La Jolla is a part of California known for the iconic Seven Caves which are famous for their divine landscape and fascinating history. Most people who visit the caves do so by kayaking tours but San Diego locals know that you can also access the tunnels from a tiny gift shop at the shore. Sunny Jim Cave is a wood-shingled house/retail store that sells jewelry, beach accessories, paintings, and snorkel gear but what makes this place one of the best hidden gems in San Diego is the back entrance that slowly descends into a picturesque cave that’s one of the lesser-known historic spots of “America’s Finest City”.
Initially a jewelry shop owned by one, Gustaf Shultz, the so-called “Cave Store” was opened in 1902. The same year, seeing the beautiful caves along the shore and the mesmerizing ocean views, Shultz decided to use this natural beauty to his advantage. He hired two Chinese laborers to dig a tunnel from his shop with a goal to charge people for descending to the cave with a long rope.
After almost two years of digging (with only picks and shovels), the tunnel was completed by the end of 1903. The tunnel was connected with the other six caves along the shore but there were no stairs for entering the tunnel for the first few years. This is why most visitors in the first years of opening the cave had to descend in the dark tunnel by using a rope, making this tunnel one of the major San Diego tourist attractions of the first decade of the 20th century. At the time, Shultz charged 50 cents per person for entering the cave.
Interestingly, Shultz wasn’t the only one to see the potential of this location. Thomas Diamond who also owned a property along Cave Street petitioned to run a tunnel that connects all of the seven caves from his property a few months before Shultz but his request was denied. This was the reason for the two of them to have a fight after which Diamond was imprisoned and given a $10 bail.
In 1912, Shultz passed away and his wife took over the business to a big surprise of the locals who had no idea that Shultz was ever married.
Where is Sunny Jim Sea Cave?
Sunny Jim Sea Cave is a part of La Jolla and lies next to the corner between Cave Street, Coast Boulevard, and Coast Walk Trail, only one minute away from the famous La Jolla Underwater Park. The tunnel starts at Cave Store, the original residence of Gustaf Shultz, and through the cliffs of La Jolla Cove, you can get to Sunny Jim Sea Cave and subsequently, the other six caves as well. There are several signs around the building but note that the road leading to the cave is a one-lane, narrow, windy road and it’s possible to miss the store, especially if you never visited before.
If you’re coming with your own vehicle, you might struggle to find a parking spot; the property has a small parking lot and the destination is relatively popular among tourists and locals alike. Fortunately, there are other spots nearby where you can park your car if you don’t mind walking to the entrance for a few minutes.
Origins of the Name
According to the urban legend, the cave was named by Lyman Frank Baum, the author who wrote the “Wizzard of Oz”. Baum named the cave after another cartoon character that appeared on the box of a British cereal because the cave opening resembled the shape of Sunny Jim’s (the cereal cartoon character) head. There are a few other stories circulating around as well but this one is the most widely accepted one.
A Fun Fact
The opening of Shultz’s tunnel was attractive to other people, not just tourists. Even though not officially confirmed, a lot of locals claim that the tunnel was used by bootleggers to funnel hard liquors to local distributors during the Prohibition era. Some other stories even claim smugglers and Chinese illegal immigrants also used the cave as a passageway.
There are self-guided tours that last 15-20 minutes during which visitors have the entire tunnel for themselves (and their party). There are 144 stairs that descend and ascend through the seven caves. The entrance is narrow with colorful walls caused by the minerals and saltwater inside the cave.
If you’re taller than 6 feet, you might struggle because the tunnel is approximately 5’9”. Also, beware of the waves that splash inside the cave and take good care of any electronics you have with you.
Today, the entrance fee is $5 ($3 for children between 3 and 16 years old). That’s 10 times higher than the initial price in 1903 but I think you’ll agree that this is a reasonable price to take a look at the only entrance to a sea cave in California that is accessible via land.
Tips for Visiting
The tunnel is accessible to everyone but people above 5’9” are at a slight disadvantage. If you belong to this group, get ready for a lot of bending.
Sunny Jim Cave is famous for the beautiful colors that decorate the interior but clicking pictures can be tricky. Because of the high amount of ambient light coming from the entrance, you would need a professional camera to take a good, quality photo from the colors of the interior.
The cave has been popular for years and it’s one of the most unique things to do in San Diego but that doesn’t mean you can’t avoid the crowds. One way to do this is to visit during the winter months when the place gets relatively fewer visitors. Another alternative is to wake up early and get there before anyone else does. In general, there are always fewer visitors in the morning.
If you’re looking for a different experience of the area, consider taking a hike on the shore along the cliffs located near Sunny Jim Cave. The ocean views are spectacular and the area is relatively unfrequented compared to the caves.
If you get cold easily, bring a light jacket. Inside the cave, it can get hold even during the warm summer months.
It’s recommendable that you get some waterproof shoes; you might get wet when the waves splash against the cave’s walls.
There are only a few parking spots on the property but you should be able to find a few other nearby street parking lots in the area.
Did you ever visit Sunny Jim Sea Cave? Are you planning to do it during your upcoming trip to San Diego? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments!