The seven sister caves that grace the La Jolla coastline have long been a source of fascination and mystery for the community of San Diego; there are photos of local daredevils on the rocks nearby from as far back as the 1800s. The caves were all formed from a 75-million-year-old sandstone cliff, though what many don’t know is that they were originally utilized as a hideout for international drug smugglers and even pirates. All seven of the caves have a story, and they still hold a fascinating place in La Jolla’s rich historical narrative.
Pirates, Smugglers, & Opium
The California gold rush allowed the west coast to expand into a fully-fledged region with nearly half a million new residents, many of whom relocated here from Asia. It wasn’t long before more than 80% of the workforce was Asian – though such a dramatic racial shift brought with it a good deal of prejudice, which led to a series of laws that essentially forbade all immigration from the Far East. This kind of all-inclusive ruling led to some of the earliest cases of human smuggling into the United States.
Smugglers used the seven La Jolla sea caves as a hiding spot for their stowaways; others used their dark inner passageways for transporting and stowing drugs. According to La Jolla Historical Society files, Ellen Browning Scripps recalled once standing on a point above the cliffs and watching opium smugglers unload their goods into a cave.
The seven La Jolla sea caves can be identified from east to west. All of them, with the exception of Sunny Jim and The White Lady which were named in the 1900s and 1800s respectively, have been named by lifeguards for the purpose of identifying landmarks during search and rescue missions.
SEE ALSO: Myths & Secret Spots of La Jolla
The White Lady
According to the legend, a young couple with the last name of Hathaway was honeymooning in La Jolla years ago, probably sometime in the 1800s. They were staying with a lodging-house keeper by the name of Mrs. Trumbar in today’s Old Town.
At the time, there were only a few families sprinkled throughout the area. It was before the big railroad “boom” of the later 1900s, and the area that is known today as “The Village” in La Jolla was incredibly sparsely populated. The young couple insisted that they wanted to see the ocean, so the Trumbars drove them down to the coastline via stagecoach. The young bride, who has been described as blue-eyed and incredibly beautiful, took off hunting for sea shells along the beach and eventually wandered off in the direction of the caves.
All of a sudden, Mr. Trumbar heard an earsplitting scream – he ran over to check on her and saw that the tide was coming in so strong that she was barely able to stand up. Mrs. Hathaway was standing at the entrance to the farthest cave, and before he could reach her, a powerful wave rushed in and she was swept into the ocean. Mr. Trumbar never saw she nor her husband ever again. They say that while searching for her body, Mrs. Hathaway’s brother saw the image of his sister in the very spot where death had claimed her. She was wearing her wedding gown and an orange wreath in her hair, and the cave entrance had formed her shape. That outline of the tragically ill-fated Mrs. Hathaway is the “white lady” we all know today.
The Little Sister is so named simply because it sits right next to The White Lady and looks like the smaller version of it. Though often dwarfed by its larger counterpart, Little Sister is unique in its compactness – the smallest of the seven ‘sisters,’ it is invariably the most difficult to spot and the least noticeable.
The waters within La Jolla Shores are all part of an Ecological Reserve and rigorously protected by law. The Underwater Ecological Reserve forbids the removal of any archaeological artifacts or marine life – including sea creatures, mollusks, fish, etc., although lobster trapping is allowed by permit and only during the lobster-trapping season (October to March). Local La Jolla restaurants often advertise the spiny lobster from the kelp beds and Ecological Reserve on their menus, as it’s some of the higher quality lobster meat out there. It’s this lobster-trapping reference that lends the name ‘Shopping Cart,’ limited though that “shopping” may be.
Sea Surprize is named for the “surprises” that await kayakers who dare to venture into its interior; if you kayak in far enough, this particular cave opens up into an expansive 80 feet of walking passages. According to one source, deep inside the cave orange flow stone (thin sheets of rock deposits) streaks the walls above a crystal pool containing what appear to be calcite-coated sea anemones.
Arch Cave is the largest and most complex of the La Jolla caves; an impressive 12 meter-high arch separates the two sections. It’s likely that the single cave was actually counted as two of the traditional ‘seven caves’ since, when viewed from the ocean, the two appear to be completely separated from each other. Several passages radiate back from the multiple entrances, though the cave itself is only safe for guided kayak tours when the tide is extremely low.
Sunny Jim’s cave is the only La Jolla cave that is accessible by land; visitors can traverse down a hand-dug tunnel leading down from the Cave Store. In 1902, cave owner Gustav Shulz hired laborers to use picks and shovels to dig the tunnel down to the cave area. After nearly two years, they managed to dig far enough and decided to open the cave to the public. Incredibly, early visitors to Schulz’s Cave Store had to lower themselves down into the tunnel by a rope, and it wasn’t until several years later that the current 145 stairs visitors climb today were added.
The cave was initially dubbed “Sunny Jim” by Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz – 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 tales floating around out there, too; some maintain that the cavern was named after one-time California Governor “Sunny Jim” Rolph (although many dismiss this one because Rolph’s tenure came well after the cave became known to the public). A third story simply suggests that the cave was so dubbed because its opening resembles a smiling (sunny) man (named Jim for an inexplicable reason) facing leftward.
Perhaps the second-best known cave and a very popular kayak spot, Clam’s Cave is also the only sea cave that is visible from land. The cave is double sided and open on two ends – just like the clam for which it was named. On calm water days, swimmers can be seen paddling through it. The backside can be seen from Goldfish Point on Coast Blvd., while the other five La Jolla sea caves are only visible via the ocean (with the exception of Sunny Jim’s).
*Disclaimer: the water around the caves is often rough and the tides can be volatile – only kayak near the caves on a guided tour, and never venture out there by yourself. Kayaks can only safely pass through two of the caves, but all of them are viewable from the water.
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