A California Road Trip Itinerary for Lovers of Weird-but-Cool Design

So you think you know California? The wild, wild western state has called the adventurous and hopeful to its sunny coast for quite some time. But California has much more to offer than the Golden Gate Bridge and Sunset Boulevard, especially if you’re partial to weird-but-cool design like us. Below, we’re sharing our Clever-approved cast of inspiring stops for a California you may have never seen before. We start north and head south, with a few notable eateries and lodging along the way.

Bodega Bay

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First stop: Bodega Bay.

Photo: Jack Shelton

You may recognize the bay’s eerie yet solemn waters from The Birds, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s early bests (if we have to choose). These days, the northern, coastal town is home to about 1,000 locals. For a good night’s sleep, Nick’s Cove is just down the road—the rustic waterfront cottages stilted over Tomales Bay, with charming old-fashioned details like a handmade copper soaking tub and boat-inspired wood bed frame, are good enough reasons for a two-night stay. (Boat-to-dock seafood dinners don’t hurt either.) It’s worth considering the short drive over to the newly renovated Point Reyes Lighthouse. We recommend making the trek early to beat the sun, and lunch at the nearby Cowgirl Creamery, located in a former hay barn, won’t disappoint.

Madonna Inn

There’s nothing subtle about Alex Madonna’s Gold Rush Steak House.

Photo: Buyenlarge/Getty Images

A true one-of-a-kind since it opened in 1958, this 110-suite hotel promises each guest a unique room—and we mean unique. You may find yourself in accommodations sporting hot pink carpeting, glitter wallpaper, or floor-to-ceiling stone. Madonna Inn’s restaurant, Alex Madonna’s Gold Rush Steakhouse, is similarly over-the-top, hosting patrons in tufted pink velvet booths trimmed in gold. The scenery will send you back in time as you sip your wine in a hand-pressed glass goblet (a souvenir custom-designed by Alex Madonna himself) and debate what you would say to Sinatra if you ever had the chance.

Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve

Flowers as far as the eye can see at Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve.

Photo: Heyward Hart

We have to include the poppy fields on our list of California’s strange and beautiful. The bright orange flowers bloom together only once a year, dubbed the “super bloom,” and a great place to catch them is the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve—the breathtaking natural occurrence begins around mid-February and ends in May. Get the ‘gram ready.


Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace.

Photo: Paul Chesne/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Joshua Tree, named for the iconic trees scattered across the desert, has long been a mecca of sorts for artists, outlaws, musicians, or anyone wanting an escape. But we’re most excited about what’s just up the road: Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, where posters line the ceilings and live music plays every night, and Pioneertown Motel, whose 19 rooms were designed with the help of talents like artist Dan John Anderson.

Salvation Mountain

The spectacular Salvation Mountain.

Photo: Tim Hirschman

This 50-foot-high, man-made clay hill, open dawn through dusk seven days a week in California’s Imperial County, is like nothing else on this side of the country. The art installation’s creator, Leonard Knight, has apparently gone through more than 100,000 gallons of paint decorating the mountain, his tribute to God, according to Salvation Mountain, Inc. (To this day, it still requires touch-ups.)

Cabazon Dinosaurs

Explorable dinos tower above the palm trees at Cabazon Dinosaurs.

Photo: Fred Mitchell

Larger-than-life prehistoric dinosaurs make up this unique roadside attraction. If you’re so inclined, you can spend a full day at Cabazon Dinosaurs doing dino digs and fossil panning. Tours inside the dinos (!) will keep you cool.


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