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Santa Claus to seals: 5 California sights worth visiting
You already know the Southern California's top tourist attractions by heart. Disneyland. Hollywood. Hearst Castle. Ever wonder what else is out there? Here are five great lesser-known attractions to check out on your next visit to the Golden State.
Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery
Wildlife is often entertaining, and you will get more than your money's worth (it's free) by making a stop at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery. Located about seven miles north of San Simeon (site of Hearst Castle) along Highway 1 on the scenic central California coast, the rookery is home to an estimated 15,000 animals, according to Friends of the Elephant Seal.
The seals travel in the open ocean for 8 to 10 months a year, but they head to land at the Rookery to give birth, breed and rest. The site is typically a hive of activity as the animals bark, scratch, crawl, fight, sleep and care for their young. They are funny, sweet and fascinating creatures to watch any time of the year. Parking and entrance to the Rookery are free, and there are plenty of viewpoints from which to enjoy the antics of these strange but wonderful creatures.
Santa Claus Statue
Did you know it's Christmas all year long in Nyeland Acres, California? You might just miss the area's very own jolly old St. Nick, unless you know where to look. While cruising down Highway 101 through this area of Ventura County north of Los Angeles you'll encounter a giant 22-foot-tall statue of Santa Claus resting behind wrought-iron gates off the Rice Avenue exit on South Ventura Boulevard.
For more than 50 years, this SoCal Santa stood atop a candy store in what was then Santa Claus Lane off Highway 101, nearly 30 miles away. After the Christmas-themed attraction closed down, Santa's future was in jeopardy. In 2003, Mike Barber, president of Garden Acres Mutual Water Co. in Nyeland Acres, took possession of him, and the 5-ton Saint Nick moved to his new digs. The custom wrought-iron gate has Santa's initials (an "S" and a "C") in it, and he now has company: a snowman and two soldiers. Although the site is opened by appointment only and on special occasions, you can still come to peer at him behind the gates any day of the year for free.
Santa Paula Murals
The quaint Ventura County town of Santa Paula holds a treasure trove of artwork -- all on walls of buildings in the city's downtown. As the city says, you can "enjoy a Walk Through History" by viewing the nine colorful murals as you stroll through town. Santa Paula's rich history in aviation, "black gold," citrus, Chumash Indians, Latino culture and more is represented on the various murals. Best of all: It's free. Visit SantaPaulaMurals.org for more information, including a map with the murals' locations.
Nitt Witt House
Chances are you know about Hearst Castle, the opulent mansion built by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst in the central California coast town of San Simeon. But have you ever heard of the "Poor Man's Hearst Castle?" That's the nickname given to the Nitt Witt Ridge home at 881 Hillcrest Drive in Cambria, about 15 minutes away from Hearst's fancy digs.
The Nitt Witt home, built lovingly out of junk, is the product of Arthur Harold Beal, aka "Captain Nitt Witt" or "Der Tinkerpaw." Beginning in 1928, Beal spent 50 years building his "castle," out of such items as toilet bowls, tires, tile, rocks and beer cans. In 1986, the home was named California Historical Landmark No. 939. Today's owners, Michael and Stacey O'Malley, offer tours of the folk art home. Call 805-927-2690.
Fillmore & Western Railway
Residing in the rural town of Fillmore, north of Los Angeles, is a star of huge proportions. He's been in more than 400 TV shows, movies and commercials. "He" is the Fillmore & Western Railway, also known as "The Movie Trains." Just a few of his credits: "Monk," "Seabiscuit," "Criminal Minds," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Walk in the Clouds," "City Slickers II," "Bugsy" and "Fatal Instinct." You can ride the rails on this famous train year-round for a myriad of special excursions, such as murder mystery dinner train rides, the Pumpkinliner Halloween journey and the North Pole Express trip. Visit Fillmore & Western's Web site or call 1-800-773-8724 for ticket reservations. All aboard!