California is home to about 35,000 black bears, but only 22 eye-catching blue bears.
Those signs you see along California highways, featuring a blue bear against the outline of the Golden State, denote the 22 California Welcome Centers around the state—a treasure trove for first-time visitors, seasoned travelers, and even locals.
The centers all have a few things in common. They are stocked with a wide variety of free maps, brochures, and visitor guides (including the California Visitor’s Guide and California Road Trips), and typically sell fun California souvenirs, including locally made crafts, and goodies.
They also offer a pleasant, clean place for a pit stop, free WiFi, and friendly tourism experts who are eager to answer travel questions and give local recommendations. “Every staff member and volunteer lives here, and most of them have been living here for 10- or 20-plus years,” says Matt Beurois, director of operations at California Welcome Center, Yucca Valley, near Joshua Tree National Park. “We all know the park and the back roads and the best spots. It makes for genuine discussions with the visitors.”
Each California Welcome Center has its own personality too—and some surprising amenities. Here are some perks you can enjoy when you stop at one on your next road trip:
Get suggestions for a hotel, or things to do, hundreds of miles away.
California Welcome Center concierges can provide local tips, certainly, but they all share a database of recommendations from all over the state. So if you’re stopping in El Dorado County but headed toward San Luis Obispo County or Greater Palm Springs, the folks at California Welcome Center, El Dorado Hills, can offer tips for what to do in either destination.
Book tickets for big attractions.
Many welcome centers offer ticket sales—sometimes at a discount—for local attractions and experiences. At California Welcome Center, San Francisco, for instance, you can book your plans for San Francisco classics such as Alcatraz, Aquarium of the Bay, and the California Academy of Sciences. For a fabulous overview of the city, add tickets for the hop-on-hop-off Big Bus Tour that visits must-see spots including the Ferry Building Marketplace, Haight-Ashbury, and the Palace of Fine Arts.
California Welcome Center, Oceanside offers a variety of discounts and easy booking options for attractions including the San Diego Zoo, LEGOLAND California, and Disneyland Resort. Just ask team members inside the north San Diego County center or peruse the kiosk outside. (Don’t miss the kiosk’s fun photo-booth option, which showcases different California backgrounds.)
Get personalized wine-tasting recommendations.
Staffers at California Welcome Center, Santa Rosa, can help you chart your wine-tasting path through Sonoma County. Just tell them what kinds of wines you like and how much time you have, and they can give you names of local wineries and tasting rooms that fit the bill. The center, located in Santa Rosa’s Historic Railroad Square, also offers easy access to the 45-mile Smart Train line that connects the county’s towns and Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport, so the local experts can help you plan a trip on the train too.
Get directions for a great hike, or pick up a backcountry permit.
At California Welcome Center, Auburn—right off Interstate 80 between San Francisco and North Lake Tahoe—the onsite concierges often give recommendations for nearby hikes, playing at Lake Clementine, or tasting one’s way along the Placer County Wine & Ale Trail. The center in downtown Auburn also features displays that highlight the area’s history, going back to the Gold Rush. Bring in your pup, too, for a fresh bowl of water and a few locally made dog cookies.
California Welcome Center, Mammoth Lakes, partners with the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service, so you can pick up a backcountry permit or even rent a bear box to keep your food safe.
Fly over fields of garlic.
California Welcome Center, Gilroy, offers a virtual reality experience in which you can see the sights at Gilroy Gardenstheme park (home of rides such as the Artichoke Dip and the Garlic Twirl) and fly over local garlic farms. While you’re in the center, pick up garlicky goodies, such as chips or infused olive oil, smiling garlic-head stuffed animals, or—to explore another local flavor—a Santa Clara Valley Wine Tasting Pass (a $450 value for just $90).
Take a candy factory tour.
California Welcome Center, Fairfield, sits right next to the Jelly Belly Factory in Solano County. If you take the self-guided factory tour, be sure to do the “sweets trail” scavenger hunt, which finishes at the welcome center with a little Golden State–themed prize. Browse the brochures and California merch, then stock up on candy at the Jelly Belly store next door.
Explore historic buildings.
The Monterey County town of Salinas is famous both as the hometown of John Steinbeck and also as the headquarters of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, which was created in 1865 to connect San Francisco and San Diego. Its 1872 depot provides the home for California Welcome Center, Salinas, where you can explore the exhibit Postcards, Passengers, and Produce, which highlights the railroad’s 19th-century marketing campaign of postcards to attract both farmers and visitors to the area.
California Welcome Center, Citadel Outlets, is surrounded by its own unique history: The dramatic exterior of the Citadel Outlets in Los Angeles still reflects the remnants of the site’s 1920s tire factory, which was built to resemble a Babylonian castle.
Enjoy some serious retail therapy.
Eight California Welcome Centers are located at malls and outlet malls like the Citadel, so you can combine information-gathering with some excellent shopping. Ontario Mills, for instance, is the biggest outlet mall in the state, while Del Amo Fashion Center in Torrance is the sixth largest mall in the U.S. (and has even made some movie cameos).
The Outlets at Pismo Beach is home to Coach and Volcom outlets, while the Outlets at Barstow and the Cabazon Outletsboth make prime stops on desert road trips. (Fun facts: Cabazon currently has the only U.S. outlet for popular athleisure brand Vuori, while the Outlets at San Clemente houses a rare Lululemon outlet.)
Feed some wild trout in a waterfall.
Located in Shasta County, California Welcome Center, Anderson, is the northernmost Welcome Center in the Golden State. Admire the center’s indoor waterfall, then feed the local trout that swim in its pond until they are big enough to be released into the wild. Peruse the exhibits about the eight different counties in the Shasta Cascade region, check out the geocaching display, and take a selfie with Ed, the life-size bronze grizzly bear. (Take note: There is a geocache hidden at the center too.) Browse the gift store for local products or score a discount on attractions like Lake Shasta Caverns.
Explore Death Valley and the Coso Petroglyphs virtually.
About an hour and a half from the entrance of Death Valley National Park, California Welcome Center, Ridgecrest offers two virtual reality experiences: a tour of Death Valley and an up-close look at the Coso Rock Art National Historic Landmark, one of the biggest collections of ancient cave drawings in the world (and generally off limits to visitors).
While you’re there, check out the locally made candles and petroglyph-inspired garden art. Ridgecrest is also on the way to points north such as Lone Pine and Mammoth Lakes, so staffers have good tips for camping sites, fishing spots, and hiking trails.
Go bilingual at the Cross Border Xpress.
California Welcome Center, Cross Border Xpress, connected to the Tijuana International Airport, offers California vibes the moment you enter the United States. Cross the 390-foot pedestrian bridge into the welcome center, which is technically in San Diego’s Otay Mesa neighborhood, for tips from bilingual experts as well as both Spanish and English brochures and guides.
See award-winning art—then camp for free.
Just outside Twentynine Palms, California Welcome Center, Yucca Valley, sponsors an annual juried art contest for California-made paintings, photography, and mixed media. The winning pieces (as well as other pieces by winning artists) are displayed and often sold at the center from October through February. Year-round, the desert welcome center sells national park passes and offers more than 100 free parking spots for overnight camping. You can also pick up tickets for the nearby Adventure Hummer Tours and stock up on See's Candies.
Follow a mural trail and get blossom-viewing tips.
Look for the mural of pink almond blossoms outside California Welcome Center, Modesto, which is set in the middle of the Central Valley city’s 23-stop Mural Trail. Inside, you can get tips on visiting Yosemite, 80 miles away, or how to experience the Almond Blossom Cruise each winter, when the area’s almond groves pop with color. Another can’t-miss Modesto attraction is nearby: the Graffiti USA Classic Car Museum, which celebrates the town’s old-school car culture and how it inspired native son George Lucas to create the movie American Graffiti.