La Jolla, California is a sunny spot with sandy beaches. It is a spot that is well-known for a small cove (La Jolla Cove) where snorkeling, swimming, and scuba diving is popular. It is a location where locals and visitors can view sea lions and seals easily; and it is also a location that has an unobtrusive building with a secret tunnel that leads to a sea cave that is better suited for pirates, smugglers, and every adventure imaginable. For the last one hundred and ten years, this sea cave – the Sunny Jim cave – has been one of San Diego’s best long term microadventures, and is a location with a unique history.
Until 1902, the Sunny Jim cave was somewhat unremarkable. It was one of seven sea caves along the La Jolla coast (White Lady, Little Sister, Shopping Cart, Sea Surprise, Big Breakdown Pile, and Cathedral Arch being the other six) that were formed by erosion of the Southern California sandstone cliffs. In this respect, it was one of many sea caves that dot the coast from the Mexican border through Orange County. However, in 1902 for reasons best known to himself the cave owner (yes, in 1902, one could own caves that were only accessible by water), Gustav Shultz hired a number of individuals to hand dig the access tunnel to the cave. Over a two year period, the tunnel leading down to the back of the cave was created, and upon its completion, a hundred and forty-five steps (145) were added into the tunnel to allow access to the cave below.
If this wasn’t intriguing enough, it is worth noting that this tunnel – and the steps within it – is the same route used in and out of the Sunny Jim cave today. As an additional bit of mystery, the cave and the tunnel are also rumored to have been used by human traffickers and bootleggers during the Prohibition period. The main reason these activities were able to occur is that the tunnel and stairs lies directly under an unassuming structure (today known as the “Cave Store”). Finally, as a last bit of trivia, the Sunny Jim cave was named by L. Frank Baum. In case that name doesn’t ring a bell, L. Frank Baum was the author who wrote The Wizard of Oz. The reason he named the cave “Sunny Jim” was because to him, the opening looked exactly like the profile of Sunny Jim – the cartoon character found on the British Wheat Force cereal products of the 1920’s. Although most people in San Diego in the 1920’s had probably never had a British Wheat Force cereal product, or had ever seen the actual cartoon visage of Sunny Jim, the name stuck, and has remained through the present day.
Directions/Fees: The Sunny Jim Cave is directly under the Cave Store, which occupies the above-mentioned unobtrusive building at 1325 Coast Boulevard, La Jolla, California, 92037. While there are several medium sized signs around the building, as the road is a one-lane windy road along the coast, it is possible to miss the store initially, especially if one has never been there. Separately, it is important to note that there is no parking at the store; and as Coast Boulevard in that area is a one-lane road, there is not much parking near the store either. Along these lines, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that downtown La Jolla where the Cave Store and cave is located is a popular tourist destination year-round, and parking is always at a premium in the area as a whole. Correspondingly, most visitors to the cave will likely have to park at varying distances and walk to the location. As of 2016 the entrance fees to the cave are $5.00 for adults, and $3.00 for children aged three to sixteen.
Tips: While the tunnel and steps to the cave are accessible to anyone willing to walk up and down 145 steps at their leisure, the tunnel is low, meaning that people taller than 5’9 will have to stoop during portions of the ascent and descent. While the Sunny Jim cave itself has stunning colors, photography in the cave is somewhat difficult due to the high amount of ambient light coming in from the cave entrance. Also, while the cave is – and has been popular for years, it is still possible to visit the cave without crowds of people on weekdays during the winter months. Also, visitors to the cave that are looking for a different perspective on the area after visiting the cave can walk along the cliffs near the store for a short hike as well.