evaporating on the holiday weekend. I’m sorry to say that maybe I did learn a tiny bit about the value of thinking ahead from the Vegas debacle, but don’t worry, there was still one night where I had no idea where I was going to sleep. Things might have been different if I had all the time in the world to get lost, but something about the whirlwind nature of this trip leant itself to excitement and there’s not much I would have changed. I’ve got to say it: I am truly a Master Road Trip Planner. Always have been. I should get paid for this shit. 

Without further ado, here begins my itinerary for the ultimate Redwoods road trip:

Jump to Day: Two, Three, Four

Day One, Friday:

Nit Wit Ridge

Drive time: 4 hrs

I left Los Angeles at 6:00AM, bound for my first stop four hours away: Nit Wit Ridge

Nit Wit Ridge is a makeshift palace built from found objects and junk that the eccentric Mr. Arthur Beale, AKA “Tinkerpaws”, collected in Cambria over 50-ish years until his death in 1992. Artistically it’s in a similar vein to East Jesus or Elmer’s Bottletree Ranch, but the difference is that Beale was constructing his own home, from the ground up, complete with plumbing and a functioning electrical system fashioned from discarded wiring. I absolutely had to see this place, so it’s one of the stops I made advanced reservations for. The current owner Mike provides access and gives the tours himself; there are multiple tours a day at about 40 minutes each, with a suggested donation of $10 to help them take care of the place. It’s a historical landmark but there’s no upkeep from the government, so it all falls on Mike. 

On my way there, I found myself pulling over to the side of the road multiple times to take in the gorgeous views of rolling hills along the central coast. Black cattle grazed in the distance, and as I got closer to Cambria multiple vineyards offering food and wine tastings started cropping up. It became a real exercise in willpower to keep driving past all the signs directing me to farm tours. I wanted to pick fresh strawberries or avocados, but I was on a mission this time! At one viewpoint I did stay awhile to help a young couple who needed a jump when their car broke down; they were headed north from Los Angeles as well, to San Francisco and maybe onward to Oregon. The jump didn’t work and they had to call Triple A; I wonder if they ever made it.

I arrived in Cambria early for my tour, so I followed signs for “Coastal Access” through one of the neighborhoods. I was already feeling like I was in Northern California, Oregon, or Washington, based on how forested and cooler in temperature the area was. “Pines By The Sea” is a solid choice for their motto. I noticed deer wandering all throughout the neighborhood and stopped to watch them before heading on to the beach, which was totally unpolluted and private. Can you imagine living here? 

I met a golden retriever in this parking lot named Bodie: Wonder Dog Of Golden Light.

When I was content I drove on towards Nit Wit Ridge but noticed signs for Hearst Castle, which I hadn’t realized was so close. I decided to check it out and pulled into the visitor’s center, where I asked a ticket agent how it all works; turns out I couldn’t just go wander the property for awhile (why can’t everyone just be chill?) and would need to reserve a tour and dedicate a few hours time. I made a mental note to return to this idea on my way back through Cambria on Day 4. As I left I noticed signs for Elephant Seal viewing, and some beautiful camp spots on San Simeon beach - two more mental notes. To get to Nit Wit Ridge, I drove through the main street of town, which is adorable. I noticed so many local shops and cafes I thought it could be fun to eat at upon my return, and they were having some kind of BBQ or festival outside - another mental note. I was already making so many plans. 

Mike’s tour of Nit Wit Ridge was fascinating. It was informative but left me with many more questions to the effect of Who Exactly Was Art Beale? Hoards of empty beer cans and abalone shells are built into the residence, for decoration and sometimes even for structural integrity. He also used materials like driftwood washed in from the sea (though Mike posits that he may have stolen some of it from local construction sites), toilet seats as picture frames, and even a pillar-like piece apparently original to Hearst Castle (an interesting juxtaposition worthy of a full essay). Beale was the town garbage man for some time, and would often come by these objects when asked to haul them away (though he may have been fired when they found out he wasn’t delivering some items to their intended destination of the dump). He had an eye for beauty, especially in the form of his extensive gardens, and he seems to have had a great sense of humor, evidenced by the two his-and-hers toilets positioned side-by-side to facilitate conversation. He repurposed almost everything, except the materials of the original house he attempted to build which is still a shambles in the backyard. Mike says that even though Beale was unmarried throughout his life and had no children, there was mention of a woman named Gloria, perhaps the love of his life, who lived with him for a time before leaving unceremoniously. A woman’s shoe was found in the back house, and the theory suggests he abandoned it to build Nit Wit Ridge when Gloria abandoned him. Go to hell, Gloria. 

When he moved to Cambria from San Francisco he purchased this hillside land for a few hundred dollars; he would have had an incredible view of the ocean at the time, before the town grew. Townspeople had varying opinions of him and his home, but he never wanted to leave. He was finally forced into a nursing home in his final years. Since then, the house has been ransacked by trespassers, but enough of his personal items remain to give us a picture of who the man was, including clothes, books, linens, and furniture. Even the food is still in tact in the kitchen pantry, for some reason preserved all these years (the weather here is pristine) and now dried out or fermented enough for animals not to bother with it. Mike has repaired leaks and structural damage over the years, but said he’s been surprised by how much of the building has maintained on it’s own - earthquakes haven’t even knocked anything off the shelves. 

Beale created his own castle, better and truer, to me, than anything William Randolph Hearst could have erected with millions of dollars. But what I admire in both is their audacity, their commitment to their visions. These are the sights worth seeing, these are the people of California. Maybe one day I’ll be able to create a "castle" of my own, a physical representation of the life I want to live. 

The Mystery Spot

Drive time: 3 1/2 hrs

But for me, right now, the road manifests all. I head back out towards the next stop on my list: The Mystery Spot, 3 1/2 hours north. I knew very little about it prior to my visit, besides that there are optical illusions and gravity-defying scientific conundrums involved. Count me in.

The drive took me down El Camino Real, a historic route dotted with 21 Spanish missions. I could make out a couple of them from the road, but with the amount of history to unpack and the time I didn’t have, I filed this away as something to explore all on it’s own on a separate trip. I’ll come back for you, El Camino Real, I’ll come back for you.

Halfway out of the sprawling farmland and halfway into the Redwoods, I arrived at The Mystery Spot excited to be witnessing the trees already! Only Day 1 and here they were. I arrived early and the property has a simple hiking trail, so I explored that before the tour:

Then: The Mystery. My guide was great and personable, but I’ve got to say, I’m not buying this whole “phenomena”. Apparently in this one area of the woods, there are forces pushing against you that make it hard to walk in certain directions, create a drastic lean when you’re trying to stand up straight, and make shorter people appear taller than others when they’re standing on what seems to be the lower, declined area. That last part is counterintuitive, but generally it all just seemed like gravity to me. It’s a hill. Of course we’re leaning to find balance when we’re standing on the incline of a steep hill? They showed this lead ball as evidence that forces were not allowing things to fall straight, but it looks like it’s just hanging in the direction of gravity to me. I don’t get it. Whatever, it was still fun and it was only $8. 

Santa Cruz

Drive Time: 15 Min

I left excited to find my hostel for the night - I missed staying in them and wanted the hostel experience at least once on this trip. HI Santa Cruz was only 15 minutes away from the Mystery Spot and had such a cozy layout! Each dorm is in a separate cottage on the property, each with their own bathrooms, and I was directed to one dubbed “Lottie Sly” with a wraparound porch. There’s also a kitchen house, the main reception, and a great yard in the center of it all, decorated with flowers and outdoor seating that makes for a good hang spot. A parking pass is $2, and after I figured that out and dropped all my stuff, I set out on foot to explore the Boardwalk and Wharf of Santa Cruz. 

Santa Cruz has so many different vibes going on all at once. I was just in a forest, but here I was now on a touristy beach with a casino and amusement park. As I walked looking for dinner, I found seedier areas just a few streets over that mirrored downtown LA more than anything. On Day 3 I’d find small towns just outside Santa Cruz with quaint bakeries and a Whole Foods. I don’t know what to make of the city as a whole, but it kept me guessing. 

I ended up at a Thai place between the Wharf and the Boardwalk (ordered the green curry - delicious), sitting next to a local couple who I got to chatting with. It turns out they planned to leave on Wednesday for a trip to Alaska, and I shared with them some stories of my time there. They relayed tales of their own travels to New Zealand, and how their daughter lived the van life there for a year and half while working in a vineyard. I was so appreciative of their suggestions of things to do around Santa Cruz - free concerts on the Boardwalk at 6:30PM and 8:30PM every Friday! - and they told me about a cool hostel at the Pigeon Point lighthouse that I’ll have to check out someday. 

When we said goodbye I wandered the streets again to take pictures of the evening, but I tired quickly and headed back to relax at the hostel. On my walk up the hill to Main Street I could hear the concert going on, while waves lapped against the beach and seals barked in the distance. Not a bad end to an eventful first day.

Day One Roundup:

Distance: 385 miles
Driving Time (not counting stops): ~ 8 hours?
Up Next: Day 2 - Avenue of the Giants. Stay tuned for Day 3 & 4!


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