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California’s Most Iconic Roadside Attractions

by Staff

The news last week that Pea Soup Andersen’s restaurant on the Central Coast had suddenly closed elicited a wave of nostalgia among Californians, even those like me who had never actually eaten there.

The restaurant’s whimsical advertisements along Highway 101, featuring two cartoon chefs, were dependable road-trip markers for me when I was growing up in Ventura County, confirming that we had officially made it out of congested Southern California. (The restaurant, in the small city of Buellton, opened 100 years ago, and the billboards went up not long after that.)

The outpouring of memories got us thinking: What are the other iconic roadside landmarks across the state?

The best known are probably the Cabazon Dinosaurs, the world’s tallest thermometer, the Winchester Mystery House, the formerly reeking Harris Ranch, the Paul Bunyan statue in Klamath and the giant Randy’s Donuts sign visible from the 405 freeway.

But many of our favorite attractions are far less flashy, and a little more personal.

My editor, Kevin Yamamura, a Sacramento native, recalled visiting Casa de Fruta as a child while road-tripping along Highway 152 to visit relatives in Watsonville. He also recommends pulling over at Ikeda’s near Auburn for hamburgers and pie if you’re headed for Tahoe.

Two roadside beacons in particular stood out in his memory along I-80 — for the Nut Tree restaurant complex, whose towering sign with three logos was removed in 2015, and for the Milk Farm, which hasn’t been open since the 1980s but whose cow is still jumping over the moon as drivers pass by.

My colleague Jill Cowan, a reporter based in Los Angeles, mentioned the elephant seals in San Simeon, the James Dean cutout along Highway 46 in Lost Hills, and the In-N-Out in Kettleman City, a favorite among drivers traveling between the Bay Area and L.A.

For me, the highway landmarks that loom largest are those that I’ve seen over and over. When I was a kid, the impossible-to-miss San Onofre nuclear power plant told me we had almost reached San Diego. And on I-5, the grueling Tejon Pass, often called the Grapevine, once signaled that I was well on my way back to college at U.C. Berkeley after a break; nowadays it tells me that I’m on my way back home to San Francisco.

Here are some readers’ favorite stops, lightly edited:

“A few miles south of Madera, in the median strip of Highway 99, stand a palm and a pine — symbolic of Southern and Northern California and much beloved by all who know what they’re driving by. When Caltrans tried to cut them down, a great outcry put a stop to that. When the pine — actually a cedar — was later blown down in a windstorm, a replacement was planted.” — Susan Weikel Morrison, Fresno

“The dearest and most obvious travel landmark for this Southern California native is Disneyland’s Matterhorn. My sister and I eagerly looked for it as we approached the park via I-5 when we were kids. The first one to see it and yell ‘Matterhorn!’ won. No prize, just the joy of knowing that we would soon be inside Disneyland. I still look for the mountain’s snowy peak whenever I’m driving through Anaheim on the Golden State freeway. My sister, who now lives in Washington State, knows exactly where I am when I yell ‘Matterhorn!’ into her phone and hang up.” — Cindy Mediavilla, Culver City

“We frequently drive between the Bay Area and Chico, about three hours northeast. Our most-used route takes us past the town of Williams on I-5, where we pull off for a pit stop and sandwich at Granzella’s sprawling deli-restaurant-bar-grocery-motel complex. Its signature décor is the dining room crowded with horrifying taxidermy. They also sell political signage that, to my snowflake sensibilities, is equally horrifying. We stop there anyway — great deli sandwiches.” — Alicia Springer, Chico

“My favorite roadside attraction is the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. I went to school at Cal Poly, and coming up from L.A. after visiting family on school breaks reminded me that I was back home to the S.L.O. life. Yes, it’s gaudy pink and the rooms are very retro and quirky, but that is the charm of the place.” — Caroline Inouye, Los Osos

Tell us your best stories and memories of roadside attractions in California. Email us at [email protected].

There’s a new ocelot kitten at the Los Angeles Zoo, delighting zookeepers and visitors.

The male kitten was born in September to his mother, Maya, at just 19 ounces, the zoo announced last month.

By early December, the kitten, who didn’t have a name at the time of the announcement, had grown to six and a half pounds and was expected to join his fellow cats in the outdoor pen soon, where he would be visible to visitors.

“At first he was toddling around on unsteady legs, but he’s become stronger and more agile every day,” Stephanie Zielinski, the L.A. Zoo animal keeper, said in the news release. “He has a big personality now, and he’s brave and curious.”

Ocelots are considered endangered by the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, and their native populations in Texas and Arizona have dropped precipitously in recent decades because of hunting and urbanization.

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

Maia Coleman and Briana Scalia contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].

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