The Sunny Jim cave silhouette. / Photo by Thomas Melville
In addition to its breathtaking scenery La Jolla has something a lot of beachside communities don’t – sea caves.
The seven La Jolla sea caves – The White Lady, Shopping Cart, Little Sister, Sea Surprize, Arch Cave, Sunny Jim and Clam Cave – can be identified from east to west. It is said the caves were formed from a 75-million-year-old sandstone cliff, and according to an LA Times article, they were originally used as a hideout for drug smugglers and some pirates.
In addition, all but the Sunny Jim and The White Lady were named in the 1900s and 1800s by lifeguards to help identify landmarks during search and rescue missions, according to the same article.
Speaking of Sunny Jim, it is the only La Jolla cave accessible by land; visitors can walk down 145 steps into a hand-dug tunnel after buying a ticket at the Cave Store.
As the story goes, and according to La Jolla Historical Society archives, the Sunny Jim cave has a long history dating back to 1902.
“The Sunny Jim Cave was one of seven La Jolla caves originally exploited as a tourist attraction in the early 1900s by Gustav Schultz, a German immigrant, artist, and engineer. Schulz, a self-proclaimed professor, artist, photographer and civil engineer, who dug a tunnel into it and provided public access from land, first by rope and then stairs, collected a modest sum from anyone wishing to enter,” said La Jolla Historical Society historian Carol Olten.
“The same idea has continued into the present day with people paying a fee to make the descent from inside the Cave Store into Sunny Jim, eponymously named after a historic cartoon character whose profile is vaguely suggested by the silhouette seen from looking oceanward through it,” Olten said.
She added that for many years the store operated mainly as a shell shop for exotic and not-so-exotic-finds, but the merchandise today is more generalized with “beachy things, postcards, a few antiques and memorabilia.”
In the beginning, visitors had to enter through the original Schulz’s Cave Store and lowered themselves down into the tunnel by a rope. Years later the steps were added and continue today, according to current Cave Store shop owner Shannon Smith.
Smith said she has owned the shop for a few years now located at 1325 Coast Blvd. and it has become more of a souvenir store for those looking to take a bit of the nostalgia back home.
“The store and cave continue to be popular attractions all these decades later we have thousands who visit yearly and probably hundreds daily,” she said. “We are the oldest continuously running business – we’ve been open more than 100 years.
“When people go down the steps it takes about 10-15 minutes through a long tunnel and they end up on a platform inside the cave where they can take in the scene,” she said.
There’s no swimming or jumping into the water and because it’s a sea cave the water comes in and out of the cave.
“The water is underneath you, so you don’t get wet. People love it,” she said.
However, some recent construction in the area has caused a bit of a wrinkle for the shop.
“It has slowed down slightly but people are still allowed to drive down here but they can’t drive all the way down Coast Boulevard,” she said. “We still have a lot of visitors, but parking is limited. “The city is doing some repair work on Cove Cave, which is not accessible to locals or tourists.”
According to Anthony Santacroce, senior spokesperson for City of San Diego, the city has taken safety precautions for the repairs. Crews began the emergency construction project to stabilize one cliff area on Aug. 8, and the roadway in La Jolla following an analysis by geology experts.
He said experts discovered a zone of weakness where "Koch's Cave," (pronounced as "cook" and named after lifeguard Jeff Koch who made a daring rescue there in 1977) is located underneath Coast Boulevard and recommended action be taken.
“We immediately shut down the street and initiated an emergency contract to reinforce the cave,” Santacroce said.
As part of the stabilization project, sections of Cave Street and Coast Boulevard will be closed temporarily to all traffic for about six weeks or longer depending on what is found by the crews, he said.
“People can still get around and this cave will essentially be closed off permanently, we’re just not sure how it will appear when the project is completed,” he said. “People however can still get around and see the beautiful La Jolla caves.”
Other Sunny Jim Folklore
According to more folklore, some stories suggest the cave was initially called “Sunny Jim” by Frank Baum, the author of “The Wizard of Oz.” Why? Because looking outward from the inside of the cave, the opening profile resembles the cartoon mascot for British Force Wheat Cereal (named Sunny Jim) created by W.W. Denslow in the 1920s.
There are other rumors and tales suggesting the cavern was named after former California Gov. “Sunny Jim” Rolph. A third tales says it is named so because its opening resembles a smiling (sunny) man (named Jim for an unknown reason) facing leftward.Like Sunny Jim the other six caves have their own story and history, which will be explored in upcoming articles.