Maybe it’s because Central Valley summers are hot, or maybe it’s because its natives are proud of their heritage, but Bakersfield museum hoppers can find a wealth of brain-fueling exhibits to expand their minds.
Start by strolling through the Kern County Museum, where 56 historic buildings are spread out over 16 beautifully landscaped acres. One popular stop here is country singer Merle Haggard’s childhood home, an old rail boxcar that his parents bought in 1935 for $500. Find it amid an array of older structures—including an 1860 general store where travelers could purchase a 25-cent bath, a one-room schoolhouse, and an 1882 doctor’s office—plus an antique Southern Pacific engine and a Santa Fe caboose.
Inside the museum’s main gallery, at the “Bakersfield Sound” exhibit, learn more 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 the zoo’s 14 park-like acres and get schooled on 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 exhibit, look deep into the eyes of a bald eagle or long-eared owl. While you’re here, get in an upper-body workout at the Condor Challenge ropes course and 32-foot climbing wall.
Then travel way back in geologic time at the downtown Buena Vista Museum of Natural History & Science. An offspring of CALM, the museum houses a huge array of fossils from the Miocene period, 14 to 15 million years ago. Ancient remains of sea lions and sharks, excavated from Sharktooth Hill, northeast of Bakersfield, prove that the Central Valley once sat at the edge of the Pacific Ocean.
Another interesting historic spot is Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park, 45 miles north of town. This site of an 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 California history. Visit a reconstructed schoolhouse, church, and other structures.