Since Bakersfield doesn’t have alpine lakes or redwood forests, you might not see it as a place for hiking and nature study—until you pull into the car park at Wind Wolves Preserve. Here, at the largest non-profit nature reserve on the West Coast, you can walk (or mountain bike) for miles amid waving golden grasslands, grazing tule elk and colourful carpets of wildflowers.
The reserve—which is funded entirely by private donations through the non-profit Wildlands Conservancy—encompasses 93,000 acres near Highway 166 to the south of Bakersfield, beyond the orchards and the oil fields that were once used for cattle farming. The tract holds a surprising amount of water—creeks, marshes, wetlands and even a 15-foot limestone waterfall—plus groves of cottonwoods and other broad-leaved trees. Kit foxes, bobcats, coyotes, deer and even occasional black bears are at home here, but you won’t find wolves at Wind Wolves. The name refers to the tall grasses that sway in unison with the wind, making it appear as if animals are wandering through the prairies.
Springtime is the most dramatic season in which to visit, when Wind Wolves’ slopes explode in a firework display of colourful mule-ears, poppies, lupine, goldfields and blue-eyed grass. To see them, take the short Wildflower Loop Trail that begins near the entrance kiosk. At any time of year, walkers can start at The Crossing picnic area and follow the Tule Elk Trail for about a mile to glimpse the reserve’s herd of more than 200 elk. More ambitious hikers can continue for three more miles to connect to the Reflection Pond Trail, where a historic cattle pond provides a watering hole for wildlife. From high points along this walk, you’ll survey an immense sea of grasslands—green in spring and gold during the rest of the year. Complete a 7-mile circuit by returning on the San Emigdio Canyon Trail. As you wander, keep your eyes peeled for the endangered San Joaquin kit fox, a cute, cat-sized creature with long ears and a pointy nose.
Hardy walkers who want to head deeper into the Wind Wolves wilderness can catch the weekend shuttle bus to the El Camino Viejo trailhead, five miles south of the main parking lot. From here, you can walk for miles along the historic wagon route used by early travellers between El Pueblo de Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Mountain bikers are welcome too. The reserve’s most popular mountain biking route is the El Camino Viejo Trail, which parallels San Emigdio Creek. If you want to spend the night here, it is possible to camp under canvas at the reserve’s San Emigdio Campground if a pitch is booked in advance.
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.