Sunny Jim Cave Store – San Diego, California - Atlas Obscura
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San Diego, California

Sunny Jim Cave Store

Behind this beachfront shop lies a spectacular, colorful sea cave with an equally colorful past. 

Tucked away in La Jolla, California stands a wood-shingled house that doubles as a retail store and sells all manner of beachfront necessities, including watercolor paintings, jewelry and snorkel gear. It would be just one of a million coastal boutiques if not for an incredible twist. It has a back entrance that descends into a colorful sea cave and one of the most spectacular and hidden views of the ocean in the entire state.

The Sunny Jim Cave Store has the only entrance to any sea cave in California that you can access via land. The entrance is a narrow and dim tunnel that leads from the store to a staircase made of 145 damp steps that descend directly into the sea cave. The narrow tunnel and cave walls are incredibly colorful, due to the natural minerals and the effect the saltwater has on them. They’ve also become a home to pigeons and sea birds, giving this already dark tunnel a vibe that Hitchcock would approve of.

The tunnel linking land to the sea cave was the vision of Gustauf Schultz, a German painter, struggling artist, and mining engineer. He had hoped to retire on the allure of such a rare view of the ocean, so he hired two laborers and they started digging in 1902. These two men completed the tunnel just a year later and Gustauf began charging a few cents for the opportunity to be lowered into the cave via a long rope. The rope has since been replaced with a steep staircase that can be just as treacherous due to dim lighting and ocean water spray. It is not recommended for the elderly, the very young, or the impaired. After Gustauf’s death in 1912, his fellow La Jollans were surprised to find his widow arrive to run the shop, considering most of them had no idea he had been married. She continued to run the curio shop and cave attraction into the early 1920s, when the tunnel was allegedly used during prohibition to smuggle alcohol into San Diego. 

The Sunny Jim Cave Store has become a Historical Landmark in California. It gets its memorable name from L. Frank Baum, the creator of the Wizard of Oz. When he visited, he named it that because the cave mouth reminded him of the profile of a 1920s British cereal cartoon mascot of the same name. As you might expect, trinkets featuring the famous visitor and that cartoon character’s profile can be seen in the store above as well.