Finding a hidden gem on a visit to Camp Roberts

Military vehicles are lined up outside the Camp Roberts Historical Museum Annex.
Military vehicles are lined up outside the Camp Roberts Historical Museum Annex.

In The Tribune’s annual Living Here magazine this year, reporter David Sneed wrote a fun little story listing his top-10 secret spots in San Luis Obispo County.

It got me thinking about my own favorite hidden gems, which made me realize that when you’ve lived somewhere for more than 25 years, finding these kinds of secret spots becomes more and more difficult.

So it was with great delight last weekend that I discovered one right under my nose: the historical museum at Camp Roberts.

Normally, the military installation just north of the county line is little more than a curiosity along Highway 101 as you head toward the Bay Area, rows of dilapidated barracks hinting at a busy history long since past.

But when I read about the tribute to the newsboys who worked at the camp during its World War II heyday, the event seemed like a perfect chance to learn something about this otherwise off-limits landmark.

What I discovered, with Mr. Big Sixth-Grader in tow, was a treasure trove of memorabilia that tells the story not only of the base itself, but also of America’s military operations from the 1940s to today.

Because we arrived later in the afternoon, we missed the festivities for the newsboys, but that allowed us to focus on the museum itself.

The facility actually includes two buildings: the original museum and an annex, which features a variety of vehicles including tanks and helicopters.

The annex is right near the camp entrance, so you hit it first, and that’s as far as we got this time, what with all there is to see.

Mr. Big Sixth-Grader is a big fan of antiques, so this kind of museum is right up his alley, filled with all sorts of interesting trinkets including old helmets, typewriters, shaving kits, canteens, mine-detecting devices, radios, uniforms and assorted other items.

A scrap-metal Nazi swastika scavenged from the side of plane shot down in North Africa was an intriguing highlight.

We were also particularly fascinated by the display about homemade explosives, which was in the newer area of the annex that shares information about recent military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The museum offers a variety of examples, including dummy pipe bombs, a Coke can filled with plastic explosives, various triggering devices and even a pressure cooker, which was the method used in the Boston Marathon bombings.

The best thing about this display — and the annex as a whole — is that all of these items are sitting right out for you to touch and pick up.

“I dare you to push the button,” the boy challenged me while I was holding a garage door opener. Like what did he think, the Coke can would explode?

This up-close kind of encounter makes for the most memorable museum experience, and it didn’t end with the small items.

Outside, several of the vehicles were open, and what 11-year-old boy isn’t thrilled by getting to climb into the cockpit of a Vietnam War-era Cobra attack helicopter or root around in the belly of a mobile howitzer?

Another cool thing is that curators haven’t made the vehicle displays overly accessible or sterile, so to get into the helicopter, you step on a box and then have to clamber in just like a pilot would have, using the built-in foot- and hand-holds. This was fun and far more realistic than climbing up some ladder added outside.

One of the tracked vehicles had cat litter scattered on the floor inside to absorb a still-dripping fluid leak.

The vehicles in particular also have that odd military scent, which seems to be kind of a mix of aging metal, oil and sweat. It’s the same scent that fills the USS Midway, if you’ve ever toured the aircraft carrier in San Diego.

Seeing these relics of history close up, touching them and even smelling the past brings it all to life in a way items under glass never can.

With so much to see in the annex, we never made it to the original museum, which is a quarter-mile farther into the camp.

But that’s fine — it just gives us another excuse to visit this hidden North County treasure.

The Camp Roberts Historical Museum and Annex is free and open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Thursdays and Saturdays. Drivers need a current license, registration and proof of insurance to get onto camp grounds.

For more information, visit