This thoroughfare no longer connects Mexico and Canada, but it does showcase great music, wine, and architecture
Bakersfield is full of surprises. Once known for oil and agriculture, this Central Valley town is morphing into an arts, culture, and sports hub, while still offering a glimpse of the past. Visit Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park, 45 miles/72 kilometers north. This early 1900s settlement—an attempt by a group of African Americans to create a utopian society far from negative influences from the outside world—offers a remarkable look at an unusual event in California history.
Bakersfield’s newer attractions include the gallery-filled Arts District, where the 1930 Fox Theater showcases everything from pop music to ballet. Don’t miss Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, home to the region’s signature Bakersfield Sound, a twangy type of Country music. The country’s largest concentration of Basque restaurants, including the Noriega Hotel, is a reminder of the region’s rich Basque history (immigrants from the Spanish and French Pyrenees settled sheep ranches here in the late 1800s). In spring, wildflowers blanket the nearby Tehachapi Range.
Spend the night at downtown’s Padre Hotel, a modern, luxurious retreat that dates to 1928.
Forty-five miles northwest of Bakersfield, Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park offers a remarkable look at one of the most unique episodes in California history. In a remote area of the southern San Joaquin Valley, it’s the site of an early 1900s settlement founded by Allensworth, a former slave, and four other African Americans. These pioneers were hoping to create a farming community where they and other African Americans could live free of discrimination. The settlement quickly grew and by 1914 had a population of more than 200. But a shortage of water and other challenges ultimately doomed the town, and by the 1970s it was completely abandoned. Come out to the park and you can get a sense of the town’s history as you visit Allensworth’s home and other surviving buildings.
If you’re looking for snacks or a meal along Highway 99, tiny Traver (population barely over 700) is home to the old-fashioned Bravo Farms Traver, which offers everything from wine tasting to animal feeding. Enjoy Tex-Mex cuisine at Wild Jack’s restaurant and for a perfect dessert on a hot Central Valley afternoon, go for a scoop at Rosa Brothers Ice Cream. The kids can frolic in a seven-story treehouse (listed in the Guinness Book of World Records), play miniature golf, and see an assortment of animals, including llamas. Meanwhile, Bravo Farms Traver’s Vintage Cheese Company is more about grown-up pleasures, thanks to tastings of handcrafted artisanal cheeses and California wines.
Get a delicious taste of the Central Valley’s rich Mexican heritage by stopping at the Los Toritos Taco Truck in Selma. Order authentic tacos, quesadillas, or burritos, and wash down your meal with a cold beer.
Fresno makes for a surprisingly lively getaway. Seven stadiums and a pair of arenas satisfy sporty types, and an annual Woodward Shakespeare Festival in lush Woodward Park reveals Fresno’s cultural bent.
But agriculture is king here. Check out bountiful Vineyard Farmers’ Market, Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings. In early spring, drive or bike along the 62-mile Blossom Trail, when the route lined with fruit and nut trees is in full bloom. In summer, it morphs into the Fresno County Fruit Trail, and fruit stands overflow with seasonal produce.
Back in town, explore subterranean Forestiere Underground Gardens, hand-dug by an Italian immigrant who saw going underground was a great way to keep cool and comfortable during Central Valley summers. Kids love Chaffee Zoo, especially the frolicking pinnipeds in Sea Lion Cove. Monthly Art Hops are a great way to explore the Mural District, a hotbed of artists’ studios and galleries. After dark, restaurants and clubs light up the neon-bright Tower District.
Spend the night in Merced, at the Colonial-style Bear Creek Inn, which has been owned by just five families since 1882.
Best known for big red wines, particularly old-vine Zinfandels, Lodi, 83 miles/133 kilometers east of San Francisco is also a leader when it comes to going green. Upwards of 25,000 vineyard acres are certified sustainable, and this is the birthplace of Lodi Rules, California’s first third-party certified sustainable winegrowing program. A variety of tasting rooms have sprouted up in recent years, with most of the action located within a 15-minute drive from downtown. A great place to start is the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center, offering a rotating selection of varietals from nearly 80 local vintners.
Though the range of wines has grown, the rich, concentrated New World varietals are still the region’s hallmark, and more than 40 percent of the state’s Zinfandels are produced here. ZinFest, an annual three-day tasting party each May, offers a chance to sample some 250 wines from Lodi’s best producers.