Maybe it’s because Central Valley summers are hot, or maybe it’s because its natives are proud of their heritage, but Bakersfield museum visitors can find a wealth of brain-fuelling exhibitions to expand their minds.
Start by strolling through the Kern County Museum, where 56 historic buildings are spread out over 16 beautifully landscaped acres. A popular stop here is country singer Merle Haggard’s childhood home, an old rail freight wagon that his parents bought in 1935 for $500. Find it amid an array of older structures—including an 1860 general store where travellers could purchase a 25-cent bath, a one-room school building and an 1882 doctor’s office—plus an antique Southern Pacific engine and a Santa Fe wagon.
Inside the museum’s main gallery, at the 'Bakersfield Sound' exhibition, learn about Haggard and the gritty country-and-western genre that he and others pioneered—a backlash against the slicker, more polished music coming out of Nashville. Then move on to the 'black gold' exhibit, where you’ll learn how oil (a key part of Kern County’s economy since 1895) is extracted from the earth, with gear such as rotary drills and bobbing pump jacks.
Move from human history to natural history with a visit to CALM, the California Area Living Museum. Walk through the zoo’s 14 park-like acres and learn about the Golden State’s native fauna. See more than 200 animals that have been injured or cannot survive in the wild, from bobcats and mountain lions to bighorn sheep and cottontail rabbits. At the raptor display, look deep into the eyes of a bald eagle or a long-eared owl. While you’re here, get in an upper-body workout on the Condor Challenge ropes course and 10-metre climbing wall.
Then travel way back in geological time at the central Buena Vista Museum of Natural History & Science. An offspring of CALM, the museum houses a huge collection of fossils from the Miocene period, 14 to 15 million years ago. Ancient remains of sea lions and sharks, excavated from Sharktooth Hill, north-east of Bakersfield, prove that the Central Valley once sat on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.
Another interesting historical site is the Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park , 45 miles north of the town. This early 1900s' settlement—an attempt by a group of African Americans to create a Utopian society—offers a remarkable look at an unusual event in Californian history. Visit a reconstructed schoolhouse, a church, and other structures.
The rapidly growing city of Bakersfield, in California’s southern Central Valley, is full of pleasant surprises. Once known only for oil and agriculture, Bakersfield—or Bako, as the locals affectionately call it—has become a Central Valley hub for arts and culture while still retaining the richness of the region’s past. The country’s largest concentration of Basque restaurants, including the 125-year-old Noriega Hotel, upholds the area’s Basque heritage with boarding-house-style meals of oxtail soup and a myriad side dishes (immigrants from the Spanish and French Pyrenees herded sheep and planted orchards here in the late 1800s).
Fast-forward to Bakersfield’s citified attractions, including the gallery-filled Arts District, home to the 1930 Fox Theater, where performances range from pop music to film noir, and Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, the place to hear the Bakersfield Sound, a gritty style of country western music. Find out more about hardscrabble musical pioneers like Owens and Merle Haggard with a visit to the Kern County Museum, a collection of 56 historic buildings spread out among grassy lawns. You’ll also get a lesson in California’s oil industry: Kern County’s wells pump 70 percent of the state’s “black gold.” Afterward, shop for vintage finds at Bakersfield’s Antique Row, then pop over to the swanky Padre Hotel for a cocktail on the rooftop lounge.
There’s plenty of nature to be had around Bakersfield, too. Wildflowers blanket the local grasslands and nearby Tehachapi Range in spring. See them in March and April at the 93,000-acre Wind Wolves Preserve, the West Coast’s largest nonprofit nature preserve. At any time of year, these vast grasslands are a haven for wildlife and an inspiring place to take a hike or pedal your mountain bike.