Into the Woods
Santa Cruz’s Mystery Spot endures with the pull of magnetism.
Drive right up, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, and prepare to be amazed. For as long as travelers have motored through the American landscape, clever roadside attractions have coaxed them and their wallets out of the car for a brief spell of fun and refreshment along with a much-needed pit stop.
Luckily for the Bay Area, one of the country’s most famous—and mysterious—such attractions is concealed among the Santa Cruz redwoods a mere 90-minute road trip away.
“Discovered” by local electrician, mechanic, and inventor George Prather in 1939, the Mystery Spot, situated on a back road four miles north of Santa Cruz, is California’s oldest-known “gravitational anomaly,” an area purported to exist outside the natural laws of physics. At nearly 80 years old, the year-round tourist destination has lost none of its magical, old-timey charm. It was even made a California Historical Landmark in 2014.
The real history behind the mystery is shrouded in sideshow lore. According to a sign near the entrance, Prather first bought the parcel of land “for a summer home or mountain cabin,” but surveying and construction were thwarted on the southern hillside by unexplained phenomena and erratically spinning compasses. In 1941, a baffled Prather and his family dutifully invited the public to experience the mysterious marvel for themselves.
Today, a guided tour of the property and famous wooden shack—its redwood boards rubbed shiny-smooth from decades of visitors—is an exercise in wonder and dizziness: Tall people seem short! Balls roll uphill! Walls, literally, can be climbed! Sideways! And perhaps best of all for generations of returning travelers: Time seems to have stood still.
Science aside, how the site draws thousands to the heart of the woods is its own mystery. The attraction does not advertise, except to issue a free bumper sticker with every tour. That bold yellow and black Mystery Spot logo, designed by Prather and around since the site’s inception, can be spotted (ha) on cars all over the world.
The tactic works. On a typical summer day, the Mystery Spot is often sold out. It moves 25 people per tour, five tours staggered each hour, from 9 a.m. until sundown with an efficiency that rivals the finest amusement parks. And it’s open 365 days a year.
The thrill and pleasure of a Mystery Spot visit hinges on the art of the guides, who here perform (and inform) with real magnetism. Think put-together college students with theater experience, each with his or her own shtick and patter. Charismatic retirees have also been known to find second careers as beloved Mystery Spot docents.
Possibly the one detail that has changed since 1941: These days, tours are secured in advance. (Drop-ins can often expect to wait up to several hours, or must book a return trip.) Make reservations online or through the Mystery Spot hotline at 831-423-8897 to ensure a spot at the Spot.
Visitors are asked to arrive 30 minutes before their booked tour time: Simply roll up to the remote, redwood grove, pay a $5 parking fee, and snap a selfie at the cheerful yellow entrance gate. Then it’s a pleasant, tree-scented wait at the outdoor cafe or a stroll along a hiking trail before the Mystery begins.
Jorge Moellenkamp (CC)
Santa Cruz Boardwalk.
The Mystery Spot can be done in a day, but once you’re down Santa Cruz way, it might be hard to leave. Combine the road trip with other vintage family-fun attractions such as the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk or Roaring Camp Railroads, or visit Seymour Marine Discovery Center or the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum for an unforgettable weekend or week.
Good to Know
Mystery Spot, 465 Mystery Spot Road, Santa Cruz, 831-423-8897, MysterySpot.com.
Roaring Camp Railroads, 5401 Graham Hill Road, Felton, 831-335-4484, RoaringCamp.com.
Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, 701 W. Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz, 831-420-6289, SantaCruzSurfing- Museum.com.
Published online on May 26, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.