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OC to San Diego: Roadside Attractions

I believe we all can admit that long road trips can be tough. A mix of achy legs, stir crazy children with the constant inquiries of “are we there yet?”, traffic jams and road rage all crammed into tight spaces can be a perfect storm of disaster. What is one to do? 

Enter the roadside attraction boom that lasted from the 1940s to the 1960s, when exploring quirky stops along the way made long travels to the final destination more tolerable. These tourist-oriented attractions began popping up along highways across the United States. Although many have faded away into history there are still a few gems sprinkled along favorite drive routes if you know where to look. 

Here are some must-see, stretch your legs, and have a chuckle roadside stops on the way from Orange County to San Diego

OC to San Diego: Roadside Attractions

Newport Beach 

Although still technically in Orange County, Newport Beach is a great first stop to explore unique hidden gems you may not have heard of away from the iconic gorgeous beaches Newport Beach is known for. 

  • Pirate’s Lair, and Their Giant Pet Rooster: When you think of Newport Beach, images of mansions lining white sand beaches may come to mind. But a pirate lair? Yup, you heard me right, pirates also make up the view of Newport Beach. Strewn about on ropes and bolted to the sidewalk are ten or so fiberglass statues of the Pirates of the Caribbean along with their pet rooster. Address: 35th St., Newport Beach, CA. 
  • John Wayne’s Yacht: In 1965 Western Movie icon John Wayne bought the 1942 U.S. Navy minesweeper named Wild Goose and restored her to her original glory. This yacht has had quite the list of celebrity guests throughout Wayne’s ownership including President Nixon and Sammy Davis, Jr. Although John Wayne sold Wild Goose right before his passing in 1979, you can still see it and even rent it for a spin on the open water! Address: 2431 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach, CA.
  • Bunnyhenge: Located right next to the Civic Center in downtown Newport Beach is quite the original display of public art. What is it you ask? This art installation features 14 larger-than-life white bunny statues arranged in a circle right around the Civic Center Park. A similar formation to – you guessed it, Stonehenge in jolly ol’ England. Address: 100 Civic Center Dr, Newport Beach, CA 92660
Pirates Lair Newport Beach
Pirates Lair

Dana Point 

A beautiful and quaint marina city, many tourists hit Dana Point for its numerous dolphin and whale watching cruises. This town is even one of the two locations to shuttle to the lovely Catalina Island from. But apart from its locally owned small shops and lovely state beaches are some must see roadside classics. 

  • White Squirrels of the Pacific: What the heck are white squirrels? In this small community that question has been asked quite a bit since this colony of white squirrels made Dana Point their home. To see these unique creatures in person search among the rocks on the channel leading to the marina right by the statue of Richard Henry Dana, Jr. Address: Dana Drive, Dana Point, CA. 
  • President Nixon’s Favorite Mexican Restaurant: Did you know that President Nixon lived in San Clemente? Located just East and inwards of Dana Point is where the former president had his residence. During his time there Tricky Dick often frequented the Mexican restaurant El Adobe de Capistrano. Locals even say his ghost still haunts the historic building! We stopped in for dinner and we recommend the ceviche and the chile relleno! Address: 31891 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, CA.
  • Nixon’s Other Favorite Mexican Restaurant: The President sure loved his local Mexican eateries. A second favorite spot was the restaurant Olamendi. The original Olamendi opened its doors in 1973 with festive Dia de Los Muertas decor. It quickly earned the nickname “Western White House” for its notorious regular and has the president’s seal displayed even today. Address: 34664 Pacific Coast Highway, Dana Point, CA. 

Oceanside 

Mostly known for its location near the theme park LEGOLAND California in Carlsbad, Oceanside has more local stops to discover outside of its must see long pier that brings you right out and over the Pacific Ocean. 

  • Oceanside Pier: Yes, I know I just said there are more things to see then just a pier here in Oceanside. But you also have to admit this is a pretty cool pier. The Oceanside Pier is the longest wooden pier on the West Coast. 1,954 feet long in fact! Address: 101 Pier View Way, Oceanside, CA 
  • Top Gun House: Any Top Gun movie fans out there? Hurry quick to the home of the love interest in the 1986 blockbuster film’s home. I say hurry because in 2019 the house was moved one block from its original location to a construction zone where plans of a hotel are set to be built. Although local historian organizations are petitioning for its protection. Address: North Pacific Ave. and 1st street., Oceanside, CA.
  • 101 Café: This truly is an homage to Highway 101’s glory days. This small restaurant with its 1950’s drive-in vibe will certainly take you back to the time of roller skates and poodle skirts. The café itself was actually opened back in 1928 but was converted into a drive-in during the 50’s and 60’s. 101 Café really is a yummy stop with classic greasy food and malts. Address: 631 South Coast Highway 101, Oceanside, CA. 

Encinitas 

The last place to stop to explore is the city of Encinitas nestled just thirty minutes north of San Diego proper. This quirky town has a collection of unique and truly random roadside art you must explore. 

  • Neptune’s Portal: North of downtown in a residential area is a mysterious green cylinder on top of a mailbox. Passersby are invited to peer inside the self-proclaimed passageway between the past and future. One should note you will be recorded if you dare to look into the cylinder. Address: 678 Neptune Ave., Encinitas, CA
  • Surfing Madonna: On Good Friday in 2011 local artist Mark Patterson painted a surfing Virgin de Guadalupe on a railroad underpass. This beautiful piece of art slammed into existence with some controversy as the town debated if the artwork was legal or considered graffiti and was forced to be removed. By 2014 the “Save the Ocean” mural found its permanent home on an outer wall of an Italian Restaurant. Address: 315 S. Coast Hwy 101, Encinitas, CA 
  • Cardiff Kook Surfer Statue: Located in Cardiff-by-the-Sea is a familiar and iconic statue of a surfer hitting the waves. But what makes this a worthy stop is locals often dress it up in unflattering outfits and pranks to make fun of the ‘dorky’ surfer. Address: Chesterfield Dr., Cardiff-by-the-Sea, CA

I will admit Roadside Attractions are more than a nod to the past. They are a fun way to explore history and enjoy classic Americana. As you travel down from Orange County to that southern beach city of San Diego that we all love, make sure you stop at one or two of these unique, random and sometimes hilarious attractions.

Happy adventures!

More California Roadside Attractions

San Diego
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
Torrey Pines

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Kaitlin is a former ballerina who now travels around the country in an 18-foot converted school bus. Her and her husband have welcomed 34 sweet children into their home the past eleven years. Although they would not be a forever home for all of them, they adopted their daughter buckets and are legal guardians to their son monkey. Follow their crazy adventures on Instagram @runawaymusbus