Experience the Golden State’s bounty by following country roads through the Central Valley, savoring just-picked produce and unforgettable meals
The Tehama Trail is a surprisingly fertile area—a prime place for farms and ranches. Many invite visitors to stop in and buy fresh produce, artisanal olive oils, and other local food products.
The trail links together nearly two dozen vineyards, orchards, and grass-fed beef ranchers and other specialty meat producers. Hop onto the route at any point, but the driving tour technically begins in Corning, a town known for olives. Stop by the iconic Olive Pit for samples of traditional olives, or try more exotic options, like herb-and-garlic-cheese-stuffed Sicilian olives. Head over to Lucero Olive Oil to sample artisanal olive oils and vinegars and shop for gifts.
Continue along the trail to sample and buy heirloom tomatoes, juice-down-your-chin peaches and plums, and berries, as well as fresh pies and honeys. Swing by New Clairvaux Vineyard in tiny Vina, just south of Redding, where Trappist monks invite you to sample their Barbera, Pinot Grigio, and other varietals in a large tasting room on the monastery grounds.
This leafy, Yolo County town west of Sacramento has become something of a hip gem in the Central Valley. Maybe it’s the velvety warm summer evenings tempting people to linger at tables outside relaxed eateries. Maybe it’s the friendly, hi-neighbor feel when you step into places like Steady Eddy’s, billing itself as “more than your hometown coffee shop,” for a microbrew or a glass of local wine. Maybe it doesn’t really matter why Winters is so nice—maybe it’s okay that it just is.
The town has turned into a mini mecca for foodies, where talented chefs show their stuff at places such as stylish Preserve Public House (innovative dishes showcasing local ingredients) and classy Ficelle (excellent tapas). Get great beef at acclaimed Buckhorn Steakhouse, and crispy wood-fired pizza cooked in a street-side outdoor oven at Putah Creek Cafe. Find chocolates, wines, and olive oils at RootStock; stick around on Friday nights for low-key local music.
You don’t have to be a student to enjoy the perks of this ag-oriented college town with a university at its core. Started as the agricultural extension for University of California, Berkeley, U.C. Davis soon became its own campus, with strong veterinary, viticulture, and agricultural departments. Davis’ flat-as-a-pancake terrain makes the town a haven for bicycles—it’s said there are more bikes than people here, and the town is home to the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame, with memorabilia and gear from top racers and events. Rent two wheels to follow some 100 miles of bike lanes and paved paths: loop through the lush U.C. Davis Arboretum, then pedal downtown along streets lined with shops, galleries, and restaurants serving international cuisine. Time your visit to sync with the twice-weekly farmers’ market, or to catch a performance at the soaring Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts.
California’s state capital is undergoing an energetic renaissance. Young adults looking for an urban vibe are moving into this low-key city, with microbreweries, gastropubs, and trendy boutiques popping up to serve them. Award-winning chefs are gaining attention for their focus on hyper-local ingredients, and relationships between restaurants and surrounding farms and ranches have become not a novelty, but the norm. Hot summer days create some of the nicest evenings anywhere in the state, where locals sit on porches in elegant Victorian-era homes, and kids scamper in leafy parks until the sun goes down.
As the state capital, there’s plenty going on, and gatherings of various colorful groups around the cupola-topped Capitol are common. Museums are centered largely around the Capitol Mall area and in historic Old Sacramento, the renovated area along the Sacramento River that was a core hub during the Gold Rush. Getting around to all these different locations is easy, and traffic jams are fleeting. Granted the gold award for bike-friendliness by the League of American Bicyclists, Sacramento is also a great place to explore by bike, with wide designated lanes, and paved trails along the American and Sacramento Rivers. There’s also a convenient light rail system to linking popular sites around town.
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.
Surrounded by bounteous farmland, Stockton is all about fresh, local foods. Its most famous crop is asparagus and in April you can watch cooking demonstrations and even taste asparagus ice cream (really!) at the San Joaquin Asparagus Festival. On Saturday mornings, browse the Downtown Farmers' Market where more than 80 vendors peddle an array of Chinese, Indian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Korean groceries—plus mountains of vegetables. Stop at The Fruit Bowl on Waterloo Road for a bucket of peaches, nectarines, or apricots. Then sit down for a slice of this farm stand’s fresh peach pie. And speaking of baked goods, the Genova Bakery, an Italian deli that has been filling the air with the aroma of traditional breads for a century, draws long lunch lines to its landmark yellow wood-framed building.
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.
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.