The doorway to Sunny Jim Cave feels like entering a hidden staircase from an old mystery novel. Inside a weathered shingled beach shop, a clerk at a small wooden desk collects a $5 fee and records each payment with a color-coded tally mark on a sheet of paper. Just beyond, a sign warns that although the 145 steps are “perfectly safe,” the journey will be at your own risk.
The intriguing staircase leads to the only sea cave in California that is accessible by land. As the story is told, the idea was the brainchild of cave owner Gustav Shultz, who in 1902 hired two laborers to carve a tunnel to the sea. The men completed the task in 1903, and a staircase was later added for easier public access. The cave was named by Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum, who thought the cave opening resembled the profile of Sunny Jim, an early 1900s cartoon character and mascot for British Force Wheat cereal.
With fees paid and caution signs read, Herb and I headed down the first bend of stairs, carefully holding the handrails and lowering our heads whenever the ceiling sporadically dipped. I was immediately struck by the rich golden tones of the walls, with reds and blues from various mineral deposits occasionally appearing as stripe-like swaths of color. Well-placed lamps illuminated the wooden plank path as we traveled deeper and steeper into the bowels of the cave.
Just before reaching the bottom steps, daylight began to shine through the damp air. A crowd was gathering along the last stretch of walkway leading to the viewing platform, and we waited our turn to take photos and peer through the cave window. Kayakers and snorkelers lingered near the entrance. A sea lion had made its way into the cave, moving ever-so-slowly and blending in among the brownish-gray rocks. Waves flowed in and out, splashing along the cave walls.
We retraced our route up the serpentine staircase, through the cave entrance door, past the shop’s displays of beach-themed souvenirs and gifts. The cashier seemed as focused as when we had arrived, tallying visitor payments with her bright red pen.
Back outside on Coast Boulevard, we walked to a viewing spot that looks out over the Pacific. Several dozen brown pelicans were perched on nearby seaside cliffs, unfazed by hikers and camera-toting tourists.
We paused for a while, taking in the ocean air and warm breeze. It was one of those glorious summer afternoons that seemed like it was meant for exploring a hidden staircase by the sea.