SAN DIEGO — From an unassuming gift shop, descend 145 stairs in a secret tunnel, emerging in a La Jolla sea cave with the water gently lapping by your feet.

Visiting The Cave Store is a classic San Diego adventure that attracts loads of curious tourists. But with so many things to do in our region, plenty of local families haven’t taken the plunge, either. If you’re looking for something fun to do this weekend, consider this unique journey to Sunny Jim sea cave.

The experience starts at a cliffside tourist shop on Coast Boulevard by La Jolla Cove. The interior of The Cave Store looks pretty typical at first blush: Postcards, jewelry and other trinkets fill the shelves, and you can rent snorkel gear if you’re a visitor.

The relatively unassuming interior of The Cave Store, home of an old bootlegger’s tunnel and a viewing platform in Sunny Jim sea cave. (Shannon Smith/The Cave Store)

But if you purchase a ticket at the door, you can make your way to the store’s secret tunnel entrance. Be prepared to walk down almost 150 steps in a dark, musty passage. Lights illuminate your journey and railings on either side can help steady your descent.

When you emerge at the bottom, you’ll stand on a small viewing platform, treated to views of the ocean rising and receding within the cave’s walls. Photo opportunities abound, and the sound of the crashing ocean echoes throughout the grotto.

As local lore tells it, bootleggers once smuggled alcohol and opium into San Diego through the sea cave, using the tunnel to scale the cliffside in secret. The site of The Cave Store was originally the home of a German artist, engineer and entrepreneur named Gustav Schultz. He hired two Chinese laborers to dig the passageway, according to the store.

Tours run daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. A trip down to the cave costs $10 for adults and $6 for youth, ages 3 to 17. Tickets are first-come, first-served and must be purchased at the door; the store accepts cash and credit cards. The store asks unvaccinated visitors to wear a face covering.

Due to all the climbing involved, The Cave Store issues the following advice for families: “While we will not tell you not to bring your baby or favorite senior citizen, we recommend considering their physical ability as well as your own (considering you will be the one carrying them up 10 flights of stairs) before booking a tour.”

The blogger La Jolla Mom recently visited with her daughter and said they had no problem with the steps. She warned that the wooden stairs can be slippery, though, and said they saw one woman lose her footing. She recommended leaving your hands free to grip the railings on either side of the steps.

“I’d only take a baby in a carrier strapped to me,” she wrote in the 2021 post. “Holding a baby while navigating the steps might be a bit difficult.”

The Cave Store says visitors should wear closed-toe walking shoes and comfortable clothes for about five minutes of self-paced stair climbing in each direction. The tours are self-guided and can be completed in as few as 15 minutes.

And if you’re wondering: You can’t skip the long ascent back up the stairs by jumping into the water and swimming away. The store expressly forbids hopping off the platform (though curious snorkelers and kayakers have been known to enter the cave via the ocean, which they do at their own risk).

Anyone under 18 years old must be accompanied by an adult or have a written and signed letter by a parent or legal guardian. Service animals are permitted but emotional support animals and pets are not, according to the store’s website.

“Parking at La Jolla Cove is notoriously annoying,” the attraction’s website bluntly warns. With that in mind, the site features a Cave Store parking guide. You can find more information via the site’s FAQ.