Chimney Tree, Old Hobbiton USA
Once unique, with its one-two punch of redwood tree oddity and goofy Hobbit-themed attraction, this stop in Phillipsville is now mainly a snack bar and a hollowed out stump.
It was most unfortunate timing in 2001 when, just as the blockbuster Lord of the Rings movie trilogy hit theaters, the tourist attraction named "Hobbiton USA" was already in a spiral of doom. J.R.R. Tolkien's books had been popular for decades, and Hobbiton USA's wooded hill trail of statues, scenes and audio installments had been an essential Roadside America experience.
In 1996 we'd revisited and walked the trail, noticing deterioration of the scenes we'd marveled at a decade earlier. The Shire still stood, and the big spider still menaced; bug-eyed Gollum was in his cave, sitting on a blue tarp. The Laketown and Smaug scene (in a pond) was no longer accessible, and we didn't see the plywood Wood-elves castle.
In 1997 we received a report that winter rains and mud slides had taken out parts of the trail and Hobbit stations. In 2001, the owners were still doggedly repairing and operating the attraction, but vandalism and weather took their toll, and in the following years it closed for good. From the parking lot, a few figures could still be glimpsed; reckless adventurers would ignore the fences and no trespassing signs to see what was left.
In the summer of 2016 we stopped to survey what remained publicly visible; sadly, not much. There was a blue-robed Gandalf figure, decapitated. We'd hoped The Hobbit movies would have been a catalyst for revival, but it didn't happen.
What the site today offers is a cafe selling burgers and ice cream, and the free Living Chimney Tree. There are similar hollow tree attractions in redwood country -- huge trunks with rooms hollowed out, conveniently visible along the highway.
The Chimney Tree features a 12 and 1/2 ft. diameter room, carved from the center (which was burned out in 1914, according to its carved sign of tree stats). Inside, visitors can gaze up "the chimney" 78 feet to the hole where the rest of the tree once continued. The "living" part is technically correct, because redwoods are fierce survivors of fire and other indignities, spawning new offshoots, stalwart branches, and trees.
That encourages us to hold out hope again for a living Hobbiton USA. Perhaps California's legalization of recreational marijuana will puff life into a viable Middle Earth on the Avenue of the Giants....