A California road trip to Fresno and the Central Valley offers rich landscapes, exceptional food, wine trails, museums, and more.
Located between California’s beautiful coastline to the west and the rugged Sierra Nevada mountain range to the east, the Central Valley may seem like a ho-hum choice for road tripping, but the verdant, pastoral landscapes of this glorious area are anything but boring. Although the region extends for more than 200 miles from Bakersfield to Redding, those who want to immerse themselves in the sensory-rich Central Valley don’t need to travel much farther than Fresno for the full flavor of California’s heartland. The city boasts trendy restaurants, cool cafes, and hot cultural attractions. The abundant produce and top-notch vineyards add color to local drives, which are quickly gaining traction with foodies.
Traveling from Bakersfield to Fresno
Although you could spend days just exploring Fresno, think about adding Bakersfield to your itinerary. For road trippers who choose to start their journey in Bakersfield, there is no shortage of interesting things to experience, including top attractions like the a California Living Museum (CALM), a small zoo that gives you the opportunity to get close to native wildlife, and the Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace and Museum, a restaurant, live music venue, and museum where you can hear that twangy “Bakersfield sound.”
Before hitting the road, consider stopping at one of Bakersfield’s restaurants, such as local breakfast and lunch favorite, 24th Street Cafe or Wool Growers, where you can sample Bakersfield’s infamous dish — pickled tongue.
Take California 99 for a scenic drive to Fresno, which takes less than two hours. To break it up, consider making a side trip to Visalia, where you can explore the historic town on board the Visalia Town Trolley or hit the Visalia Farmers Market.
Fresno is the largest city in the Central Valley and fifth largest in the state, combining huge sports stadiums with a vibrant cultural scene and plenty of natural beauty. Although agriculture is at the heart of this lively city, there’s more than just produce to discover. Just off Highway 99 you’ll find Forestiere Underground Gardens, a state landmark created by Baldassare Forestiere. Often called Fresno’s best-kept secret, this intriguing 110-year-old attraction features underground rooms and courtyards, micro-climates, Ancient Roman architecture, and fruit-producing trees growing underground.
Afterward, head to the Fresno Art Museum (FAM) to discover exhibits from some of the region’s most talented artists, or hit the city’s ArtHop if you’re in town on the first or third Thursday of the month. After getting your fill of arts and culture, make a beeline to the Tower District, the city’s dining and entertainment hub, which is peppered with cafes, restaurants, nightclubs, and galleries, all within easy walking distance of each other. Don’t forget to make time to check out A. Nonini Winery, another one of Fresno’s best-kept secrets.
Driving the Fresno Blossom Trail
If you’re fortunate enough to be in the area in February or March, then consider hitting the Fresno County Blossom Trail, a 62-mile loop that runs through Sanger, Reedley, Orange Cove, Selma, Clovis, Kingsburg, Fowler, and Kings River. During this season, you get the full effect of the gorgeous blooms of almond, plum, apple, peach, apricot, nectarine, and citrus trees in the surrounding orchards. Summer is another great time to hit the trail, especially if you enjoy sampling locally grown fruit. Along the way, explore some of the small towns and their attractions, including:
- The Sanger Depot Museum, which brings the history of the Nation’s Christmas Tree City to life
- The Mennonite Quilt Center gallery in downtown Reedley
- Downtown Orange Cove’s shops and eateries
- Walk through charming downtown Selma or enjoy the annual spring Raisin Festival
- Browse the boutiques, antique shops, and eateries, or take part in the Wine Walk or Craft Beer Crawl in Old Town Clovis
Fresno to Lodi
Head north out of Fresno on California 99 for a scenic drive to Lodi, dubbed California’s “new wine country.” Along the 140-mile drive, consider making a stop in Stockton to visit the region’s famous Haggin Museum. This hybrid history and art museum in Stockton’s Victory Park includes 34,000 square feet of gallery space with turn-of-the-century storefronts that chronicle the history of the San Joaquin Valley along with world-renowned pieces from artists like Albert Bierstadt.
From the shores of the Mokelumne River and Lodi Lake to the scenic back roads, Lodi offers outdoor playgrounds just waiting to be explored. The temperate climate and rich soil provide fertile conditions for wine growers, which may explain why it produces more wine grapes than any other area in the state. The Highway 99 West Wine Trail through Lodi leads to some amazing wineries, including Abundance Vineyards, known for its varietals; Jessie’s Grove, which is home to some of the region’s oldest Zinfandel vines; and M2 Wines, lauded for its Petite Sirah.
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