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Western Tourist Traps

tourists & Spiderman, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood
Photo caption
Celluloid figures of all types help hype Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

Webster's defines tourist trap as "a place that attracts and exploits tourists." At VIA, we use the term more affectionately, to describe spots that don't peddle snake oil as much as they resound with a carnival barker's friendly, if inflated, bluster. These are places where you can join fellow pilgrims, laugh at naked huckstering, capture silly moments on camera, and pick up kitschy souvenirs. They are eccentric: a Silicon Valley mansion replete with stairs that lead nowhere and doors that open to nothing, a 14-room home blasted deep into Utah sandstone, a mountain shack where balls roll uphill and visitors seem to shrink. Many of these attractions started out as something else—a roadside produce stand in one case, a working wharf in another, a silver boomtown in yet a third. Then some savvy soul saw the potential for drawing a crowd and the crowds came, and being part of them became part of the fun—playing tourist, sharing an experience with all the travelers who've been there before, walking up to a place with "trap" in its job description and saying, "Take me in."

Fisherman's Wharf

By Josh Sens

It's easy to poke fun at San Francisco's famous waterfront district, a crowded carnival of crab shacks, street performers, and gift shops stocked with T-shirts and postcards. But part of the Wharf's charm is its willingness to flaunt its hokey reputation.

Of the millions who visit it each year, few come looking for starch and stuffiness. They're drawn instead to the playful celebration of what snoots dismiss as "lowbrow" taste. One attraction that embodies the Wharf's nudge-and-wink spirit is Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum, a collection of oddball contraptions (an eight-foot cable car made of matchsticks) and freakish "natural" phenomena. That two-headed calf—any chance it's real? The same question could be asked of the timeless figures at the Wax Museum, a Wharf landmark that houses dozens of celebrity look-alikes. It may just be the only place where Madonna and Pope John Paul II could ever have shared space without slipping into a heated debate.

Tourist traps are known for hawking mediocre food at otherworldly prices. But fresh delights can be found at the Wharf if you know where to look. Cresci Brothers and Pompeii's Grotto are just two of many seafood stands where the Dungeness crab is all it's cracked up to be. And the hearty clam chowder at Boudin Bakery, served in a sourdough bread bowl, is perfect when the city's famed fog rolls in.

Even with all its modern commerce, Fisherman's Wharf clings hard to tradition. It is, after all, still a working wharf. Fishing boats groan in their moorings as crews clean the daily catch. The Hyde Street Pier now serves as a museum for a small flotilla of historic seacraft. Here you can hop aboard the Balclutha, a 19th-century vessel that once carried grain between San Francisco and Europe.

Those who stick to the land won't want to miss the Musée Mécanique, a throwback fun house of antique arcade games, player pianos, and marionettes. The 50 cents you pay to hear the creepy, kooky cackle of a doll named Laughing Sal might be the best money you spend all day.

At Pier 39, the Aquarium of the Bay has engaging and educational exhibits such as an underwater glass tunnel. As you walk through it, an abundance of bay life swims by: anchovies, striped bass, leopard sharks. Pier 39 is lined with stores selling salt-water taffy, sweatshirts, San Francisco mementos—standard Wharf stuff. But at the end of the pier, you can stand in the sun, cooled by the ocean breezes, and listen to the bark of a hundred sea lions. It's nature's sweet response to the bark of the guys selling souvenirs.

Visitor's Guide

Basics Located on San Francisco's northeast waterfront between Grant Avenue and Van Ness Avenue,
Annual Visitors Over 12 million.
Fun Fact Sea lions first started showing up at Pier 39 after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Their numbers peak at around 900 in winter.
Tip Dungeness crab season starts in November, when the tasty crustacean is bountiful and the price for it at the Wharf drops.
Must-have souvenir Chocolate cable car from the Ghirardelli Chocolate Manufactory and Soda Fountain at Ghirardelli Square. $3.95.

Mystery Spot

By Josh Sens

For hardened skeptics, the only mystery to the Mystery Spot is why anyone believes there's any mystery at all. But skeptic is another word for party pooper.

If there's one thing we know about this attraction in Santa Cruz, Calif., it's that it takes a playful spirit to appreciate the place. The Mystery Spot is really less a spot than a roundish plot of land in a redwood forest where the laws of physics stand on their head. All right, so maybe they're all optical illusions. But objects seem to tilt at improbable angles. Short people get taller. Tall people get shorter. Most people get dizzy or disoriented.

One story holds that a meteor crashed here in ancient times, creating a mysterious, magic circle. It's said that airplane pilots avoid flying over the Mystery Spot: Its magnetic fields throw off their instrumentation. But the Spot has no effect on automobiles. Tourists arrive by the carload to take 30-minute tours. On the property stands a cabin built in 1939 by a man who wanted a summer home. Bad location. The cabin slid off its foundation, creating a place that'sVertigo meets Home Improvement.

Doubters often note similarities between the Mystery Spot and the Oregon Vortex in Gold Hill, Ore., both of which opened in the same era. But let's save our skepticism for the politicians.

Visitor's Guide

Basics 465 Mystery Spot Rd., Santa Cruz, Calif. (831) 423-8897,
Annual Visitors A mystery.
Fun Fact One fan calculated that time flows slower inside the Mystery Spot: three hours and 40 seconds slower per day, to be exact. But tours still take about a half hour.
Tip If you really want to suspend your disbelief, pop into the Bigfoot Discovery Project Museum in nearby Felton. 5497 Hwy. 9, (831) 335-4478,
Must-have souvenir Mystery Spot bumper sticker, which comes with the price of admission.

Virginia City

By Richard Moreno

With its Old West trappings—false-front buildings and wooden sidewalks—Nevada's Virginia City looks like a Hollywood version of a 19th-century mining town. As a result, some have complained that it's perhaps a bit too touristy, not authentic. Au contraire.

As author and area resident David W. Toll noted in an early edition of his Complete Nevada Traveler, "In its glory Virginia City was one of the great hokum capitals of the world, as crude and as brash a city as ever rooted itself to a western mountainside . . . These days, local entrepreneurs have simply taken to retailing hokum across the counter."

In other words, all the fudge and candy shops, T-shirt and souvenir stores, rock and gem businesses, small museums, and saloons are the modern equivalent of the tacky wares that fortune-tellers, hurdy-gurdy players, and coffee vendors peddled here during Virginia City's heyday in the mid-19th century.

For almost 150 years, Virginia City has absolutely reveled in its own hyperbole. Wandering the old mining town, where the fabulous Comstock Lode yielded roughly $300 million worth of silver and gold between 1859 and 1878, it's difficult not to be lured inside one of the many shops lining C Street, the main drag. Carnival-inspired signs beckon visitors to tour an underground mine inside the Ponderosa Saloon, to see a wall-size painting containing 3,261 silver dollars at the Silver Queen Hotel & Wedding Chapel, or to view the Delta Saloon & Casino's "Suicide Table," so named because three of the establishment's previous owners reportedly killed themselves after losing large sums of money playing cards at it. It might all be hokum, but it sure is fun.

Visitor's Guide

Basics Virginia City is 25 miles southeast of Reno and 16 miles northeast of Carson City. For more information, contact the Virginia City Convention and Tourism Authority, (775) 847-0311,
Annual Visitors 1.3 million.
Fun Fact The Virginia City International Camel Races take place September 9–11 and the World Championship Outhouse Races October 8.
Tip Stay at the Gold Hill Hotel, just one mile south of Virginia City. The renovated 19th-century boarding-house is the oldest hotel in Nevada and has a bookstore, a saloon, and a gourmet restaurant. (775) 847-0111, Between May and October, visitors can ride the restored Virginia & Truckee Rail-road from the town of Gold Hill to Virginia City. (775) 847-0380.
Must-have souvenir Peanut brittle or chocolate nut clusters from Reds' Old Fashioned Candies. $6.95–$13.50 per pound.

Winchester Mystery House

By Nino Padova

In 1884, a 4-foot-10-inch widow bought an unfinished eight-room country house in California's bucolic Santa Clara Valley. The rest, as they say, is mystery.

Legend has it that Sarah Winchester, heiress to a rifle fortune, felt haunted by the ghosts of those killed by her husband's guns. To stave off the bullet-battered spirits, the 44-year-old New England socialite moved west and began an extreme home makeover that continued round-the-clock until her death 38 years later.

Today, the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose—with its Gothic maze of switchback staircases and deceptive doors that lock from the outside—may be the only tourist trap in the West where a tourist can actually get trapped. "Please, stay together," warns Jenny, our guide, as she pilots our group along the 65-minute tour of the sprawling manor. "Wander off and you will get lost."

To walk through the 160-room mansion is to journey into a living blueprint of architectural schizophrenia. Everywhere you look, a new construction oddity awaits explanation (doors that open to walls, stairs that rise to a ceiling); and at every turn, elegant craftsmanship gives way to superstitious fancy (a mahogany post set upside down, a Venetian porcelain sink with 13 drain holes).

But as with any spooky old house, it's the stories that bring this spectral palace to life. Stand in the séance room where the reclusive Mrs. Winchester would consult with the spirits on building designs (unsurprisingly, she never hired an architect), or peer through the Tiffany stained glass of a front door that opened for no one—including President Theodore Roosevelt when he came to pay a visit.

After you've finished the tour (a mile from beginning to end), stroll the grounds—a manicured warren of statues, fountains, and gardens with exotic flowers, plants, and trees from around the world.

Before leaving, scan the courtyard for the crescent-shaped boxwood hedge, said to have held some sort of spiritual meaning for Mrs. Winchester. The bedroom in which she died sits just above it. Coincidence? Or just another mystery?

Visitor's Guide

Basics 525 S. Winchester Blvd., San Jose, (408) 247-2000,
Annual Visitors A house secret.
Fun Fact The number 13 plays a role throughout the six-acre estate. There are 13 bathrooms in the house as well as windows with 13 panes, walls with 13 panels, and stairways with 13 steps. The greenhouse features 13 cupolas and the front driveway was once lined with 13 palm trees. The list goes on. Also, Mrs. Winchester's will was 13 pages long and signed (you guessed it) 13 times.
Tip Unless you're a die-hard fan of This Old House, skip the Behind-the-Scenes Tour. Instead, check out the free Historic Firearms Museum, where you can marvel at antique examples of the instruments that paid for the mansion and well-groomed grounds.
Must-have souvenir The Winchester Mystery House guidebook. $6.99.

Grauman's Chinese Theatre

By Kristina Malsberger

Not even Cinderella could have yelled, "It fits!" with as much glee as the woman beside me. She's kneeling on the ground, her palm resting reverently upon Marilyn Monroe's handprint. All around us, other pilgrims genuflect before the impressions left behind by their movie idols, examining signatures and prints in the hardened cement. A copper-capped pagoda towers nearby, pointing to the heavens above Hollywood.

Welcome to the irresistible Grauman's Chinese Theatre—a legendary epicenter of celebrity worship since 1927, when impresario Sid Grauman opened the Asia-inspired movie palace and invited silent film stars Norma Talmadge, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks to cast their prints in the courtyard outside. In the 78 years since, the celebrated theater has hosted the Academy Awards (1944–46); premiered King Kong, The Wizard of Oz, and Howard Hughes's Hell's Angels (the opening was re-created in The Aviator); and served as the most recogniz-able symbol of Tinseltown this side of the Hollywood sign. The fact that you can still watch a movie in the same opulent auditorium where Bing Crosby, Ingrid Bergman, and Billy Wilder accepted their Oscars is enough to make the theater a prime destination for the celebrity struck.

But it's the Forecourt of the Stars—Grauman's ingenious concrete guest registry—that draws millions of tourists, all eager to stand in the footsteps of the famous. Like children hunting Easter eggs, visitors scramble to find their favorites—John Wayne, Shirley Temple, Tom Cruise, Judy Garland, Eddie Murphy, Elizabeth Taylor—while delighting in such details as imprints of George Burns's cigar, Whoopi Goldberg's dreadlocks, and Leonard Nimoy's fingers splayed in a Vulcan salute. Stepping into Rita Hayworth's impossibly tiny heels or Fred Astaire's nimble footprints, you can't help feeling a thrill of possibility. As Sid Grauman clearly understood, it's an age-old dream: trying on the glass slipper and discovering you're not a scullery maid but a movie star, after all.

Visitor's Guide

Basics 6925 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 464-6266, Validated parking $2 at the Hollywood & Highland Entertainment Center garage.
Annual Visitors Over 4 million.
Fun Fact Thanks to Sid Grauman, the Chinese Theatre was among the first to use searchlights—previously deployed for World War I air raids—to attract attention to premieres.
Tip Don't waste your time on the lame VIP Backstage Tour. Instead, buy a movie ticket and you'll get to see both the lavish interior and a film.
Must-have souvenir An imprint of your own glamorous hands or feet, cast in celebrity-safe cement. $15.95–$29.95.

Casa de Fruta

By Kelli Anderson

Back in 1943, the Zanger brothers—Eugene, Joseph, and George—probably never imagined that the tiny cherry stand they had just opened would evolve into an eclectic rest stop beloved by travelers passing through Northern California's Pacheco Pass. Today, mild amusements abound at the oft mocked pseudo–theme park nestled in the hills near the intersection of Highways 152 and 156, five miles north of Hollister. The best of all may be the "Casa de" theme: Every facet of the 20-acre property except the restrooms includes the words in its title.

Indeed, "Casa de" is the only thing that binds together what is otherwise a delightfully random mix of diversions beloved by generations of families, many of whom stop by several times throughout the year. For railroad buffs, there is Casa de Choo Choo ($3), where you can ride a narrow-gauge train around the property and view an extensive collection of wooden hay wagons and other antique farm equipment as well as several white European fallow deer. Prefer more familiar animals? At Casa de Barnyard ($3), you can ogle peacocks (about 70 have the run of the place), cows, llamas, buffalo, and a little herd of pygmy goats. Always wanted to try sluice mining? You can here ($5). There's also the newly renovated Casa de Restaurant, a 24-hour eatery that replaces the old Casa de Coffee.

Sugar fixes can be found at both Casa de Sweets, with its chocolate-covered apricots and blueberries, and Casa de Wine and Deli, where you can taste all manner of fermented juice, including plum, cherry, and pomegranate wines. Which brings us to the "Fruta" part of Casa de Fruta and the best reason for stopping. The fruit stand that is the heart of the whole oddball enterprise offers loads of fresh produce—plums, strawberries, garlic—along with dried fruit and nuts, so when you hit Casa de Highway, you'll be well stocked with Casa de Road Food.

Visitor's Guide

Basics 10021 Pacheco Pass Hwy. near Hollister, Calif., (408) 842-9316, Lodging available at the Peacock Inn at Casa de Fruta or Casa de RV Park (reservations: 800-548-3813).
Annual Visitors 3.5 million to 4 million.
Fun Fact Casa de Fruta's white European fallow deer are descended from those in William Randolph Hearst's menagerie at Hearst Castle near San Simeon, Calif.
Tip For those who want a break from driving without dropping any cash, Casa de Fruta has a playground and picnic area. If you prefer to gas up and go, the pumps at Casa de Fruta Chevron stand ready.
Must-have souvenir Retro Casa de Paper Place Mat from Casa de Restaurant. Free.

Hole N' the Rock

By Brad Wetzler

It couldn't possibly have gone over well with the missus at the breakfast table. "Honey, let's blast that mountain into a 14-room house and café! With a deep-fat fryer made of stone!" But in the early 1940s, ex-barber Albert Christensen apparently convinced his wife, Gladys, to go along with his bold plan and then, throughout the next two decades, blasted and jackhammered his dream until it came true, one Flintstones-like room—and several sticks of dynamite—at a time. The result was Hole N' the Rock, the incredible if a tad creepy 5,000-square-foot private domicile-cum-museum carved into the side of a monolith in Moab, Utah. Giant white lettering painted on the sandstone itself proclaims hole n' the rock.

You literally can't miss it, and if you do, you should definitely pull a u-ey and go back, because it's one of the best roadside attractions in the West. The rooms are clustered around rock pillars and are still decorated much as they were when the Christensens lived there. (They really did.) Don't miss the eerie gazes of the dolls in Gladys's extensive collection. Other highlights include Albert's treasured stuffed donkey, Harry. Albert and Gladys are long dead and the café closed in 1957, but now, under the new ownership of Erik and Wyndee Hansen, the once quaint place to stretch your legs is fast becoming a Wall Drug–like spectacle for those traveling to or from the mining town turned mountain biking magnet of Moab. Who knows, it may inspire you to take up the dynamite and blast your way to fame (if not fortune).

Visitor's Guide

Basics 11037 S. Hwy. 191 in Moab, Utah, (435) 686-2250,
Annual Visitors 50,000
Fun Fact At the time Albert Christensen died in 1957, he had just begun the task of blasting a 100-foot staircase leading from the main house to—what else?—a rock garden on top of the great sandstone monolith.
Tip Because of the living quarters' less than spectacular facade, you may be tempted to skip the guided tour and hang around the trading post and ostrich pen. Don't. The excavated bathroom, which features a bathtub chiseled into rock, and the deep-fat fryer alone are worth the cost of admission.
Must-have souvenir Postcards showing the early days at Hole N' the Rock. $1.

Photography by David Zaitz

This article was first published in July 2006. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.