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California’s Grooviest Midcentury Motels

Believe it or not, throughout the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, motels were all the rage with the modern American traveling family. With the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road in the summer of 1957, there was a massive surge in the popularity of road trips, and families across the country hit the road in search of an affordable, convenient adventure with a touch of fantasy.

In her forthcoming book, Motel California, author Heather David writes,

For some travelers, the motel experience was the closest they might have to visiting the Hawaiian Islands… or a trip to the moon! Not everyone could afford a trip to Hawaii, but many could afford to stay at the Polynesian-themed Waikiki Motel.

Recently, Curbed LA published a list of the best midcentury motels up and down the great state of California. While many are now defunct or just more creepy than groovy, behold a list of the best examples of midcentury style motels still worth visiting, spanning from San Diego and Palm Springs to the Central Coast and Lake Tahoe. Whether it’s kooky kitsch or tiki charm, they all have a few things in common; they’re comfortable, they’re full of character, and they still retain their cool midcentury signs for the perfect Instagram photo opp.

More than a half-century later, if you find yourself road trippin’ across California, don’t resign yourself to a generic Holiday Inn, and instead take a walk on the groovy side with some of the best retro haunts California has to offer. 

1. Thunderbird Lodge, Redding CA

“Built as part of the Thunderbird Lodge motel chain, this is arguably the nicest remaining example. Guesses are that the neon thunderbird sign was inspired by the Thunderbird Hotel signage in Las Vegas.”

2. Ambassador Motor Lodge, South Lake Tahoe

“Built in 1964. Walking distance to casinos and beach. Great pool and sign. Still looks pretty much like it did in ’64.”

3. Stardust Lodge, South Lake Tahoe

“Following the opening of the Stardust Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas in 1958, numerous motels in the United States adopted the Stardust name and theme. The state of California once had over a dozen Stardust motel offerings. The Stardust Lodge in Lake Tahoe, however, is arguably the best remaining example. Walking distance to Stateline, reasonably priced, and with the best midcentury motel sign left in the area, you won’t be gambling when you book your room.”

4. Flamingo Conference Resort and Spa, Santa Rosa

“Santa Rosa’s Flamingo Motor Hotel opened in 1957 with 160 luxurious rooms, banquet and meeting facilities, an Olympic-size swimming pool, children’s playground, beauty salon, gift shop, and 18-hole golf course. Guests could meet for cocktails in the Gold Coast Lounge, enjoy a delicious meal in the Garden Room, and then dance off the evening’s calories. Following its gala opening, the Northern California resort was a hit with both local and Hollywood celebrities. Privately owned and family operated, the Flamingo Santa Rosa retains its celebrity flair after 60 years. In 1996, the city of Santa Rosa declared the motor hotel a historic landmark. Note: The neon bird at the top of the Flamingo sign spins.”

5. Capri Motel, San Francisco

“Built in 1957, this is multi-story motel is located just on block from San Francisco’s ‘Motel Row,’ i.e. Lombard Street. It’s nicely maintained, and it features multiple neon signs.”

6. Phoenix Hotel, San Francisco

“In 1987, Stanford Business School graduate Chip Conley took a dilapidated motel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, fixed it up, and renamed it the Phoenix. He marketed the motel to traveling musicians and filmmakers. The concept caught the attention of investors. With a surge of new capital, Conley purchased a number of neglected roadside motels and turned them into affordable ’boutique’ hotels. It was the beginning of the JDV Hotel chain. The Phoenix represented the resurrection of San Francisco’s Caravan Lodge, built in 1956.”

7. The Islander Motel, Santa Cruz

“Tropical-themed motels were once as ubiquitous as midcentury tiki bars. Not so anymore. Palo Alto’s Tiki Inn is now the Stanford Terrace Inn. Costa Mesa’s Kon Tiki Motel is now the New Harbor Inn. Gone are Anaheim’s wonderful Kona Kai and Waikiki motels. This makes The Islander Motel in Santa Cruz all the more special. Not only is the 1963 motel building remarkably intact, but the owners opted to keep the original signage (a multi-colored striped tropical fish) and the original lobby furniture. Aloha!”

 8. Dream Inn, Santa Cruz

“‘A new world of vacation pleasure awaits you at the Dream Inn. Fresh water swimming in a heated pool on the beach or salt water swimming in the Pacific Ocean are yours to choose from,’ reads the back of vintage postcard. The only true beachfront motel in Santa Cruz, the Dream Inn opened in 1963, designed by architects Barry Groen and Kermit Darrow. It was expanded in 1983.”

9. Sundown Inn, Morro Bay

“The Sundown Motel opened in 1960. For the past 30-plus years, it has been owned and operated by one family. This is truly a mom and pop enterprise, just as most U.S. motels were in 1960. The Sundown is quaint and comfortable, with a blend of modern features (like new bathrooms) and vintage details (like built in vanities and nautical themed wallpaper). The motel even has a few Magic Fingers vibrating bed devices.”

10. Madonna Inn, San Luis Obispo

“The iconic Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo opened on Christmas Eve 1958. The inn features more than 100 hundred uniquely themed guest rooms styled by Phyllis Madonna, a wonderful coffee shop, a restaurant, and one of the last animated neon highway signs in the state. Staying here is an unforgettable experience.”

11. Safari Inn, Burbank

Visitors from all over the country come to the Safari Inn in Burbank to photograph its whimsical neon spear sign. The motel dates to 1958, and many of the original design elements remain. The swimming pool follows the shape of the motel signage, and safari-themed metal sculptures adorn the buildings.”

12. Saga Motor Hotel, Pasadena

“In November 1959, Pasadena celebrated the grand opening of the million-dollar Saga Pasadena Motor Hotel. Designed by local architect Harold Zook, the Saga Pasadena was built in a U-shape, with room wings surrounding a swimming pool. The grounds featured lush landscaping. Today, the motel looks much as it did in 1959. The rooms have been redecorated and the palm trees are taller, but the property has been lovingly maintained. Be sure to check out the wonderful mosaic art of a knight and his horse near the motel office.”

13. Wigwam Motel, Rialto

“The last to be constructed in a nationwide chain of seven ‘Wigwam Villages,’ Southern California’s Wigwam Motel represents the ultimate in Native American theme-based marketing. The motel property, which dates to 1949, features 19 30-foot tall concrete teepee rooms around a central teepee office. Wigwam Village #7 is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.”

14. Hope Springs Resort, Desert Hot Springs

“To date, there have been three names for this desert resort: The Bella Sari Lodge, Cactus Springs Lodge, and now Hope Springs. But there has been one constant—luxury. Nestled into the hills of Desert Hot Springs, this spa getaway features 10 rooms and two pools. The motel dates to 1963. Note: This place is the real deal. There is a natural hot mineral spring well on-site.”

15. Hotel Lautner, Desert Hot Springs

“Designed by architect John Lautner (yes, that John Lautner), the Hotel Lautner began its days in 1947, as a relatively modest resort motel. Built with the intention that it was to be the start of a planned community in the desert, the motel initially functioned as a retreat for Hollywood stars. That planned community never happened, but the Hotel Lautner thankfully remains, respectfully restored to retain its original design integrity.”

16. Alpine Inn, Anaheim

“Children who visited the Disneyland area in the 1960s and ’70s encountered a region almost as magical as the Magic Kingdom itself. Nearly every motel catering to park visitors was themed and came with a spectacular sign. But visitors to the Anaheim ‘Resort’ District of today will encounter an area gutted of character. In the 1990s, the city of Anaheim decided to ‘beautify’ the area around Disneyland, effectively wiping out decades of architectural history, as well as countless fond childhood memories. The Alpine Inn (formerly the Alpine Motel) dates to 1959. It is the most intact midcentury themed motel left in the Anaheim Resort District. It’s family-owned and -operated, affordable, and clean.”

17. Caliente Tropics, Palm Springs

“In the 1960s, developer Ken Kimes capitalized on the American fascination with the South Pacific and opened a chain of five Polynesian-themed motor hotels in California. The motels were called the Tropics, and they were located in the towns of Blythe, Indio, Modesto, Palm Springs, and Rosemead. Ironically, three of the five Tropics motels were built in the desert. Today, four of the former Tropics motels are still in existence. The Palm Springs Tropics, in particular, is remarkably intact.”

18. The Pearl Hotel, San Diego

“San Diego’s Pearl boutique hotel began its days as the Sportsman’s Lodge, a 23 room, two-story motel designed by local architect Robert Platt. Located close to fishing and water sports, and just a short car ride to Downtown San Diego, today’s venue also offers fancy cocktails and ‘dine-in’ movies. It was built in 1959.”

19. Humphreys Half Moon Inn, San Diego

“Built in 1960, the Half Moon Inn features a jaw-dropping A-frame porte-cochere at its entrance. Arguably the best replica of native Polynesian architecture on Shelter Island, the port-cochere is said to emulate a fishing canoe, its hanging lantern a lure for fish. Shortly after the motel’s opening in 1961, the property was celebrated in a special issue of Life Magazine entitled ‘The Call of California.'”